The management of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer club on Tuesday withdrew its request to play visiting Maccabi Umm al-Fahm in an empty stadium. The match, which is scheduled for Tuesday evening and which authorities fear could become a staging ground for fan violence, will take place before a regular crowd at Teddy Stadium in the capital.
Fifty fans were not granted permits to enter the stadium, according to Israel Radio.
Beitar was in the news this week after a sign reading “Beitar forever pure” was held aloft by fans at a Saturday game, who also shouted racist chants, in protest of owner Arkaday Gaydamak’s decision to sign two Muslim Chechen players. The Interior Ministry on Tuesday granted entry permits to Zaur Sadayev and Gabriel Kadiev.
That fan reaction, which led to three arrests, was condemned by politicians and pundits across the spectrum, but was also consistent with Beitar’s staunch nationalist identity. Beitar has never signed an Arab or Muslim player.
According to general manager Itzik Kornfein, the team did not file a formal request to play without a crowd, as was reported in the media. “We thought about requesting permission to play without an audience; we did not file a formal request,” he told Yedioth Ahronoth. “Our concern is that extremists on both sides will take advantage of the stage.”
Kornfein said he held “many meetings” to coordinate with Jerusalem police ahead of the game, and talked with officials in Umm al-Fahm in an attempt to create a “calm atmosphere.”
“We hope to have a good game and have everyone get home safely,” Kornfein added. “I hope everyone on both sides will find maturity… fans who come to harm the team shouldn’t come.”
Maccabi Umm al-Fahm, based in the northern Arab town of the same name, sports a mostly Arab team but does have some Jewish and international players. Games between Beitar and teams based in Arab communities have long been a source of headaches for police and the league management, which is anxious to avoid violent confrontations between the opposing fans.
Earlier, former prime minister Ehud Olmert, a longtime Beitar fan, announced that he would no longer be attending the team’s games.
“For more than 40 years I’ve been following this team with love and excitement,” Olmert wrote in an op-ed for the Hebrew news site Ynet. “[But] I’m sick of being identified with the ignorant vulgarity of people who aren’t and will never be what Beitar should symbolize in Israeli society and sports.”
Aaron Kalman contributed to his report.