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Soccer hooligans of the Middle East

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Fans of the Beitar Jerusalem Football Club. COURTESY TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

Like those in the United Kingdom, Israeli soccer fans are a passionate bunch. But none more rabid, rowdy or racist than La Familia, Beitar Jerusalem Football Club’s right-wing (hard)-core of loyalists. And that was before 2012.

The title of Maya Zinshtein’s debut documentary feature on the subject, Forever Pure, which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, quotes a fan-raised banner recognizing Beitar as the only Israeli team never to field an Arab player. (That any Israeli would invoke “purity”, a concept of such negative historical connotation, is startlingly ironic and tragically hypocritical.)

In 2012, that “purity” is challenged when Beitar’s then-owner, Arcadi Gaydamak, signs Zaur Sadayev and Dzhabrail Kadiyev, two young, Muslim players from Chechnya.

Conflating religion with culture (because no one ever said racism was logical), La Familia turns against their beloved team. Even when Sadayev scores his first goal for Beitar, many of the so-called fans stage a mass exodus from Teddy Stadium’s east stand in protest. Later, the team’s clubhouse is burned by an unknown arsonist. If there was ever a love/hate relationship between team and fans, this would be it, and it’s frightening to see, not only how much power the fans yield, but how quickly they can turn against the very players to whom they pledge their support.

Not that it’s any excuse, but Beitar represents more than just a soccer team. To La Familia’s membership, some of whom grew up to play for Beitar, it’s a source of collective pride for second-class and blue-collar citizens, making Teddy Stadium a hot thoroughfare for political hopefuls on the campaign trail, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the team’s controversial owner, Gaydamak, a Russian billionaire with failed aspirations to be mayor of Jerusalem.

The moral corruption at play here adds a slimy layer of irony to the notion of “Forever Pure,” and the politicization of sports by fans and management alike leaves viewers feeling anything but clean. In addition to being a wanted criminal in France for money laundering, Gaydamak makes no qualms expressing his distaste for soccer. This is just one of the many revealing tidbits from Zinshtein’s sparing use of talking heads.

Like the journalist she is, Zinshtein shows rather than tells, putting the viewer in the action with a combination of in-game, locker room, and touring footage. The real spectacle of Familia’s prejudice must be seen to be believed. After all, racism is a spectator sport.

As a moderate member of La Familia explains that its violent members represent neither Israel nor Beitar’s fan base, he reminds of the broad brushstrokes with which mainstream culture paints their paranoia on Muslims everywhere.

Just as sex is about everything but sex, the same is true of sports. Ardent spectators are really patriots living vicariously through teams that might be better imagined as opposing camps, and the field: a proxy battleground where political frustrations are resolved (or exacerbated) with entertaining results.

Beyond this trite comparison lies a series of tragic truths: For the players of Beitar Jerusalem FC, their opponents are not on the field, but in the stands, and the dispute is defined, not by athletics, but ideology. Some games are just not worth playing.


Extra Notes:

  As Familia’s fandom escalates into a furor, and their self-perpetuating mob mentality divides the players from their followers, Forever Pure reveals the conflict is not between teams, but the team and their fans.

• Although the management and the players condemn the vitriol, there’s still the tension of traditions that divide the Muslim players from their Jewish teammates, who pray in a hotel lobby in Hebrew while Sadayev stands awkwardly outside the circle, excluded. Lincoln’s edict that “A house divided against itself cannot stand” was never truer in either a political or athletic context.

• Professional distance is a fickle thing, subject to temperament. In this critic’s limited experience with live sports, athletes who restrain themselves from engaging their booing audience are equally amusing and impressive. But for the players and spectators of Beitar Jerusalem Football Club, it’s not personal. It’s strictly politics.