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Cyprus allows armed Shin Bet agents to accompany Israeli football team

By Ha'aretz Sports Staff
July 30, 2002


Maccabi Haifa soccer club finally arrived in Cyprus last night ahead of tomorrow's Champions League qualifying match after resolving a dispute over security guards that had left them stranded at Haifa Airport yesterday.

The problem was over the Cypriot authorities' agreement to allow Shin Bet operatives to carry weapons as they escort the team.

The team had arrived early at the airport for their short flight to the nearby island, but already through the night club officials had been informed that the Cypriots had not agreed to give permission for the guards to carry weapons and that the club should not fly.

Lengthy discussions between high-ranking officials on both sides, including Sports Minister Matan Vilnai and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres then ensued and permission was eventually granted before the team set off for Larnaca yesterday evening and eventually arrived in Nicosia, the venue for tomorrow night's match against Belshina Bobruisk of Belarus in the home leg of the second qualifying round for the European Champions League.

Until they could breathe a sigh of relief, the Haifa outfit had several tense hours during which it appeared as if the entire trip would have to be called off and the club would have to forfeit its hopes of European success - for the second time in as many seasons.

Haifa beat FC Haka of Finland last year in the Champions League second qualifying round but was then disqualified for fielding a banned player and missed out on a third qualifying round tie with Liverpool.

After several hours' wait, the team was dispatched by bus to a local hotel before returning to the airport at 5:30 P.M. They took off an hour later.

"Today has been a tough day for us but actually instead of resting at our hotel in Nicosia, we rested in Haifa. In the end we made it here," club administrative manager Itamar Chizik said upon arrival in Cyprus.

Coach Yitzhak Shum was philosophical about the delay. "In Israel a matter of this kind is almost a day-to-day occurrence, we simply have to learn how to cope with these things," he said.

UEFA ordered Haifa to host the home leg of the tie in Cyprus because of security concerns about playing the match in Israel. The match will be played at Nicosia's modern GSP Stadium.

"I am not privy to the details of the agreement between Israel and Cyprus, but it is not important. The result is that Maccabi Haifa will play," Israel Football Association Chairman Gavri Levi said.

He suggested Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Peres had intervened.

"We managed to mobilize the prime minister and the foreign minister. Even the Cypriot president (Glafcos Clerides) was involved," Levi said.

Israeli and Cypriot government officials did not immediately comment.

Vilnai regretted the incident, which he said could have resulted in the team being ousted from the tournament. But he said: "I am pleased to say we managed to resolve the matter. All the relevant agencies are satisfied that the players are well protected and it was good to see that everybody on our side and in Cyprus worked together for a successful conclusion."

UEFA has ordered all Israeli clubs to play their "home" matches in European competitions in Cyprus because of security concerns caused by the heightened cycle of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the last 22 months.

Tel Aviv clubs to look elsewhere

The news of yestrday's delay and the ap;parent retisence by Cyprus to continue to host Israeli clubs has led both Hapoel and Maccabi Tel Aviv to look firther afield for a suitable country to host their respective teams in the UEFAcup.

The Cypriots had said that tomorrow's match would be a one-off and that there is no green light for future games to take place on the island.

Both tel Aviv clubs are therefore examining a possibility of using Bulgaria as their home base for future matches.

"There is a problem with Cyprus despite our plans to play there it is quite likely that we will have to find another venue,"Hapoel boss Moshe Teomim said yesterday.

"There is no dount that the security problems which Haifa faced yesterday will also apply to us when we play Partizani of Albania in the UEFACup," Teomim explained.