Last Word: Play in Tel Aviv? Having a laugh [pg. 10]

Rafael Benitez is not wrong. It definitely is "a crazy situation" in Israel at the moment, and no one should be surprised or offended that the Liverpool manager is refusing to bring his team to Tel Aviv in three weeks to play Maccabi Haifa in a Champions League qualifier. For those of us living in Israel, this clearly is a time to pull together and support each other. But there is no doubt that this country is at war and constantly under the threat of larger, longer range missiles that could be fired from across the northern border into the center of the country. As much as Israelis hope that it won't happen, the sad truth is that there is no guarantee Ramat Gan won't be hit within a few weeks. As Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah stated on Lebanese TV on Saturday, central Israel is very much a target of the Islamist guerrilla organization. The irony is that in April 2004, UEFA decided to allow Israeli teams to host European games as long as they were Tel Aviv. At the time, Jerusalem was seen as the more dangerous city after it had been the target of a number of suicide bomb attacks. These days it seems like the capital is the safer of the two cities and maybe it is time for European games to be played at Betar Jerusalem's home field, Teddy Stadium, which is presumably out of the range of the Hizbullah rockets. It is hard to see the Liverpool management changing its mind after it made such a public statement, and the club's concern for the safety of its players and staff is totally understandable. Haifa owner Ya'acov Shachar has insisted the game will be played in Israel and UEFA has acknowledged that there is still time to assess the situation and make a decision. This doesn't make it easy on the fans, who want to try and plan their opportunity to see an Israeli team take on one of the best clubs in the world. It is a pity that the whole controversy about where the game will be played seems to have overshadowed the fact that the game will take place whatever happens, whether the second leg will be in Israel or Cyprus or somewhere else. For many Israeli soccer fans, this was a dream draw, the chance to see Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Peter Crouch pitting their skills against Nir Davidovitch, Alon Harazi and Yaniv Katan. It's not going to be easy for the team from northern Israel. Haifa has failed to find its form in preseason and will be the underdog in the matchup with the European champs of 2005. The three Israeli teams playing in the UEFA Cup also have tough tasks ahead of them, especially Betar Jerusalem, which has been drawn to play former European giant Dinamo Bucharest. Unlike Haifa, Betar has had a strong summer, winning many games abroad at its two training camps - first in Holland and then in Romania. If preparation is key, then new Betar manager Ossie Ardiles has done all he can to build a strong, confident squad for the start of the new season. The club dipped into the transfer market early, picking up defenders Shimon Gershon and Roni Gafni, as well as central midfielder Derek Boateng. Ardiles may be known for his no-holds-barred attacking style, but the new players will ensure that the team in yellow and black is strong at the back as well as up front. Even if the Israeli teams are forced to play abroad, the excitement of European competition never wanes. Bring it on!