The Mediterranean Sea provided a spectacular backdrop in Netanya as representatives of UEFA, the Israel Football Association (IFA) and the eight competing associations joined other dignitaries to celebrate the start of the UEFA European Under-21 Championship.
After welcoming those present, IFA president Avraham Luzon spoke of "a special day" as "our dream and vision becomes a reality". That vision dates back prior to December 2010 in Prague when Israel was awarded the right to host the 19th edition of the eight-team tournament; the reality is new stadiums in Netanya – which will host Wednesday's opening match as the hosts tackle Norway – and Petah Tikva, while Bloomfield in Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem's Teddy Stadium have both been renovated.
The competition will be broadcast around the world and Mr Luzon and Israel are keen to make the most of that exposure. "We are anxious to show the world our warm, modern and great country while hosting this prestigious tournament," continued the UEFA Executive Committee member. "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."
Speaking on behalf of the European governing body, UEFA competitions director Giorgio Marchetti paid tribute to the hard work done by IFA staff – "work which has intensified over recent months to allow us to be ready for the first whistle" – as he looked ahead to a tournament UEFA and European football hopes "will be a true festival of football which strengthens the tradition of the U21s".
That tradition includes the previous participation of a cast of European greats, with the likes of Zinédine Zidane, Rudi Völler, Luís Figo and Andrea Pirlo all having graced this competition. Mr Marchetti reserved a special word of praise for Juan Mata, who won the 2010 FIFA World Cup and UEFA EURO 2012 either side of inspiring Spain to glory in this competition in 2011 and went on to lift the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League in the colours of his club, Chelsea FC.
While those players already have their names etched into the history books, Mr Marchetti knows "new names are waiting to be discovered" in Israel as "great Under-21 players today mean a bright future for football in Europe". With over 50 senior internationals available to feature here, some are already on that path, although it remains to be seen whose dream will turn into a reality in the 18 June final. Avraham Luzon knows how that feels.
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