KEIR RADNEDGE in LONDON: UEFA has repeated its defence of its choice of Israel to host next month’s European under-21 finals.

A protest petition by critics is to be handed over to the European federation during its annual congress tomorrow in London. Filmmaker Ken Loach and comedian Alexei Sayle are among supporters of the organising campaign group Red Card Israeli Racism.

A major sports issue has been the problems encountered by Palestine sportsmen and women in accessing the West Bank through Israel as well as the refusal of Israeli security to release Ramallah-bound sports equipment.

However, UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino insisted that Israel was due the same rights as any other member association within the European federation.

He said: “The Israel FA is a UEFA member association like 52 others with the same rights and obligations and duties and possibilities. It went through a bidding process and was awarded the organisation of the under-21 finals.

“You cannot pretend that football should solve issues which are much bigger and are highly political. Football has to stay out of this.

Presidents’ pleas

“We want everyone to play football and we would like that the organisation of a tournament for young players is not used in connection with political issues which are nothing to do with football.”

Attempts over the last two years by presidents Jacques Rogge of the International Olympic Committee and Sepp Blatter of FIFA have failed to ease restrictions by Israeli security authorities on athletes and equipment bound for Palestine.

Loach said: “It is shocking that UEFA has ignored calls from the Palestinian Football Association and many football clubs, as well as anti-racist human rights campaigners acrossEurope, to reconsider its ill-advised decision.

“UEFA should recognise the plight of Palestinian footballers and the intolerable difficulties that are put in their way by the illegal Israeli Occupation.”