Earnshaw relishing experience of life in football's promised land

Welsh striker tells Simon Hart why Israel is safe to host European Under-21 Championship
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The Independent Online

Robert Earnshaw stands on the hotel balcony, 11 floors up, and surveys the city spread out before him. On his left is a sparkling sliver of Mediterranean Sea, on his right a sprawl of pastel-coloured apartment blocks. In the mid-distance, he points out the sleek, high-rise tower he currently calls home; some 30 kilometres away, in the hazy backcloth, is the West Bank.

This is Tel Aviv, the place where the Cardiff City and Wales striker came in search of first-team football and where, for a few disquieting days in November, with missiles toing and froing between Gaza and Israel, he gained a taste of the fear that can be a recurring companion in this ancient, troubled corner of the globe.

On the day we meet, though, there is no sign of the recent hostilities that claimed six Israeli and more than 150 Palestinian lives – not here at the Hilton Hotel, with the sun shining and the cappuccinos served. "You look at it now and people don't think of Israel like this," Earnshaw, on a loan at Maccabi Tel Aviv, reflects. For all the negative images, this is a place where "you've got the beach, you've got parks, you've got malls – you've got so much to do".

This is the Israel that Uefa hopes we will see at the European Under-21 Championship next June. It was at the Hilton that last Wednesday's draw took place – putting England in the easier group alongside the hosts, Italy and Norway, and away from Spain – and it is Earnshaw's belief that Stuart Pearce's England have nothing to fear off the pitch either from the first major football tournament on Israeli soil.

"This is the normality in Tel Aviv as you see it now. I don't think they've got anything to worry about," he says. "They are big on security [and] when there is a tournament like that here they'll be even stricter. I am sure this is the Tel Aviv that they'll see – the beach, the outgoing people."

The choice of Israel as tournament venue prompted a condemnatory letter last week signed by a cluster of footballers from Europe and beyond, including Chelsea's Eden Hazard, Arsenal's Abou Diaby, five players from Newcastle, and Didier Drogba. The ethical argument may well go on but from a footballing viewpoint, Earnshaw considers Israel fit for purpose. Maccabi's own Bloomfield Stadium is one of the four venues along with Jerusalem, Netanya and Petah Tikva, and the Welshman says: "Some of the stadiums are not so great but then you've got some really nice ones. The new one in Netanya is a really nice stadium and the thing is the pitches are unbelievable – a really high standard."

Earnshaw arrived in Israel in September, lured by the promise of regular football denied him at Cardiff and by the "appealing" picture that general manager Jordi Cruyff, once a Manchester United player, sold him of arguably "the biggest club in Israel". Injuries have limited his contribution for the Ligat ha'Al leaders, though he scored his second goal in a cup tie against Hapoel Haifa last Tuesday. "It is a season-long loan. In January there are possibilities it could carry on till the end of the season or not, but we'll see." Whatever happens, this has been an eye-opening experience for the 31-year-old, whose career began at Cardiff and includes spells at West Bromwich, Norwich, Derby and Nottingham Forest, with 166 league goals.

He is enjoying the buzz of Israel's commercial capital, home to some 400,000 people. Sightseeing trips have proved memorable too. "The Dead Sea was the craziest thing ever," he adds. "It is so weird when you go in the sea and can't go down and you float – the water keeps you up." Weird is the least of it in Earnshaw's life outside the comfort zone.