Can Barak Abramov save Israel's Beitar Jerusalem soccer club?

Is Beitar Jerusalem's new owner a messiah that can save the ailing team? Or will this be another false messiah for the legendary Israeli soccer club?

 Beitar Jerusalem fans cheer their team during a match against Maccabi Umm el-Fahm at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem. (photo credit: NIR ELIAS/REUTERS)
Beitar Jerusalem fans cheer their team during a match against Maccabi Umm el-Fahm at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: NIR ELIAS/REUTERS)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

After months of uncertainty, in the middle of the night of August 9, the sale of Jerusalem’s legendary soccer team, Beitar Jerusalem, was finally sealed. Barak Abramov bought the team from Moshe Hogeg.

Hogeg signed the deal with Abramov – at the home of former Jerusalem mayor and Likud MK Nir Barkat – for two million shekels ($600,000).

“I want to thank Nir Barkat, who worked night and day to save Beitar Jerusalem, and managed to obtain two million shekels. I will make every effort to save Beitar and enable it to return to a path of victory.”

Barak Abramov

“I want to thank Nir Barkat, who worked night and day to save Beitar Jerusalem, and managed to obtain two million shekels,” said Abramov. “I will make every effort to save Beitar and enable it to return to a path of victory.”

The sale came after Hogeg, an entrepreneur, was accused of serious crimes in the last year that prevented him from continuing to be the owner. He tried all summer to sell the team, and finally found a buyer. Abramov, who boasts of being a longtime fan of the team, jumped on the bargain, and after months of negotiations, he became the owner of a Beitar Jerusalem, buoyed by a last-minute lifeline from an unnamed South African donor.

 Moshe Hogeg (right) signs over the sale of Beitar Jerusalem to Barak Abramov. (credit: BEITAR JERUSALEM) Moshe Hogeg (right) signs over the sale of Beitar Jerusalem to Barak Abramov. (credit: BEITAR JERUSALEM)

Who is Israeli businessman Barak Abramov?

Abramov, an Israeli businessman who deals mainly with real estate, is the owner of the popular Japanika restaurant chain in Israel. He was also the owner of the football club, Bnei Yehuda.

He brought Bnei Yehuda to new heights and won two state cups in 2017 and 2019. A year after winning the second cup, however, it got stuck at the bottom of the league, and was relegated to the second division after seven years in the top league.

Last year the team failed to move up to the first division and remained in the second division. At the end of 2021, Abramov decided to sell the team in favor of buying Beitar Jerusalem, which is still in the premier league.

The history of Beitar Jerusalem

Beitar, whose colors are yellow and black, has been in existence since 1936. It was founded as a Jerusalem team affiliated with the revisionist movement, unlike Hapoel Jerusalem, which was founded in 1926 and belongs to the labor movement.

Since the 1970s, Beitar has been considered one of the top teams in Israel that enjoys a broad fan base. It has won six Israeli championships, seven State Cups, three wins in the Preparatory Cup for the Israeli League, and two wins in the Champion of Champions of the Israeli League. To this day, the team is defined as the most political team in the country, with a fan base mostly to the Right on the political map. Accordingly, it has attracted many right-wing politicians, from former prime minister Ehud Olmert to former president Reuven Rivlin – even though, ironically, both Olmert and Rivlin moved to the left when they were in office.

Beitar’s home stadium is Teddy in the Malha neighborhood, named after Jerusalem’s iconic longtime mayor Teddy Kollek while he was still alive. Hapoel Jerusalem and the Israel national soccer team also play at Teddy for select home games.

In recent years, the team has been in administrative chaos and in dire economic straits, and has not functioned properly on and off the field.

False messiahs: History of Beitar Jerusalem's owners

So the question everyone’s asking: is Abramov Beitar’s new messiah who can save the club from a bitter fate? Can he succeed where his predecessors have failed? Or is this once again a false messiah, like previous owners were supposed to be?

Let’s start by understanding who the club’s previous owners were.

In 2005, Arcadi Gaydamak – a Russian-born French-Israeli businessman and philanthropist – bought the team and was immediately declared the messiah by fans who had suffered through difficult years. 

Gaydamak invested millions in the group, which quickly produced good results. In its first season, the team’s budget reached NIS 193 million. Just as a comparison, the team with the highest budget in the previous season was Maccabi Tel Aviv, reaching almost NIS 100 million.

During the 2006-07 season, Beitar won the championship and the State Cup under Gaydamak’s stewardship. A year later, the team won the State Cup again. But as fast as success came, its fall was even faster. At the end of the 2007-08 season, Gaydamak decided to take a step back from the management and stopped funding the club. There were several attempts to purchase the group in the same year but without success.

By then, the fans understood the real reason for Gaydamak’s investment in the team: he had tried to gather supporters with the help of the club intending to use it as a platform to run for Jerusalem mayor, but he failed to win the support of any party.

In the end, Gaydamak remained the owner until 2013 without actually investing any money. In his last season, he signed on two Muslim players from a Chechnyan team, much to the chagrin of its fan base. The club’s hardcore fans, known as La Familia – who once boasted that a Muslim player had never played on their team – did not like the idea, and began public protests against Gaydamak and other club officials. At one of the protests, a fan burned down the club’s building – and all the trophies and championship plates were destroyed. This caused tremendous damage to Beitar’s budget and its reputation.

In 2013, Eli Tabib – known as one of Israel’s top soccer experts – bought the team from Gaydamak, and he emerged as the new messiah. Following his purchase, the team began to rise in the Premier League and even made it to the UEFA Europa League playoffs.

But then Tabib was charged and convicted of assaulting a minor and disrupting justice, after he and his bodyguard attacked a Hapoel Tel Aviv fan outside his home in 2012, when he still owned Hapoel. The Israel Football Association announced that Tabib would not be allowed to be involved in the running of Beitar for the next three years. 

In 2017, Tabib appointed Eli Ohana, one of the team’s most famous players, to manage the club. Beitar fared well professionally that year, reaching third place in the Premier League. But the fans were still not happy, claiming that Tabib had chosen players and determined match lineups according to his personal interests and not those of the club. Many of them began to boycott Beitar.

During the season’s opener, the team lost in Europe to an inferior club in the first round of the playoffs. This increased the anger of the fans. Facing enormous pressure, two weeks before the opening of the Israeli league, Tabib announced the sale of the team to Hogeg.

The Hogeg era that started in 2018 turned out to be similar to the periods under Tabib and Gaydamak. Hogeg was also initially seen as the messiah who came to save the club. In the first years of his ownership, Beitar qualified for the EuroLeague but fell in the first stage. Two years after buying the club, Hogeg reportedly sold 50% of the club to a businessman from the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Hamas bin Khalifa Al Nahyan.

The Israel Football Association queried the sale and asked for documents, which were never provided. Members of the club realized that the sale had been made to a person who had no real fortune and could not honor his promises of salvaging the team. The deal fell through.

In the 2021-22 season, it was Hogeg’s turn to fall from grace, and he too was denigrated to the position of false messiah, just like all his predecessors.

After the police began to investigate Hogeg for serious crimes, the fans protested outside Hogeg’s home for months. One of them even threw a stun grenade at his house at one of the demonstrations. Facing hostile fans, Hogeg reluctantly transferred ownership to Abramov in August. And so began the Abramov era.

Beitar is in a really bad situation financially. It has huge debts, and if these are not paid, the club will not be able to sign new players, according to the rules of UEFA.

At the rotten core of Beitar’s fan base is La Familia, a radical, racist group of just a few hundred people that harms the club’s name and alienates its many rational fans. Beitar owns a very expensive piece of land in Jerusalem’s Bayit Vegan, which the team uses as a training ground. This in itself might explain Abramov’s decision to purchase the club.

It is premature to say whether Abramov will also become a false messiah, since we have not yet seen what he can do for the team. He’s a solid businessman and has a good name. However, we should all be skeptical about his moves, based on the type of owners the team has had in the past.  ■