Pride as Uefa under-21 tournament set to kick off in Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the Israel hopefuls

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the Israel hopefuls

The biggest football tournament ever to be staged in Israel kicks off in Netanya this evening.

Despite a lengthy campaign mounted by boycotters urging Uefa to move the Under 21 championship, the first games are set to go ahead as planned. Israel will take on Norway, followed by England playing Italy.

Among the prominent players being welcomed to Israel for the 19th U21 tournament are Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea and Liverpool's Jordan Henderson.

At an opening event this week, the Israel Football Association president said: "Our dream and vision becomes a reality".

Avraham Luzon told dignitaries, including Uefa officials, that Israel was "anxious to show the world our warm, modern and great country while hosting this prestigious tournament".

He said: "Organising this tournament will reap a lot of fruit for Israel and a lot of our guests will go away and speak about a country which can host sport at the highest level."

Games will be held in cities around the country, including in Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem – named after the city's former mayor Teddy Kollek – and stadiums in Tel Aviv and Petah Tikvah.

The tournament runs until June 18, with reigning champions Spain as the favourites to win, and Israel regarded as outsiders .

Supporters of a sporting boycott of Israel have been protesting against Uefa's decision since Israel was named as hosts in January 2011, with a demonstration held last month in London to coincide with the Uefa's annual conference.

Protesters breached security and mounted the stage during uefa's annual dinner at a central London hotel, in front of guests, including Uefa president Michel Platini, David Beckham, and Sir Alex Ferguson.

But Mr Platini has remained supportive of Israel's right to host the tournament. Greeting the Israeli team this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that, along with all Israelis , he was excited about the contest. "I am pleased by Michel Platini's strong stand; this is important for a country that loves sports.

"The Israeli national team represents something important; it represents all parts of the population of Israeli society that has united to play together on behalf of the country."

He added: "I would like to commend you; you already have a great success in that the tournament is taking place in our country."

Last updated: 9:35am, June 5 2013