Winds of change

With the signing of two Muslim players, Beitar Jerusalem appears ready to shake off its racist image

By JEREMY LAST
February 20, 2013 11:40
Soccer player

Dzhabrail Kadiyev plays for Beitar 521. (photo credit: NIR ELIAS/REUTERS)

 
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As the Chechen footballer began warming up along the side of the field, the tension level in Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium moved up another notch. Almost three quarters of the crucial Israeli Premier League game had already been played February 10 and host Beitar was losing 2-0 to arch rival Bnei Sakhnin; but all eyes were on 19-year-old Beitar substitute Dzhabrail Kadiyev, who was about to become only the second ever Muslim to play for the club notorious for a militant right-wing and racist element among its fans.

The teenaged midfielder was stepping into a maelstrom of emotions and passions that extended far beyond the realm of sports.

For years unruly Beitar supporters had demonstrated a hatred of Arabs and Muslims while indulging in soccer hooliganism. On more than one occasion the club has been punished by the Israeli Football Association (IFA) for anti-Arab slurs. In 2007 a large group of Beitar supporters booed and whistled during a minute’s silence in memory of murdered Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

As well as fines, penalties have included the team being forced to play home games behind closed gates or at stadiums outside of Jerusalem. Recent rowdy behavior verging on racism and culminating in an apparent arson attack on the Beitar offices forced the IFA and the police to clamp down even further.

Supporters identified as trouble makers have been banned from attending matches and police have begun arresting anyone suspected of hurling racist insults at matches.

Back at Teddy Stadium, the hard-core Beitar supporters, bunched together in the north-western corner of the ground, predictably booed Kadiyev while he jogged and stretched prior to joining the match. At the same time, more than half of the home crowd surprisingly clapped and cheered. As had been the case since arriving in Israel from the Terek Grozny club, along with fellow Muslim Chechen striker Zaur Sadayev, Kadiyev appeared unaffected by the intense focus on his every move. His face showed a mixed expression of nonchalance and naiveté as the television cameras zoomed in.

Ten minutes later, in what Sports Minister Limor Livnat later described as a “historic” occasion, Kadiyev ran onto the pitch to replace Ofir Krayef. In the center of the Beitar midfield, he was greeted by a mixture of standing ovations and cries of “shame.”



Every time he touched the ball during his 10 minutes on the field, the reaction was the same – boos from one corner of the stadium and loud applause from the rest of the fans, clearly aimed at demonstrating their support for team owner Arkadi Gaydamak’s decision to bring the pair of Chechens to Beitar.

Sadayev, who was injured, watched from the stands as the game ended in a thrilling 2-2 draw.

Asked after the game if he intended signing an Arab player for Beitar in the near future, Gaydamak responded, “If we need a player who can improve the team, we will take him; it is not important if he is Jewish, Muslim or Christian.”

Kadiyev’s brief appearance was the culmination of an intense two-week period.

It began on January 26, when Gaydamak sent shock waves through the club’s fan base with the surprise announcement that Beitar was signing two Muslim players. The Russian billionaire has joined forces with club chairman Itzik Kornfein in an effort to bring about a permanent change in the reputation of the team, which has been branded “racist” for decades.

Kornfein has been waging an ideological battle with the more-extremist Beitar fans ever since two Arab cleaners were beaten up while working in the Teddy Stadium toilets during a March 2010 game. The chairman has been doing his utmost to prevent anti-Arab chanting at games by playing loud music over the stadium speakers; he is also said to be assisting the police in their investigations into Beitar fans, and is refusing to back down despite continuous calls for him to quit. For his part, Gaydamak, who has hardly been involved with the team since unsuccessfully running for mayor of Jerusalem in November 2008, appears rejuvenated by the attention attracted by Kadiyev and Sadayev’s transfer to the capital.

The evening following Gaydamak’s announcement that the Chechens would be coming to Jerusalem, fans standing in the notorious East Stand at Teddy unveiled a banner proclaiming “Beitar Pure Forever,” ahead of a league match against Bnei Yehuda, prompting increasing concern that the move was a mistake. But it soon became clear that a large proportion of Beitar supporters had had enough of the hooliganism. These fans, sitting for the most part in the West Stand, sang their support for Gaydamak, underlining the growing schism within the Beitar community. Beitar was punished by the Israel Football Association for militant fans unfurling the racist banner, implying that only Jews could play for the team, and was forced to play its next five home games in front of an empty East Stand.

At a January 30 press conference introducing Sadayev and Kadiyev, the players made only brief comments. “Of course we know what Beitar Jerusalem is and where we have come,” Sadayev said.

“Thank you to all of the country and thank you very much Beitar... I feel good, like I am at home. I came to play soccer and not more than that.” Kadiyev only noted, “We weren’t scared to come. We don’t know the meaning of the word fear.”

Club ca ptain Amit Ben-Shushan welcomed the pair. “In the name of all the players, I want to say that we do not get involved in politics. From the moment that I heard two players were coming to strengthen the team, we said this is a blessing. We will do our all to help them acclimatize because the most important thing is the success of the club.”

But despite the warm welcome from Beitar players, over the following weeks, the anti- Muslim Beitar fans did their very best to express their disapproval of the arrival of Kadiyev and Sadayev. They turned out at the team’s training sessions screaming curses at the two foreigners, and spent almost the entire next league game at Ramat Hasharon singing anti-Gaydamak and anti-Kornfein chants, as well as slamming team coach Eli Cohen for agreeing to sign the players. And three days before the Sakhnin game, the offices alongside the team’s training ground were set alight in an apparent arson attempt for which four Beitar fans were later arrested.

Nevertheless, Kornfein and Gaydamak have stood firm in the face of increasing pressure. More than 90 Beitar troublemakers were ejected from the stadium during the game against Sakhnin, some for cursing Kornfein, others for wearing sweatshirts bearing the logo of the infamous fans’ group La Familia. And the positive reaction among so many supporters to Kadiyev’s first showing for Beitar has led commentators to start believing in the possibility of a new era for the Jerusalem club and Israeli sport.

During the game against Sakhnin, Beitar spokesman Asaf Shaked spoke about the possibility of Maccabi Netanya’s Israeli Arab striker Ahmed Saba signing for the team this summer. “The coach is interested in him [Saba], and so maybe we will start negotiations with him in the summer,” Shaked said. Asked if the management was concerned about the potential reaction from fans if such a move were to materialize, the spokesman pointed around the relatively quiet stadium. “Look around,” he said. “It’s already happening.”

Sport in Israel has, for the most part, been tied in with politics; and the Beitar sports club, which grew out of the Revisionist Zionist youth movement, Betar, has always had ties to the right-wing Herut and then Likud parties. Unlike all other teams in Israel’s top soccer league, the club has never had an Arab Israeli on its roster in its 76-year history.

While the team’s management has always insisted that Beitar has nothing against Arabs, and even tried to sign Arab players, including Walid Badir, in the 1980s and 1990s, commentators have accused club officials of giving in to the extremist fans. Prior to the Chechens, the only Muslim player to have appeared in the team’s yellow and black uniform was Nigerian defender Ibrahim Nadala, who quit only a few months into the 2004/05 season, after suffering constant abuse by the Beitar faithful. Two years later, Gaydamak revealed that he was considering signing Israel international Abbas Suan from Sakhnin, the most successful Israeli Arab team, only to back down shortly thereafter, apparently due to supporter outrage at the prospect of an Arab playing for their beloved team.

Following Kadiyev’s 10 minutes in the spotlight, Suan, who is now retired and works as a youth team coach at Bnei Sakhnin, said he believed the time was right for an Arab player to move to Beitar. “The change happened now and the ice is broken,” he told The Jerusalem Report in reference to Kadiyev playing for the team. “Now I think everything will happen. I think any good Arab player can play here – maybe Ahmed Saba, maybe another player. If Beitar wants it, then the club must take him.”

Suan’s words have significant gravitas considering Gaydamak’s abortive attempt at signing him. The former Bnei Sakhnin captain has also had direct experience of the vitriol of Beitar’s extremist supporters, both while playing against the Jerusalem team in the league and when representing the Israel national team. One of the most prominent instances came in February 2005, as Israel faced Croatia at Teddy Stadium: When Suan came on as a substitute, a large section of the crowd in the East Stand booed him every time he touched the ball, and a banner was unveiled saying, “You don’t represent us.”

Livnat, who was among a number of politicians to attend the game, was also positive about the future. “I think it was a very historic moment,” she told The Report.

“I hope it will go on like this. I think the Beitar crowd proved that the majority are really very supportive and a very normal crowd, and this [the fans booing Kadiyev] is a very small group actually. What we saw this evening was very good and very positive and very supportive and very encouraging.”

Gaydamak, meanwhile, lapped up the support, telling journalists that the anti- Muslim fans were only a small minority.

“We saw that the Israeli public welcomed a Muslim player. There are just a few people without any knowledge, but it is not representative of Israel,” he said Clearly, though, this is only the start of a long road towards change. The fans opposing the integration of Muslims or Arabs into Beitar Jerusalem are determined to continue their protests against the team’s management, and the fire at the training complex raised significant concerns.

Beitar fan Bar Afik, 21, visited the team’s training session the morning after the fire and asserted that he will continue to oppose the Chechen players no matter what happens.

“We don’t care what happens anymore – we want them out,” said Afik, who claimed not to be a member of La Familia. “Chechnya is a country of terror. I’m sure someone in their family was a terrorist. We are surrounded by Muslims and Arabs who want to destroy us.”

Standing outside the stadium after the Sakhnin game, La Familia member Uri Cohen said he would not back down. “I wasn’t at the game because they didn’t let me in,” the 17-year-old said. “I am disappointed to hear that Kadiyev played because there never has been an Arab player at Beitar and there never will be. We want Kornfein and Arkadi out.”

There has been skepticism among the Arab community regarding a change at Beitar.

Arab Knesset Member Ahmed Tibi attended the game, supporting Sakhnin. “Beitar Jerusalem does not deserve an Arab player.

No Arab with self-respect will agree to play here,” he said. Nevertheless, Tibi expressed some hope. “Maybe there will be a change.

Maybe we can restrict this kind of fan.

Maybe we are on the right track; we are still waiting,” he said.

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