Beitar Jerusalem soccer fans hold a banner against violence and racism ahead of their team's match against Bnei Sakhnin in an Israeli Premier League game, at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem February 10, 2013. The banner reads, "Against violence and racism in the field". REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
Racism and violence have long been a two-way street in Israeli soccer matches. Arab players on any team, and the Arab Bnei Sakhnin team as a whole, have been cursed and physically attacked by Jewish fans of any given team – and Arab fans of Bnei Sakhnin have been equally abrasive and aggressive against Jewish fans and players.
But the most notoriously racist are the fans of Jerusalem Beitar known as La Familia, who in the past held up banners with the Hebrew equivalent of “Forever Pure” – meaning free of any Arab or Moslem influence. When Arcadi Gaydamak, one of the team’s former owners, brought in two Muslim players from Chechnya, their lives were made miserable and as a result, their stay with the team was a very short one.
When the team’s current owner Moshe Hogeg acquired the team last month, he declared categorically that race and religion would no longer be a factor in who could play for Beitar. As far as Hogeg was concerned, a player’s performance on and off the field was the deciding factor as to whether he would be signed on; his race and his religion were irrelevant.
This prompted Bnei Sakhnin chairman Muhammed Abu Yunis to approach Hogeg and ask him if an earlier Premier League ruling that closed games between the two teams to spectators could be rescinded. Abu Yunis also spoke to Israel Football Association chairman Erez Halfon, and to President Reuven Rivlin, who is a past manager of Beitar and a lifelong fan. Abu Yunis argued that football is a spectator sport, and without spectators, especially die-hard fans, the spirit goes out of the game.
He was delighted to find willing ears in all quarters.
The upshot is that the game between Bnei Sakhnin and Jerusalem Beitar set to take place in Jerusalem this coming Monday will be open to spectators rooting for either team.
Even the most rabid fans are expected to behave rather than be banned from future games.
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The game will be a test both on and off the field, said Hogeg at a reconciliation ceremony held on Thursday at the President’s Residence.
Halfon, Hogeg, Abu Yunis and Rivlin all spoke about the need to eradicate violence and racism from sport and to promote partnership, tolerance, equality, acceptance of the other, leadership and excellence.
The effort was launched three years ago, through Rivlin’s Israel Hope project aimed at social integration of all sectors of Israeli society. As far as soccer or football was concerned, the effort was rewarded by a Shield of Honor.
In praising Rivlin’s vision, Halfon said that the goal was to change the culture of sport, and urged that there be greater cooperation in eliminating violence. He also called for respect between rival teams and their supporters.
He said that he hoped that the players would not only distinguish themselves on the field but would set an example for spectators.
Hogeg said that it was imperative for Beitar to become a leader in positive social change. In its last three games, the team had not been good enough, he said, but the crowd had nonetheless applauded the players, and that was a favorable sign.
Hogeg plans to sit in the stands with his son on Monday to watch the crucial game between Jerusalem Beitar and Bnei Sakhnin that is designed to set new cultural standards in sport.
Abu Yunis said that as much as he wanted his team to win on Monday, “in the end we have to be sure that everyone wins and that we have achieved our target with our fans, which is to realize that you have to accept defeat in the same way as you accept victory. It’s only a football game – it’s not a matter of life and death.”
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