My son, Natan, loves Jerusalem’s most popular soccer team, Beitar Yerushalyim. He can name every player, his stats and position on the pitch. He reminds me a bit of me when I was about his age and was crazy about the Toronto Maple Leafs, they of Keon, Ellis, Henderson and Salming.
My friend, Howard, and I frequented many a Leafs’ Wednesday-night game at the edifice at Carlton and Church, and we’d wait outside the dressing room after they ended, hoping to get players’ autographs. They were my prized possessions.
My Leafs’ experience was different from Natan’s with Beitar. Beitar plays at Teddy Stadium, named after Teddy Kollek, Jerusalem’s legendary mayor of yesteryear, and literally a five-minute drive from our home. But Natan has never been to one of their games, because my wife and I won’t let him go.
It’s not because of the verbal and sometimes physical violence that erupts when some of Beitar’s diehard fans/hooligans become frustrated with their team’s performance or with a ref’s call, although that’s reason enough not to send a young teenager to the stadium. Rather, it’s mostly a matter of principle. For years Beitar’s fan organization, and particularly a vocal group calling itself “La Familia,” have prided themselves in the fact the team has never had Arab players on its roster, unlike many of the other Israeli Premier League soccer teams.
And every year, matches played against teams based in Arab towns or cities – this year Maccabi Um El Fahem and Bnei Sakhnin – necessitate the presence of hundreds of police and security guards to ensure public order in and around game venues. During these matches, Beitar fans often shout niceties such as “Death to Arabs” and “Muhammad is dead,” while some Arab teams’ fans annoyingly refuse to stand for Hatikvah at the beginning of games.
But the story is more complex. Since 2005, Beitar has been owned by Arkadi Gaydamak, a Russian-Israeli billionaire with business and other ties to the former Soviet Union. In early January, he took the entire squad on a two-day jaunt to Grozny, the formerly war-torn and predominantly Muslim capital of the Russian republic of Chechnya, where the team played a friendly match with a local squad, took part in laying a foundation stone for a new synagogue and met with Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, a Putin appointee.
Soon after the team’s return home, management announced it was signing two Muslim Chechens, Zaur Sadaev and Gabriel Kadiev, in an act that was clearly intended to combat Beitar’s racist image.
La Familia was unpleased, to say the least. At a game held at Teddy just days later, fans displayed their rage by cursing Gaydamak and others team officials vociferously, and by unfurling huge banners reading: “Beitar is Pure Forever” and “70 Years of Principles.”
It didn’t end there. When it became evident Gaydamak and Beitar would not capitulate to fans’ demands, someone, unidentified as of yet, torched the team’s clubhouse, including its trophy room, with many historic team relics.
This was the absolute “red line” for many of Beitar’s more moderate fans (yes, there are some), as well as for the police and public officials known for their support of the team.
As chance would have it, the team’s very next game was played at Teddy against Bnei Sakhnin. Once again, heavy security was deployed to separate fans of both teams. This time, however, things were different. Anyone wearing a La Familia shirt was denied entry into the stadium and 96 louts (from both sides) were thrown out during the game.
More importantly, the team and its fan club made a concerted effort to project a more tolerant appearance. Banners throughout the stadium expressed anti-racist slogans, and in the 80th minute, when Chechen defender Kadiev was brought into the game as a replacement, his debut was met with a rousing standing ovation from many in the stands, as well as from Natan in our living room.
Not all was rosy. Whenever Kadiev touched the ball, he was jeered by the diehards, although many others tried to drown out their taunts.
I’d like to believe this was a turning point for Beitar, although much work has yet to be done – mostly in education and law enforcement.
After the Sakhnin game, I told Natan I’d take him to future Beitar games. He’s still not sure he wants to go.