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Europe’s Rising Soccer Stars Pour In, As Israel Hosts Under-21 Championship Tournament

Israel on Wednesday began hosting the most prestigious sports tournament ever to hit its shores – the UEFA Under-21 Championships showcasing the rising stars of European soccer.

UEFA, the governing body European soccer, organizes the U-21 as the oldest of its “youth” competitions. Many of the competitors already play in top teams in Europe’s professional leagues and many others will go on to play for their respective national teams in UEFA’s premier international event, the Europa League (formerly the UEFA Cup).

Israel was awarded hosting rights to this year’s tournament two years ago, beating out bids from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, England, and Wales. A special blue-and-white “Israel 2013” ball was unveiled last year.

As host, Israel has a guaranteed spot in the Elite Eight along with Europe’s top-seven ranked teams in the final: reigning champion Spain, plus perennial powerhouses Germany, Italy, England, and the Netherlands, as well as Russia and Norway.

Israel kicked off the competition Wednesday at Netanya Stadium against the Norwegians, while England and Italy faced off at Tel Aviv’s Bloomfield Stadium. Israel played Norway to a 2-2 draw. The final will be held June 18 at Jerusalem’s 34,000-seat Teddy Stadium.

Israel’s selection as host came despite the efforts of the anti-Israel activists of the “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions” (BDS) movement to have the matches relocated.

Last month protesters calling themselves Red Card Israeli Racism staged a small rally outside the hotel hosting a UEFA Congress dinner. One protester later one unfurled a Palestinian flag behind the seat of UEFA President Michel Platini. He and another suspect were detained on suspicion of aggravated trespass and assault.

A petition against holding the event in Israel that purported to carry the names of soccer superstars including Didier Drogba turned out to be forged. “I did not sign this petition or give my support to this initiative, because I have never got involved in any conflicts, even in my own country,” said the Ivorian.

Meeting with Israel’s U-21 squad on Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed the home side as “represent[ing] all parts of the population of Israeli society that has united to play together on behalf of the country.”

Below, midfielder Taleb Twatiha and captain Nir Biton of discuss the home side’s prospects.

[Photo: The Israel Project / Flickr]