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Explained: The unusual case of an anti-Arab football team being owned by a sheikh

On Monday, Abu Dhabi’s ruling family purchased a 50 per cent stake in Beitar Jerusalem. It has sparked a spate of protests, led by the club’s radical fan base.

Written by Mihir Vasavda , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: December 9, 2020 8:19:44 am
Israeli Premier League. beitar jerusalem, football club beitar jerusalem, united arab emirates israel diplomacySheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Nahyan's and Beitar Jerusalem F.C. owner Moshe Hovav pose for a photo in Dubai. (Courtesy Beitar Jerusalem/Handout via Reuters)

Their fans call them “the most racist football team in Israel”. They are considered to be the symbol of the right wing in Israel. And they are the only side in the Israeli Premier League never to have signed an Arab player.

Now, they are owned by one.

On Monday, Abu Dhabi’s ruling family purchased a 50 per cent stake in Beitar Jerusalem. It has sparked a spate of protests, led by the club’s radical fan base, who are opposed to the move, which comes three months after the United Arab Emirates became the first Gulf state to normalise relations with Israel.

But the club itself has called the deal “historic” and Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, a member of the royal family, has said he was “thrilled to partner such a glorious club”.

Who are Beitar Jerusalem?

Beitar are one of the biggest and most popular clubs in Israel, along with Maccabi Haifa, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Tel Aviv.

However, what sets Beitar apart from the other clubs is the political symbolism it is rooted in, and its ties to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right wing Likud Party. (Netanyahu is an ardent supporter, according to The Guardian.)

Beitar have won the domestic league six times, but haven’t been doing well for many years now — their last title came in 2007-08. The club is more famous for its radical fan base, and the controversies surrounding it.📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram

Why are the fans controversial?

Beitar’s largely working-class fans are scattered all over the country. A section of them, as per a BBC report, is “anti-Arab, anti-Muslim and violent”. The documentary Forever Pure shows them chanting, “Here we are, the most racist team in the country”, during matches.

The hardcore of this fan base, who call themselves “La Familia”, have even been accused of hurling anti-Arab slogans towards opposition players. The club has been penalised for this several times.

Why haven’t Beitar Jerusalem signed an Arab player?

Arabs make up almost 20 per cent of Israel’s population but La Familia, according to the BBC, has warned the club’s owners not to sign Arab or Muslim players. There have been instances in the past though, when the club has signed Muslim players.

And how have the fans reacted to signing a Muslim player?

Not too well. According to ‘Football Paradise’, Tajik footballer Goram Ajoyev was the first Muslim to play for the club in 1989. He was well received by the fans, but when Beitar signed Nigerian defender Ibrahim Ndala from Maccabi Tel Aviv in 2004, it did not go down well.

Ndala, who left the club after just five games, was quoted as saying by Sport5: “I left Beitar because the fans abused me. They sang to me ‘son of a b**ch,’ ‘Arab, go home’.”

In 2013, two members of La Familia were charged with arson for allegedly setting the club’s offices on fire days after it bought in two Chechen Muslim footballers.

So why has the Abu Dhabi ruling family invested in this club?

Beitar’s current owner Moshe Hogeg, a technology entrepreneur, launched an anti-racism campaign after buying the club in 2018. In an attempt to change the club’s image, he threatened to impose heavy financial penalties on those who chanted racist slogans at the matches.

This move is seen as a continuation of Hogeg’s efforts to change Beitar’s image. The new owners have said they will open the doors for Arab players to join the club.

How have the club’s fans reacted to the development?

According to Israeli website sports.walla, a lot of fans are happy with the move as they realise the economic problems the club faced had led to its decline.

Al Nahyan, according to the club’s statement, will invest $92 million over the next 10 years. The money will be used to develop Beitar’s infrastructure and academies, among other things.

However, La Familia haven’t responded well. Even when the negotiations were going on, the radical fans had disrupted the team’s training sessions. Soon after the deal was announced, the fans sprayed offensive and abusive graffiti on the outer wall of Beitar’s stadium.

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