Beitar soccer club adviser quits after saying he wouldn’t sign Muslim player

Eli Cohen, whose comments touched raw nerve at club trying to shed extreme nationalist image, says he is ‘broken’

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Beitar Jerusalem head coach Eli Cohen, center, flanked by Gabriel Kadiev, left, and Zaur Sadayev at a press conference, January 31, 2013. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Beitar Jerusalem head coach Eli Cohen, center, flanked by Gabriel Kadiev, left, and Zaur Sadayev at a press conference, January 31, 2013. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The new adviser to the Jerusalem soccer team Beitar resigned Wednesday, just ten days after assuming the post, after refusing to apologize for saying earlier in the day that he would not sign on a Muslim player.

His comments touched a raw nerve at the club, which has been trying to shed its reputation for attracting far-right nationalist fans.

Eli Cohen — who had just begun his fourth stint at the club — sparked furor when he told the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper on Wednesday that he wouldn’t incorporate a Muslim player on the team because he was a “realistic person.”

“I experienced firsthand what happened when Muslim players came five years ago, and therefore I would not take a Muslim player into Beitar. I had many Arab and Muslim players in the groups that I trained, from Hadera to Hapoel Tel Aviv and Maccabi Haifa,” Cohen told Yedioth.

“Whoever is stupid and wants to label me as a racist after this can say whatever he wants,” he added.

Cohen was at Beitar during the 2012-2013 season, when then-club owner Arkady Gaydamak brought in two Muslim players from Chechnya — Gabriel Kadiev and Zaur Sadayev.

Some Beitar supporters were so angered by the signing of the two Muslim players that the team was forced to hire bodyguards to protect them.

Associates of Cohen — who was taken on as professional adviser to Beitar’s coach — said he was fired by the club. Beitar said he had apologized and decided to resign.

“They’re trying to paint me as a racist. It’s disgusting, ” Cohen told a Channel 2 sports program Wednesday evening.

“I’m broken. Beitar has a great team and quality players. I gave up offers from teams such as Bnei Sakhnin and Hapoel Haifa. Everything has exploded in my face.”

File photo: Eli Ohana (Lior Mizrahi/Flash90)

Cohen’s remarks infuriated club chairman Eli Ohana, who only last month received an award on behalf of Beitar from President Reuven Rivlin — a native Jerusalemite and loyal fan — for combating racism during the 2016-2017 season.

The award was presented for the club’s youth work and its establishment of a forum to deal with incitement and racism.

Fans of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer club fighting with police in the stands at Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium on May 1, 2016. (screen capture: YouTube/ONE)

Beitar fans are known for singing anti-Arab chants at matches, including “Death to Arabs.”

The most extreme, nationalist supporters belong to a far-right group called La Familia.

Last year, 19 members of the group were charged with attempted murder, including of rival supporters.

Beitar is also the only club in the Israeli league that has never had an Arab Muslim player.

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