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Haifa's hopes of hosting matches boosted

HAIFA, Israel, Jan 24 (Reuters) - Maccabi Haifa hosted the first international match at their stadium in nearly five years on Wednesday when they took on Ukraine's Dynamo Kiev in the opening game of a six-team tournament.

The Israeli competition is sponsored by Chelsea's billionaire Russian owner Roman Abramovich.

UEFA lifted the ban on Israeli clubs hosting matches last September following a ceasefire in the war between Lebanon's Hizbollah and Israel the previous month.

But matches could only be played in the Tel Aviv area.

The European governing body still prevents clubs from other Israeli cities staging matches at their grounds, forcing Maccabi Haifa to host Russian champions CSKA Moscow in next month's UEFA Cup knockout round, second leg in Tel Aviv.

The $8million invitational tournament, involving top teams from Russia, Ukraine and Israel, however, has given new hope to the Israeli champions of playing official international matches at their 18,000-seat Kiryat Eliezer Stadium in the near future.

'I believe this tournament will show football chiefs in Europe and the rest of the world that Haifa is a very safe city,' Maccabi Haifa coach Roni Levi said.

'I would prefer, of course, to meet CSKA in the UEFA Cup at home but we have no choice and must play them in Tel Aviv. I just hope something will change soon.'

Dynamo coach Anatoly Demyanenko said his team had no security concerns coming to Israel.

'We never had any problems here or anywhere else in Israel and we felt absolutely safe coming here,' the former international defender told reporters after Dynamo held Maccabi to a 1-1 draw to kick off the annual tournament, which also includes CSKA Moscow, Spartak Moscow, Shakhtar Donetsk and Hapoel Tel Aviv.

Almost 1,200 people in Lebanon and 157 Israelis were killed during the 34-day conflict in the north of the country last July and August when Hizbollah fired some 4,000 rockets into Israel, one of which fell next to the Haifa stadium.

Between March 2002 and April 2004 Israeli clubs and teams were forced to host their opponents at a number of European venues including Cyprus, Turkey, Italy and Bulgaria.