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Beitar Jerusalem scraps Barcelona preseason friendly in row over game’s location

Owner of Israeli team says Spanish soccer team insisted the game be held somewhere other than Jerusalem; Joint List MK welcomes decision

Barcelona's Lionel Messi celebrates with team mates scoring the opening goal during the Spanish La Liga soccer match between FC Barcelona and Celta at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, May 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Joan Monfort)
Barcelona's Lionel Messi celebrates with team mates scoring the opening goal during the Spanish La Liga soccer match between FC Barcelona and Celta at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, May 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Joan Monfort)

The owner of Beitar Jerusalem said Thursday that he had canceled a preseason friendly against soccer powerhouse FC Barcelona scheduled for next month after the Catalan team insisted the game be played somewhere other than Jerusalem.

It was unclear how plans had reached such an advanced stage without agreement about the location.

“With great sorrow I had to cancel the game against Barcelona,” wrote Moshe Hogeg in a Facebook post. “After I received the contract to sign which revealed the unequivocal demand that the game not take place in the capital, Jerusalem, and a few other demands that I did not like, I slept with a heavy heart, thought a lot and decided that first of all I am a proud Jew and Israeli.”

“A game against Beitar Jerusalem should take place in Jerusalem,” Hogeg wrote. “I’m not angry with Barcelona; ​​they are not a political club and have no interest in taking part in our conflict here. Our relationship will continue to be good. This is a very difficult decision but after consulting with the mayor, Moshe Lion, I believe it is the right one.”

The game had been set to take place in Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium on August 4.

Joint List MK Sami Abou Shehadeh earlier this month published an open letter to the club calling on it to cancel the game, citing Palestinian support for Barcelona and the notorious hardcore racist fans among supporters of Beitar Jerusalem. On Thursday, he welcomed the announcement of the game’s cancellation.

“After the great pressure we exerted on Barcelona, ​​the club decided to cancel the game against Beitar Jerusalem,” he said, according to Channel 12 news.

Moshe Hogeg, Israeli businessman and Beitar Jerusalem owner, seen at the team’s training ground in Jerusalem on June 25, 2019. (Flash90)

The game would have been the first time Barcelona played a preseason game in Israel.

The team, led by Argentine superstar Lionel Messi, in 2013 played a match in Jaffa before a crowd of young Israelis as part of a two-day “peace tour.”

Messi also came to Israel in 2019 for a friendly match between the Argentinian and Uruguayan national teams, which saw him square off against his then-Barcelona teammate Luis Suarez. That game was put in doubt due to fighting the week before the match between Israel and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the second-largest terror group in Gaza after the Strip’s Hamas rulers.

FC Barcelona football team at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, August 4, 2013. (Alex Kolomoisky/FLASH90)

The year before, Argentina and Messi were scheduled to play the Israeli national team in Jerusalem before traveling to Russia for the World Cup, but the squad canceled the trip on short notice after intense pressure from Palestinian officials and activists.

Beitar is one of the country’s most storied franchises, winning 13 trophies and counting Israeli presidents and prime ministers among its fans.

But it also has drawn negative attention 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 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. A small group of fans, known as La Familia, has been known to whoop like monkeys when an opposing team’s player from Africa would touch the ball, and to chant “death to Arabs” toward opposing Arab players.

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