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Israeli and Turkish soccer teams set for high-tension matching

After much debate and calls for relocation, Beşiktaş and Maccabi Tel Aviv will finally be on the pitch to play amid high diplomatic tension between Turkey and Israel.

Both Beşiktaş and Maccabi Tel Aviv will be looking for three points when they square off in the Europa League on Thursday night, but the fixture’s footballing import has been overshadowed by the escalated tensions between Turkey and Israel.

The game at Istanbul’s İnönü Stadium comes amid deepening tensions between the two countries after Israel refused to apologize for a raid on a Gaza-bound ship last year that killed nine activists, prompting Turkey to expel top Israeli diplomats, cut military ties with the country and vow to send Navy vessels to escort aid ships to Gaza in the future.

There were calls to UEFA, European football’s governing body, to reschedule the game at a neutral venue, but the Turkish government has assured Maccabi of its safety.

Last week Turkish Sports and Youth Minister Suat Kılıç said the match would be played under the “highest level of [Turkish] hospitality” and that Israeli players would “safely” return home after the contest.

Broadcaster CNN Turk said about 5,000 officers have been assigned to police the game and protect Maccabi players and fans.

The Israeli team arrived at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport under tight security Wednesday with riot police lining an exit at the airport to form a corridor between the terminal and a team bus. Police also stopped traffic to allow the bus to travel, the state-run Anatolia news agency said.

The political context of the game is reminiscent of Turkey’s World Cup qualifying match against Armenia in 2008. Turkish President Abdullah Gül’s trip to Armenia, with which Turkey had no diplomatic relations, to watch the Armenia-Turkey fixture opened the doors to dialogue between the two sides for political reconciliation. The visit kicked off a brief flurry of “football diplomacy” between the two states, but the thaw did not last long.

Beşiktaş and Maccabi, meanwhile, are attempting to focus on football rather than politics.

“Politics and football should not be mixed,” Maccabi coach Mordehay Iwanir said, according to Anatolia news agency. “We had no concerns on arrival in Istanbul. We have no fears here. Football is football, politics is politics. There could be certain slogans at the stadium but we have come here to play football.”

Similar statements were made at Beşiktaş camp as well.

“As for the tension between Turkey and Israel, we are professionals and we want nothing but to play football,” Portuguese coach Carlos Carvalhal wrote in a statement on the club’s website. “We are not interested in politics.”

Beşiktaş fans group Çarşı is known for its political nature, and often unfurls banners and chants slogans that feature anti-racist, pacifist and environmentalist sentiments.

About 100 Maccabi fans are expected to be in Istanbul for the game, while Ynet reported that fans had brought Israeli candy for Beşiktaş fans as a gesture at the match.

Ukraine’s Dynamo Kyiv will meet Stoke City of England in the other Group E match also on Thursday.

Both games start at 8 p.m.

(Hurriyet Daily News)