Turkey and Israel have restored full diplomatic relations just in time: Soccer clubs from the two nations are about to face off in one of Europe’s top competitions.
Istanbul’s Besiktas and Hapoel Be’er Sheva will play a home-and-home series in the Europa League’s Round of 32, the first head-to-head elimination stage of the international competition. The games will be played on consecutive Thursdays, Feb. 16 and 23, with Hapoel hosting the first match.
The draw among qualifiers from the group stage was held Monday, Dec. 12, the same day Israeli President Reuven Rivlin accepted the credentials of Turkey’s first ambassador to Israel in more than six years, Mekin Mustafa Kemal Okem.
That ceremony in Jerusalem came two days after 44 people were killed in a pair of bombings outside Besiktas’ Istanbul stadium. The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons claimed credit for the terrorist attack, which occurred about two hours after a Besiktas game in Turkey’s domestic soccer league.
“I want to start by expressing my deep condolences to the Turkish people, to the victims of the terror attack in Istanbul and to the families who have lost their loved ones,” Rivlin said. “Mr. Ambassador, all life is sacred. Terror is terror is terror, whether in Brussels or Paris, Istanbul, Jerusalem or Cairo. We have a duty to stand together against this terrible threat.”
Security will no doubt be high for both games between Besiktas and Hapoel, which has advanced to the knockout stage of a European competition for the first time.
Hapoel pulled an upset Thursday, Dec. 8, by knocking out English Premier League team Southampton. The two teams played in England for second place in their four-team group (Sparta Prague had already clinched first), and Southampton just had to hold Hapoel scoreless to advance.
Instead, Maor Bar Buzaglo scored in the 78th minute to put Hapoel ahead, and because of tiebreakers, Southampton then needed to score twice and win to stay in the Europa League. The English side scored in stoppage time and had a close call on a header in the final seconds, but the 1-1 final was good enough for Hapoel.
Maccabi Tel Aviv also had a chance to reach the final 32 but, despite winning 2-1 at Dundalk in Ireland, was eliminated in third place in its group when Dutch squad AZ Alkamaar beat Zenit St. Petersburg on Dec. 8.