Soccer-Euro Under-21 teams play down security worries in Israel
* Spain face tough group in effort to retain title
* Tournament is biggest sports event in Israel in decades
By Ori Lewis
TEL AVIV, Nov 28 (Reuters) - Teams have shrugged off security fears in Israel and are looking forward to next year's Euro Under-21 soccer championships due to be held in cities targeted by Palestinian militants last week, coaches said on Wednesday.
Several sporting events in the Jewish state had to be postponed during an eight-day Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip during which Islamist militants launched hundreds of rockets on Israeli towns as far north as the outskirts of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Europe's national Olympic committees also scrapped a congress they were due to hold next month in Eilat.
The fighting, in which some 170 Palestinians - more than half of them civilians - and six Israelis including four civilians were killed, ended in an Egyptian-brokered truce agreement a week ago.
"We are professionals, we want to come to put on a sporting spectacle, politics really doesn't interest me," England coach Stuart Pearce told Reuters after the draw for next June's tournament was held in Tel Aviv.
The biennial tournament is being held for the 19th time and will be hosted in the coastal cities of Tel Aviv, Petah Tikva, Netanya and in Jerusalem between June 5-18.
Norway coach Per Joar Hansen felt the situation had stabilised following the ceasefire.
"We were following events on television and saw the problems here but we talked to the Norwegian government and the Norwegian embassy here and to (European soccer's governing body) UEFA and now that the war has stopped we are looking forward to come to play here," he said.
Holders Spain will face a tough challenge to retain their title. They will be up against 2009 winners Germany, the Netherlands and Russia in Group B.
Israel were drawn with England, Italy and Norway in Group A. The top two teams in each group advance to the semi-finals.
Pearce, leading his side to a fourth consecutive tournament, expects a difficult group stage against strong opposition.
"I think whoever (wants to win) this tournament will have their work cut out, there are eight fantastic sides here. This is my fourth tournament and this is the strongest pool of teams that have come to an Under-21 tournament," Pearce told Reuters.
Israel coach Guy Luzon said it was clear the host side were the weakest team in the event and that his players would need an upset to have a chance of advancing to the semi-finals.
"The difference between our players and those of England or Italy is like the difference between our premier league and the English Premier League or Serie A. They are huge but on a given day, if we play our best and manage an upset, perhaps we can do something," he said.
The tournament will be one of the biggest sporting events Israel has held in the past five decades - Tel Aviv hosted the Paralympic Games in 1968 - and its biggest soccer tournament since joining UEFA in 1992. (Writing by Ori Lewis, editing by Mark Meadows)
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