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Israeli soccer players attacked by protesters at Austrian friendly

By Chris Murphy, CNN
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1252 GMT (2052 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Players from Maccabi Haifa attacked during a pre-season friendly with Lille
  • Protestors bearing Turkish and Palestinian flags invade the pitch late on
  • Israeli FA considering whether to ask UEFA to open an investigation
  • Maccabi general manager says "Co-existence at our club is well known"

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(CNN) -- A preseason soccer match in Austria had to be abandoned after pro-Palestinian protesters invaded the pitch and started attacking players from Israeli team Maccabi Haifa.

Clashes between a group of youths carrying Turkish and Palestinian flags and the Maccabi team broke out at the end of Wednesday's friendly game with French side Lille.

War has been raging in the Middle East for more than two weeks now, with Hamas rockets being fired into Israel, which has responded with continued air strikes on Gaza and a ground incursion into Palestinian territory.

The conflict has now claimed 732 Palestinian lives, many of them children according to the Gaza Health Ministry, while Israel has reported 35 deaths -- 32 of those soldiers.

Resentment and anger spilled onto the football pitch in the Austrian town of Bischofshofen in the Tyrol region where Maccabi regularly spends a period training before its domestic campaign begins.

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A group of 20-25 flag-waving people had shown up for the match, according to Itamar Chizik, general manager of the team based in the northern Israeli city of Haifa.

"They were shouting all the game," Chizik told CNN. "This is OK if they want to shout, if they want to demonstrate, but in the 85th minute they went onto the pitch directly to our players, no doubt to engage.

"It was a little bit using of force and then the police came and it took about 10 minutes before we succeeded to take all our players back to the dressing room. Nobody was injured.

"We came here for sport, for football. Our club is well known, we have in our club hundreds of Muslim players, in the A team we have five Muslim players as well as Jewish players and Christian players.

"We're not dealing with politics, we are a football team. In Haifa, we are living with peace with all religions. You can imagine by yourself the reason why (this group) was trying to spoil our camp.

"I believe most of them don't even know the reason they demonstrate for. But it is not our problem, we came to play football and that's it -- very clear, very simple."

Maccabi has twice made the group stages of the European Champions League, in 2002-03 and 2009-10, and has won the Israeli league 12 times.

The team is scheduled to play two more matches before its 10-day stay in Austria ends on Sunday. Its domestic season starts in August.

We're all proud Israelis and we do care what is happening in Israel, but we never mixed sports with politics and we are very proud about it at our club
Itamar Chizik, Maccabi Haifa general manager

The Israeli Football Association told CNN it is still considering whether to ask European soccer's governing body UEFA to investigate, calling the incident one of "pure violence."

"We know UEFA are against any kind of political activity," said head of communications Shlomi Barzel. "We are not against protest, it is OK if you come to the game to protest but it is different once they go down to the field.

"We hope this is something that won't happen again."

Chizik praised the reaction of local Austrians to the incident, many of whom apologized to him and the team, and said it was the first time it had encountered anything like this since heading to the region for its preseason preparations.

And he also said no-one from Maccabi would be asking UEFA to investigate.

"The police here are doing their investigation, it is a local event -- nothing to do with football," he explained. "We have very good relations with the Austrian teams and with the Austrian Football Association.

"It's not a question for football, it's a political question probably and we are not involved in politics at all. The policemen took care to investigate and do everything that should be done to make sure it doesn't happen again."

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Maccabi is one of the big four clubs in Israel alongside Maccabi Tel Aviv, Hapoel Tel Aviv and Beitar Jerusalem.

It has a reputation for being an inclusive club and Chizik said he was "totally disappointed" football and politics had been meshed together on Wednesday.

"Wherever we go in Europe or wherever we play, we never, never merge together politics and football," Chizik said.

"Never has any problem come out, we are all friends living together with peace.

"We are all proud Israelis and we do care what is happening in Israel, but we never mixed sports with politics and we are very happy and proud about it at our club.

"We never thought this event should come to sport or football but it is over."

CNN contacted the Palestinian Football Association, which said it was preparing an official response to the incident.

French club Lille said in a statement: "Although we regret and disapprove any form of violence, mainly those events that occasionally involve sports demonstrations, LOSC remains a football club and a sports entertainment company and it's not our duty to comment on political matters."

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