The Beitar faithful, a predominantly male crowd of chain smokers and sunflower-seed-spitters, clad in the scarves and sweatshirts of the team’s yellow and black uniforms, sang religious and patriotic songs after each goal in their 5-0 victory Tuesday night. And though they hailed the visiting team’s fans from the Arab city of Umm al-Fahm with propositions to mount a certain body part, and occasionally wished death on their own team’s owner, Arkady Gaydamak, it was still, for Beitar, a near master class in soccer spectator etiquette.
There were scant racist chants and no banners of any sort were unfurled.
The Israel Cup match against the second-tier team from Umm al-Fahm came on the heels of Saturday night’s game against Bnei Yehuda, at which fans — incensed by the news that Gaydamak had signed Muslim Chechen players Dzhabrail Kadiyev and Zaur Sadaev — hoisted a banner that read “Beitar forever pure” and chanted racist slogans.
The club has never signed a Christian or Muslim Arab player. Several Muslims, from Nigeria and other places, have worn the yellow and black jersey but their tenures were short and strife-filled.
Even Jewish Ethiopian and other black players have been grunted at and occasionally pelted with plastic bananas.
On Tuesday night, though, with a UEFA observer in attendance, and after receiving a NIS 50,000 fine from the Israel Football Association, along with public scoldings from lifelong fan and former prime minister Ehud Olmert and current Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, the fans, buoyed by an early and continuous lead, were unrepentant but tame.
The tension could already be felt at Tel Aviv’s central train station. The ordinarily empty train to the capital was far fuller than usual. Avi Marziano, a school security guard from Netanya and a lifelong fan of Beitar, was hunched into a yellow and black sweatshirt with the words “La Familia” scrawled across the back alongside the team’s emblem, the menorah, and the words “with my life I will protect you.”
“I don’t care if Olmert comes or not,” he said of the former prime minister’s vow not to return so long as the racist calls continued. “There will never be a Muslim player here. This is Jerusalem. This is holy. It’s only for Jews.”
Although his hometown of Netanya has frequently fielded good teams, as have the nearer clubs in Tel Aviv, he said he prefers Jerusalem’s squad because the other teams, “if he was any good, and if he came back from the dead, would put Bin-Laden out on the pitch.”
At the stadium, police officers turned out in droves. My plan, cooked up inside my silly American head, was to spend the first half of the game in the eastern section, among Beitar’s most extreme fans, and the second half with the hundreds of Maccabi Umm al-Fahn fans, who rhythmically pounded the drums throughout and seemed to relish the tension — waving Palestinian flags occasionally and chanting Allahu Akhbar.
Little did I know that once you are inside there are steel fences that prevent you from crossing over, and once you leave, journalist or not, you are not allowed to re-enter the stadium.
At the tea counter — I saw no alcohol consumed during the game — Eyal Kadosh of Ramat Gan and a soldier, who preferred not to give his name, discussed the ban on Israeli flags. “It’s shameful. Those assholes bring in their Palestinian flags and we can’t have the Israeli flag,” Kadosh said.
“It starts with cowering when someone throws a rock at you,” the soldier said, referencing a recent episode in the West Bank when soldiers were seen on TV retreating in the face of stones, “and then you can’t bring your own flag into the stadium.”
As the players took to the pitch, the announcer played out a team tradition, calling out each player’s first name and allowing the crowd to roar back his family name.
Eli Ashur of Jerusalem, a recently discharged soldier, explained his opposition to fielding a Muslim or Arab player. “It’s not racism,” he said, “it’s hatred. They hate us and we hate them.” He described the feeling of being bussed into the Arab town of Sachnin and said the segregation was only natural.
As the game began, in the stadium’s northwest corner, the Umm al-Fahm fans did not seem cowed. They sang out Allahu Akhbar [Arabic for God is great] and what sounded like “with blood, with fire, we will liberate Palestine.”
“They’re trying to incite us,” Ashur said.
Beitar started off fast, missing two chances from within the box in the first four minutes. “It’s not even a fair fight,” said Yaakov Cohen, a fan, who hugged me, despite my notepad and my all-too-apparent ignorance when, several minutes later, Beitar striker Eran Levy put the hometeam up 1-0.
At around 10 minutes into the game the crowd began singing “If I forget thee O Jerusalem.” While I contemplated life in a city where the soccer hooligans quote Psalms, they switched gears and began chanting out Arab MK Ahmad Tibi’s ostensible sexual preferences.
Up above me was one of the few all-girls groups. Three pretty high schoolers clapped and called out encouragement and just pantomimed taking part in the jeers about the opposing team’s lack of manliness. Eden Dahan, in pink-lined Lacoste boots, said she feels safe surrounded by so many men and that, though her mother has a hard time understanding what she sees in soccer, she is a diehard fan. But not of the racism. “It bothers me,” she said. “It’s hatred for nothing. We should take whoever is a good player.”
Levy struck again before the half and Beitar trotted off the grass up 2-0.
When the sides came back on several minutes later, one of the Maccabi Umm al-Fahm players got down on his knees and began to pray to Allah on a patch of grass just north of the center spot. The crowd whistled and grumbled but did not take the bait.
The notorious eastern section was quiet. There were no drums and as the lead increased the tension leaked out of the stadium. Eran Levy, the Beitar striker, made it a hat trick with a nifty left-footed strike at the 55th minute and Dominik Glavina booted another one home on a right cross in the 64th minute.
Frozen, I went to get tea. Only a security guard from the Meteor Security service was there. He said he and his colleagues would soon be forming two columns from the stadium to the buses in order to escort the visiting fans out of the city. “I’m sure there’ll be a fight,” he said sleepily, adding that he is much more of a tennis fan than a soccer fan.
The final insult to injury was added in the 89th minute, again from Glavina.
In the northwest corner, the Umm al-Fahm fans had a zero in their score column but a steady rhythm on the drums and what looked to be high spirits.
When they came out there was a heavy police presence, including mounted officers and Border Police but no violence at all. Outgoing MK Michael Ben Ari and fellow far-right activist Baruch Marzel danced with some of the fans outside, but the police, after the two had their pictures taken, moved them on their way.
“I felt good the whole time,” Muhammad, a resident of Umm al-Fahm and a shift manager at a Keter furniture store, said leaning against the police barricades. “It’s just soccer. I felt safe. The whole thing was for publicity.”
Fawzi Gool, a male nurse from the city who works in Jerusalem, said that “Teddy [Stadium] is the capital of racism in Israel.” He predicted that so long as the fans protested the presence of Muslim players, the management would bow to their will. “That’s how it always is,” he said.
On the way home, I rode in a taxi. The driver, Murad, was an Israeli Arab. He said that he can sense a rising tide of racism in the capital — from police, who ticket for the slightest infraction, to shwarma stands that raise the price for Arabs, to customers who call his Gilo station and demand a Jewish driver. “But if you want to talk about soccer,” he said, pointing at the stadium, “forget this. Tomorrow Madrid are playing Barca. That’s soccer.”