Arson suspected as fire rips through Hapoel Tel Aviv training base hours before game

Soccer team says its south Tel Aviv HQ suffered ‘enormous damage,’ with fears building may collapse; club’s request to postpone key game against Beitar Jerusalem rejected

Fire engulfing Hapoel Tel Aviv's training base in south Tel Aviv, March 5, 2023. (Screenshot/Twitter; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Fire engulfing Hapoel Tel Aviv's training base in south Tel Aviv, March 5, 2023. (Screenshot/Twitter; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Hapoel Tel Aviv soccer team’s training center was severely damaged in a fire early Sunday morning, in what fire officials reportedly said was a suspected arson attack.

In a statement, the club said CEO Liran Mokhtar was called by police at around 3 a.m. to the south Tel Aviv site, where firefighters were working to bring the blaze under control.

The club said that “the damage caused was enormous, but cannot yet be accurately estimated,” and asked that fans stay away amid fears the building may collapse.

According to the Kan public broadcaster, fire officials reached an initial conclusion that the blaze was set intentionally.

Hapoel Tel Aviv provided police with CCTV footage from the location to assist with an investigation.

The team is set to face rival Beitar Jerusalem on Sunday night in the capital. However, Hapoel has reportedly asked league administrators to postpone the game after the blaze destroyed much of the team’s equipment, and apparently threatened to go to court if the league doesn’t comply.

In a later update, the league said that it had confirmed Hapoel had all the necessary equipment, and that the game would go ahead as planned. “We call on the supporters of both teams to respect the fans and players of the opposing team and behave accordingly,” it added.

Beitar Jerusalem had earlier offered to help its rival in a bid to ensure the game could take place.

Last week, Hapoel, a 13-time champion of Israel that has struggled in recent years, was sold to an American group of investors led by brothers Michael and David Mincberg, who also own shares in English soccer team Plymouth Argyle.

Hapoel Tel Aviv is traditionally associated with the political left and is aligned with the Histadrut labor federation. A large group of fans marched in the anti-government demonstration on Saturday evening.

Beitar is one of the country’s most storied franchises, with a right-wing fan base and counting presidents and prime ministers among its supporters.

But it also has drawn negative attention for many years for being the only major club never to have an Arab player. Israel’s Arab minority makes up roughly 20% of the population, and Arab players star on rival teams and in the country’s national squad.

Club officials have in the past said their hands were tied by a hardcore base of far-right fans who wield significant clout over personnel decisions, including a small group of die-hards called La Familia who have engaged in racist behavior during games.

In January 2022, dashcam footage was shared widely on social media channels depicting masked Hapoel Tel Aviv supporters attacking a car in which two Jerusalem supporters were sitting before a match in the coastal city.

Beitar’s own fans set fire to their club’s headquarters in 2013 after the team signed two Chechnyan Muslim soccer players, breaking with a longstanding tradition not to include Muslim or Arab players.

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