The new co-owners of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team said Tuesday that they are determined to demonstrate that Jews and Muslims can cooperate and do wonderful things together, and that sports is a good place to begin that mission.
At an online press conference in Dubai, Beitar owner Moshe Hogeg introduced his new partner, Emirati businessman Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, a member of Abu Dhabi’s royal family who has bought 50 percent of the team.
“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. “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.
“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 sports is the ultimate way to start. Real peace is between the people, not only between the leaders,” he added.
During the question-and-answer session, Hogeg and his new Emirati partner dismissed any concerns about the club’s reputation as a haven of Arab-hating racists.
“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 the things 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 the club’s La Familia fan club, notorious for its anti-Arab agitation, 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.”
Very little is known about Hamad bin Khalifa. His personal website says he holds an MBA from the University of California Irvine and serves as chairman and CEO of “several commercial, industrial, and financial enterprises,” but otherwise offers very few insights into his biography.
Asked by The Times of Israel during the presser how he fits into the Emirati royal family, he replied: “If you need more information about myself you can have it on the web, there is Wikipedia that explains everything about myself.”
The page, however, is only a few days old and contains only rudimentary information about the sheikh.
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.” He also said in response to ToI’s question that he used his own funds for his share in the club, rather than gathering money from other investors.
Hogeg said Beitar Jerusalem was planning to come to the UAE for an exhibition game, but nothing has been confirmed yet.
Commenting on athletic matters, Mohammed bin Hamad, the new co-owner’s son, said that “we need to strengthen our defense a bit” and vowed to have experts weigh in to make sure the club remains successful.
He also said he planned to come to Jerusalem soon to see the team in person.
On Monday, Beitar announced Sheikh Hamad had bought a 50% stake in the club and pledged to pump $90 million into the team in the coming decade.
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. A small group of fans, known as 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.
Asked whether opposition to his ownership from La Familia would deter him, Hamad said simply: “Challenge accepted.”
AP contributed to this report.