Dueling rallies by backers, critics of Beitar Jerusalem’s sale to Emirati sheikh

Members of far-right La Familia group, supporters of co-owner Moshe Hogeg gather at training grounds; Hogeg files police complaint over threats to him and his family

Beitar Jerusalem soccer supporters sing and wave their flag as players enter the pitch during a team training session in Jerusalem, December 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
Beitar Jerusalem soccer supporters sing and wave their flag as players enter the pitch during a team training session in Jerusalem, December 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Two opposing protests were held at Beitar Jerusalem’s training compound Friday in the wake of an Emirati sheikh’s purchase of half of the soccer club.

More than 100 fans gathered to show their support for the new owner, while a few dozen hardcore fans — known as La Familia — protested it. Police said four people were arrested for “confrontations,” without elaborating.

Police also said two others were arrested in recent days for public disorder during a team training session earlier this week.

On Monday, Beitar announced that Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, a member of Abu Dhabi’s royal family, had bought a 50% stake in the club and pledged to pump $90 million into the team in the coming decade. The stake in the club was sold to him by owner Moshe Hogeg, and the two are now co-owners.

Netanel Avraham, one of the fans who gathered to support the move, said he was happy to welcome the new owner. “We hope he’ll take us to good places,” he said.

“I want it to be known that Beitar Jerusalem is not a racist team,” he added. “I want this stigma to be taken out.”

Hogeg himself arrived at the scene and spoke with supporters.

A Beitar Jerusalem fan wave the team’s flag during a team training session in Jerusalem, Friday, Dec. 11, 2020, days after the club announced that an Emirati sheikh has purchased a 50% stake in the team (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

On Thursday Hogeg filed a police complaint against La Familia after threats against himself and his family. Photos of threatening graffiti messages in recent days, whose location was not reported, showed messages such as: “Moshe Hogeg you son of a whore, we’ll come for your children,” and “We’ll butcher you.”

“I’m not afraid, nor will I be,” Hogeg said in a statement. “But I will not allow such threats to go unanswered. I will fight with everything I have against those who think they can threaten my wife and children.”

Beitar Jerusalem has a reputation as somewhat of a haven for Arab-hating racists, most prominently represented by La Familia.

New co-owners Hogeg and Al Nahyan said Tuesday they were determined to demonstrate that Jews and Muslims can cooperate and do wonderful things together, and that sportis  a good place to begin that mission.

“It’s a historic moment for the club, for Beitar Jerusalem. It’s obviously a historic moment for both nations, Israel and the United Arab Emirates,” Hogeg said at an online press conference in Dubai. “It’s the first real fruit of the peace agreement between the nations and I am excited and honored to introduce our new co-owner, my new partner, at Beitar Jerusalem, His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, and his son, Sheikh Mohammed.”

Mohammed, who said that he did not have any previous experience in managing a soccer team, will become Beitar’s vice chairman and be responsible for the “professional side” of the UAE-Israel venture, Hogeg said.

Beitar Jerusalem owner Moshe Hogeg (C) with UAE member of the royal family, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan (R), who bought half the team (Beitar Jerusalem)

“It’s a great moment, because in the end in football, we want to win. We want to win titles, we want to score goals, we want to make the fans happy. And we want to show people, after so many people think that Muslims and Jews cannot do things together and cannot get along — we want to prove them otherwise,” Hogeg said in his opening remarks.

“We want to show that Muslims and Jews can do great things together, can do beautiful things together. And sport is the ultimate way to start. Real peace is between people, not only between leaders,” he added.

During the question-and-answer session, Hogeg and his new Emirati partner dismissed concerns about racism in the club.

“We want to set an example to both nations that Jews and Muslims can work together,” Hamad bin Khalifa said.

Hogeg said he fully agreed, reiterating that he is “not afraid of the racists” and has a plan to deal with them. “We have a strategy. This is part of what we want to change in this club. Jerusalem is a holy place for all religions — Christians, Muslims and Jews — and we want to show that in this city we can have a football club that we can all enjoy together. And everyone who will step in our way — we will deal with them with no fear,” he said, speaking in English.

Asked if his decision to invest in Beitar could be influenced by La Familia, the sheikh replied: “Challenge accepted.”

Elaborating on the issue, he said that most of the troublemakers among Beitar fans are “youngsters” who are “misled and brainwashed… I think we should extend our hand to them and show them the light, the right path.”

Beitar Jerusalem fans during the match against Bnei Sakhnin F.C. at the Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem on Monday, January 22, 2018. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

The fact that an Emirati royal had acquired half of the capital’s premier soccer club that was hitherto infamous for its largely anti-Arab fan base was seen by many as a sensation.

Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday briefly addressed the sale. “It’s instructive that an Emirati has bought Beitar Jerusalem,” he said during a meeting with the Slovenian foreign minister. “It tells you how things are changing so rapidly.”

In Tuesday’s press conference, the sheikh stressed that his involvement with Beitar is “pure investment on a personal level.”

Hogeg said Beitar Jerusalem was planning to come to the UAE for an exhibition game, but nothing has been confirmed yet.

A child is wrapped in his father’s Beitar Jerusalem scarf during a team training session in Jerusalem, Friday, Dec. 11, 2020 (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

The announcement, following Israel’s historic agreement to establish diplomatic ties with the UAE earlier this year, upended one of Israeli soccer’s most infamous and controversial traditions.

Beitar, loosely linked to Netanyahu’s Likud party, 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 fans who wield significant clout over personnel decisions. La Familia have been known to whoop like monkeys when an opposing team’s player from Africa would touch the ball and chant “death to Arabs” toward opposing Arab players.

AP contributed to this report.

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