Sat, Jan 21, 2012 - Page 18 News List

Israeli soccer club paying price for racist supporters

AP, JERUSALEM

Throughout their history, Beitar Jerusalem soccer club have won 13 trophies, counted prime ministers among their fans and played in numerous European competitions. One thing the club has yet to do — include an Arab player in the squad.

As the only major Israeli team never to integrate, Beitar Jerusalem are now under heavy pressure — particularly after a series of run-ins with local soccer authorities over racist behavior by their fans.

That may not be easy. The club’s management say their hands are tied by a hardcore base of fans who wield significant clout over personnel decisions. They have even called on police to rein in the worst offenders — an infamous group known as “La Familia.”

“We are against racism and against violence, and we pay a price for our fans, but we aren’t going to bring an Arab player just to annoy the fans,” said Assaf Shaked, a team spokesman.

Beitar — who have won six league championships and seven cups in their 76-year history — have historically been strongly aligned with Israel’s nationalist right wing. The name, Beitar, comes from the Zionist youth movement that is linked to the ruling Likud Party. For decades, the team, like the Beitar movement, viewed themselves as perennial outsiders, while the establishment was controlled by the dovish Labor party and its offshoot in the sports world — the various Hapoel, or “workers” teams.

In 1976, Beitar finally won their first championship and the following year Likud rose to power for the first time, ushering in a sea change in Israeli politics and sports.

A string of politicians have been chairman. Israeli prime ministers — from Ariel Sharon to Ehud Olmert to incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu — have called themselves fans.

Beitar’s fans are notoriously — and proudly — abusive toward opposing players, and routinely taunt them with racist and anti-Arab chants.

The Israeli Football Association says it has had enough. It recently ordered Beitar to play in an empty stadium and docked them two points in the standings after fans made monkey noises toward Hapoel Tel Aviv’s Nigerian-born striker Toto Tamuz, a former Beitar player and fan favorite.

Beitar’s history of shunning Arab players has become especially noticeable in recent seasons. Arabs, who make up about 20 percent of Israel’s population, now star on the Israeli national team and on every first division team besides Beitar. This year, the league’s top two goal scorers are Arabs.

As the Likud Party has become more mainstream after years in government, Beitar’s die-hard fans have gone in the other direction.

In 2005, “La Familia” was created, and they quickly became the team’s loudest and most visible supporters. The fans routinely wave huge flags of the outlawed racist Kach Party, and chant “death to Arabs” and other racist slogans toward Arab players.

For years, the club’s Russian-Israeli owner Arkady Gaydamak refrained from intervening. In fact, he backed the group financially and glowed in their adoration. After a failed attempt to run for Jerusalem mayor, Gaydamak fled the country in 2008 amid financial scandals in Israel and Europe.

Since then, Gaydamak has drastically cut funding to the team and tried to sell it.

First Brazilian-American millionaire Guma Aguiar who stepped in with a US$4 million investment — before he checked himself into a psychiatric hospital because of increasingly erratic behavior, that included plans to rebuild the biblical Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.

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