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Israel’s Football Future

The future of Israeli football has perhaps never looked so bright. An influx of riches, of foreign players and the ending of Maccabi Haifa’s virtual monopoly of the title has escalated interest in the Ligat ha’Al, the Israeli premier league, like never before. As is happening everywhere, money has started to talk loudly in Israeli football. The writing was on the wall after the takeover of Beitar Jerusalem by Arkady Gaydamak in 2005 and the Russian-born billionaire – whose son Alexandre owns Portsmouth in the English Premier League – poured funds into the club. The results have been almost immediate: after ten years playing second fiddle to Maccabi Haifa and Maccabi Tel Aviv, Beitar were crowned league champions last season. It is not just club football in Israel that is thriving, so too are the country’s international sides. Since joining UEFA in the 1990s, Israel have not qualified for a major tournament, but there are encouraging signs that may augur change in the years to come. The senior Israel team failed marginally to qualify for EURO 2008, finishing level on points with England. The future looks sparkling; a victory for the U-21 side over France meant they qualified for the European Under-21 Championship in June 2007 for the first time, the country’s greatest footballing achievement since reaching the 1976 Olympic Games. In younger age groups, things look even better – Israel reached the final of the European Under-17 Championship in 2005 and have also been promising at U-19 level. The only clouds on the horizon are those challenges that often accompany football’s success. Around 50 people were injured, two seriously, when Beitar fans invaded the pitch towards the end of last season – landing the club with the punishment of playing their next four matches at least 50km from their stadium – and all behind closed doors. That was not the only controversy to rear its head last season either – Beitar’s nearest rivals, Maccabi Tel Aviv, were docked two points for financial irregularities, all but handing the title to the Jerusalem side. If these problems can be handled and the game in Israel continues to develop, then there will be exciting times ahead.