Amid calm, Israel beats Albania in World Cup qualifier 

Israel soccer player Tal Ben Haim celebrates a goal during the Fifa World Cup 2018 qualification match between Israel and Italy at the Sami Ofer stadium in Haifa on September 5, 2016. (Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Despite terror threats, travel warnings and a change of venue for the World Cup 2018 qualifying game in Albania on Saturday following the arrest of four Islamic State members, the match went forward without incident.

Not only was it peaceful, but Israel beat the home team in an impressive 3-0 victory. And what’s more, many in the Muslim majority country welcomed the Israeli players.

On the Israeli team’s arrival, Muslim Albanian player Mergim Mavraj welcomed them to “the country of religious tolerance and harmony.”

They were then welcomed by the highest ranking religious leader of the Albanian Muslim community. On his Facebook page, the Grand Mufti Skender Brucaj, wished “sportsmen and guests from Israel a calm and peaceful stay in the Albanian land!”

The Grand Mufti took pride in what he called Albania’s “high human values, that of generosity, and religious tolerance and harmony” and highlighted Jewish-Muslim relations and history. He told the audience that he was proud of “Albanian Muslims, believers and generous ones who had sheltered thousands of Jews at their homes during World War II, turning into the only country in Europe with more Jews after the war than before it started.”

Last week KNI reported that travel warnings had been issued to Israeli fans wanting to support their national soccer team after the arrest of the Islamic State militants on suspicion of planning to carry out terror attacks at the game.

In the days leading up to the game and while the Israelis were in the Republic, Israel’s Counter Terrorism Bureau worked with the Albanian security forces to ensure the game went ahead as planned.

Albanian security forces took thorough measures to ensure that the qualifying match was uneventful. They closed roads, shops, coffee bars and other businesses between the match venue and the capital city, Tirana, well ahead of the game. Fans were instructed on what would not be allowed into the stadium and that included fireworks, sharp objects and racist banners. Over 2,000 police were assigned for duty on the day.

Boaz Rodkin, Israel’s Ambassador to Albania, appreciated the steps taken by the host country and emphasized that the Israeli team felt safe. He told a private Albanian television station that Israel does the same when it hosts international sporting events and emphasized that it was good publicity for Albania.