Jubilant fans of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team stormed the pitch following after their club captured its eighth-ever State Cup late Tuesday, jeopardizing the very championship they were celebrating.
Chaos erupted inside Haifa’s Sammy Ofer stadium following Beitar’s 3-0 shellacking of Maccabi Netanya as thousands of yellow-and-black clad supporters rushed onto the grass, breaking up an awards ceremony, reportedly stealing medals, setting fires and forcing President Isaac Herzog to evacuate under heavy security.
In the wake of the free-for-all, Israel Football Association head Moshe Zuarets noted that the governing body’s rules called for a championship to be stripped in the case of fans running onto the field, drawing a furious reply from Beitar owner Barak Abramov, who claimed most guilty fans had no connection with Beitar, a team that has long grappled with its diehard fan base, including a core of violent anti-Arab ultra-nationalists.
“I’m not justifying what happened, it’s a travesty, but Netanya doesn’t want the trophy, because it’s ours. There’s nothing to talk about,” Abramov said during an angry diatribe in which he also blamed the IFA for the rumpus.
Fans first entered the field as the team celebrated a stoppage-time goal that put it up 3-0, though it would be two more minutes until the final whistle brought even more players and fans onto the field.
The players were sent to the locker room as security attempted to restore order and after some 45 minutes, players were called back onto the field for the awards ceremony. However, at that point even more fans ran onto the field, forcing organizers to cancel the awards ceremony and threaten to strip the championship from Jerusalem, its first in 14 years and the eighth in franchise history.
Police eventually managed to restore calm after shutting the stadium’s lights, according to Hebrew-language reports.
No arrests were announced.
Herzog, who had been set to take part in the awards ceremony, an annual tradition, was rushed away by security as fans set off fireworks and reportedly made off with some of the unbestowed hardware.
In a statement, he congratulated Beitar Jerusalem, but spoke out against hooliganism at Israeli soccer stadiums.
“During the game, I spoke with [Sports and Culture] Minister Miki Zohar about the violent shooting of flares which harms the atmosphere of sportsmanship, just like rushing the field, which unfortunately prevented the trophy from being awarded. We agree that the time has come to root violence out from the pitch,” he said.
Earlier this month, fans sitting in the Beitar cheering section launched over a dozen flares onto the field during a semifinal match against Maccabi Tel Aviv at Sammy Ofer Stadium, forcing both teams to abandon the pitch.
“This is a fitting end for a season filled with violence unfortunately,” Zuarets said after the game. “To see the president try to award the trophy and be unable, that’s a sad moment, one of the saddest ever in the history of Israeli soccer.”
While fans storming a field or court is a common occurrence in the US and some other places, in Israel, many said they could not remember a similar situation having ever occurred.
“I don’t understand what caused them to enter the field. They let us all down,” Beitar manager Yossi Abuksis said. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”
He also complained about the possibility that the team’s championship would be stripped, saying the team should be punished, but not like that.
Beitar, founded in 1936, is arguably the most popular soccer club in Israel and undoubtedly its most controversial, thanks to the racism and violence of portions of its fan base.
Beitar Jerusalem is the only club in Israel’s Premier League to have never signed an Arab player, and its most vocal and extremist fan club — known as La Familia — can often be heard chanting “Death to Arabs” from the eastern stand of Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem. Last year, defense minister Benny Gantz suggested La Familia be labeled a terrorist group after it was involved in violence during the Jerusalem Day flag march.
Team owner Abramov took a much more strident line than his skipper, blaming the IFA for the tumult, and saying that the decision to delay the awards ceremony had made things worse.
“The one who put on this event is the Israel Football Association, and it is responsible. This travesty belongs to it and it alone,” he said. “Beitar Jerusalem is not responsible for this … What should Beitar be punished for? Because the organizer doesn’t know how to put on a match?”
He threatened to sue the IFA if it tries to strip the cup.
“I’ll take this to the High Court if need be,” he said. “You don’t know how hard we worked for this award. Nobody will take this from us. If this award is taken from Beitar Jerusalem, Israeli soccer and I are done.”
The State Cup is a knockout tournament played separately from Israel’s tiered leagues, and includes teams from across the spectrum of Israeli soccer.