Betar's Russian revolution

Enigmatic Russian billionaire intends to turn Betar Jerusalem into a force in world soccer.

Arkadi Gaydamak 88 (photo credit: )
Arkadi Gaydamak 88
(photo credit: )
As darkness falls at the Herzliya soccer stadium the stands are filling up with hundreds of expectant supporters draped in yellow and black. These are the Betar Jerusalem fanatics, Israel's most famous, infamous and enthusiastically-supported soccer team. Starved of any signs of success for years, the loyal fans have been used to living with the frustration of dedicating themselves to a largely inconsistent team and a badly-managed, poorly-run club. But on this warm evening the atmosphere is markedly different than it was earlier in the season, let alone over the past five years. Suddenly, there's a feeling that Betar deserves to win - even though the team is facing a tough test, playing away from home against Bnei Yehuda Tel Aviv. Things are suddenly looking up at Betar. New coach Ton Caanen appears to have created a battling spirit and tactical awareness in the players and the team has begun to win games. Betar Jerusalem moved out of debt and into the sunshine. The change in the face of Israeli football can be attributed to one man. With little warning, Russian business tycoon Arkadi Gaydamak - previously unknown to sports fans in Israel - bought the club in the summer. Gaydamak is promising big things, including a revival of the team's fortunes, the chance to play European soccer and international recognition. The beginning was less than auspicious. Head coach Eli Ohana resigned after the first game of the season, blaming comments Gaydamak had made about his leadership skills. Over the following weeks the team continued to be inconsistent, winning the away games but losing at home. Six weeks later unproven Dutch coach Caanen took the helm. There were rumors that Caanen would be forced out not long after he had begun his Jerusalem career, especially following the appointment of French star coach Luis Fernandez as General Manager. But Gaydamak makes his intentions clear. "People didn't understand what I did by bringing Luis Fernandez to Betar. He is excellent the image of Israel around the world. He is a world-class football star and personality," he says. Caanen has stayed on, Fernandez and Caanen seem to be getting along and the fans are delighted. The new feeling at the club has led the team to victory in six out of the last seven games. Betar won comfortably against Bnei Yehuda, then again away against Maccabi Tel Aviv to leave it joint second in the league table. Veteran television soccer commentator Avi Mellor, who now works for channel Sport 5, describes the current situation at Betar as nothing less than "historic." "Israeli football will never be the same. It is a historic time," Mellor remarks. "There is a new passion, a new drive in the club. Gaydamak has already changed the mentality at Betar. Whatever happens, this is history in the making." The crucial question, Mellor says, is what players Gaydamak will bring to the club. "Gaydamak has created massive expectations and people believe he will deliver. The changes he has made by putting so many new staff in place are amazing. It's an investment that's totally unknown in Israeli football. Israeli football needs money, and if it will be poured in we have a chance to do something and have a real impact internationally." Betar Jerusalem, like most other sports clubs and associations in Israel, grew from a political movement. The club was formed in 1936 by two Jerusalemites, David Horn and Shmuel Kirschstein. Horn was the local head of the Betar youth movement, associated with Zeev Jabotinsky's pre-state right-wing Revisionist party, which eventually became the Herut, then the Likud, parties. In the club's first years the team was made up entirely of Betar youth members. Many of the players were even arrested by the British during the 1940s and sent to internment camps in Eritrea or Kenya. In the 50s and 60s, when an Israel soccer league was reformed, Betar wallowed in the lower divisions. But in 1968, Betar achieved its dream and won promotion to the top division. Since then the team has seen periods of success, most notably in the 1980s led by star player Uri Malmilian and Eli Ohana, and in the mid-to late-1990s with Ohana as coach. For a while, after arch rival Hapoel Jerusalem fell from grace, Betar was the only top-flight soccer team in the capital. But for the last five years, they have won almost nothing. Although in the years after the Second World War the players became less politically affiliated, the fan-base has remained staunchly right-wing, often with a distinctly racist, anti-Arab component. Even though every other top club in Israel has welcomed Arab players, Betar has never had an Arab player in its ranks. Israeli history expert Ashley Perry explains the political stance of Betar's fans. "Jerusalem only has one big team, as opposed to Tel Aviv which has three and Haifa with two. Jerusalem is probably the poorest city in Israel and, as has been demonstrated throughout the world, soccer fanaticism usually attracts the poorest disenfranchised elements." The fans, he continues, are considered racists because they are right-wing and because they have never had an Arab player. "But they are simply supporters of the right-wing movements, hardcore Likudniks," he says. Yet games are often marred by the racist slurs that some of the fans hurl at Arab players and violence on and off the field. "It's not fair that the whole team has a bad name," says fan Manny Moshe, from Kiryat Hayovel. "There are some lower elements who use the games to get out their frustrations, and sure, most of us are serious 'yellows,' but that doesn't mean that most of us are violent or hate Arabs. I wish the police would do more to get rid of those people who cause all that trouble." The team has been fined and penalized numerous times for their fans' behavior. Politicians wanting to garner the right-wing vote have always had to attend Betar matches. Benjamin Netanyahu is a regular, as is deputy prime minister Ehud Olmert, a former youth team player. But this strong right-wing atmosphere has also drawn strong critics. In a recent oped in the Hebrew press, MK Yossi Sarid (Meretz-Yahad) wrote that FIFA, the soccer world's governing body, should take action against Betar over its refusal to employ Arab players. The issue came to a head last month when Gaydamak hinted that he is in the process of signing Abbas Suan, the most famous Arab player in Israel. Betar supporters were happy that Gaydamak had arrived and excited over the potential for success that his finances had brought - but donating a large amount of money to Bnei Sakhnin, the only Arab team in the Israeli premier league, angered many of them. And the candid way that Gaydamak spoke about the possibility of Suan, the Sakhnin captain, joining Betar, was a step too far for a large section of the Betar support. "We should select our football players for Betar, not from the color of the skin or religion. So we can have a Muslim player in our Betar team," Gaydamak said on Channel 5's One-to-One program. But an editorial posted on "Mahane Ohadim," one of the main Betar supporter websites, summed up the feelings of many fans. "Gaydamak: Listen to the fans," the editorial reads. "We are a right wing team, Zionists, nationalists and we should not be embarrassed by this. This is the work you have to deal with and this is what you bought. Without the fans there is no Betar. There is no way Abbas Suan can come to Betar." It now appears that, for the time being at least, Gaydamak has backed down. But he believes that just by touting the possibility of Suan or any other Arab player moving to Betar, he has begun to break down the barriers that have existed for so many decades. "I didn't make the change. But I already made a very important social move in the Israeli society," Gaydamak said at the time. "I launched a social polemic. It is not important if this Arab player (Suan) will come to Betar and how many goals he will score. It is important that people speak about it." Mellor does not believe that all the attention and excitement will alter the makeup of the Betar fanbase. "It will not change the traditions. It will take a generation to change the supporters just like it has taken [the British] many years to get rid of hooliganism in English soccer. I speak to some of the so-called enlightened supporters and they are getting nowhere. Culturally I think Mr. Gaydamak is only paying lip service and Abbas Suan won't come to Teddy." Since his arrival at the Jerusalem club, Gaydamak has made it clear that he intends to make Betar into the best team in Israel and then a force in Europe. And with his estimated $3 billion fortune he has the funds to do it. "I know that when I begin something then I achieve it very quickly and in my way," he says about himself. And as seen at the Bnei Yehuda and Maccabi Tel Aviv matches, the excitement is already returning to the crowds - even before any of the expected foreign imports arrive at the club. Itzhak Cohen has worked at the Ben Naim ticket office for the last ten years. Located on Jaffa Street near Zion Square, Ben Naim is one of the two main outlets where fans can buy tickets for the Betar games. Cohen says demand has been steadily increasing as the team continues to win and as the club gains more and more publicity. "If something is popular it is natural that everyone wants to be part of it. So the young generation is coming to Betar. They want to go to the games, see the players and be part of this beautiful fantasy right now," Cohen says. The veteran salesman, also a Betar fan, has high hopes for the future of the team. He believes that Gaydamak will bring success and will attract many more people to the games. "Maybe they will go to Europe like Maccabi Tel Aviv did. My fantasy is that Betar could be in the Champions' League. They will get more than 40,000 people [at a game.] The Ramat Gan national stadium will be too small for them," he dreams. "From day to day," he continues, "new people are becoming part of this fantasy. The sky is the limit. Gaydamak has his own way, his vision is so strong you can feel it. What he says - he will do." Gaydamak, who has also recently announced that he has political ambitions and intends to run for Knesset, has been investigated under caution for international money laundering, apparently in the sum of $50 million. An injunction barring him from leaving the country has been issued against him. But none of this seems to bother the Betar fans in the least. And the fact that Gaydamak has met with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, patron rabbi of many of the Mizrahi Betar supporters, and contributed money for free dental care for Jerusalem children, certainly hasn't hurt his standing, either. At games, Betar fans hold up signs promising that they are behind him. And when he was interrogated last week at police headquarters, a dozen or so fans, decked out in Betar yellow and black, demonstrated to show their support for him. Asher Mizrahi was at that demonstration. "The authorities are picking on Gaydamak because he's a Russian and because he's supporting a team that has right-wing fans," he contends. Says his pal and fellow-fan, Baruch Ben-Bibi, "After all that Gaydamak has done for the country and for our city, it's terrible what they are doing to him. Big time politicians are corrupt, but they go free, and this wonderful man, who helps people and has saved Betar, is being investigated. I went to that demonstration for his honor and for the honor of Betar." "Maybe some politicians are afraid that Gaydamak will get elected," Ben-Bibi adds. "I'll certainly vote for him." In a televised interview after the Maccabi Tel Aviv game, Gaydamak said he "wants Betar to be a source of pride for Jews around the world." Cohen agrees. "Betar is already a symbol. They can change the image of the city. Everyone will know Jerusalem and people will come here to see the games, just like they travel to Real Madrid or Manchester United." Mellor agrees that Gaydamak has a strong plan and believes he'll implement it. "It may seem like too much too soon, but we don't know how he will operate," he says. "His operation looks a bit exaggerated, and Mr. Gaydamak seems mad for exposure. But putting all this money into the club can only be good for Israeli football." Gaydamak has already promised to provide the necessary cash for Fernandez and Caanen to bring international class players to Jerusalem when the transfer window opens in January. "Suddenly players are realizing they are not going to a team that nobody knows. Betar is now one of the teams people are talking about in Europe. Maybe it will now be seen as a big honor and big opportunity for players to come and play at Betar. That's what I created," Gaydamak boasts. This weekend the talk is all about Lens captain Jerome Leroy who is expected to move to Jerusalem from the French side very soon. And in recent weeks the name of former France and Israel captain Marcel Desailly has also been bandied about. But Gaydamak intends to invest in more than the players. Plans are already being drawn up for a state of the art training complex to be built in the Armon Hanatziv neighborhood and including a hotel, a specially catered restaurant and gym facilities - all of which will be a vast improvement over the current facilities in Bayit Vegan. The fact that he recently appointed Vladimir Shklar as Chairman of Betar Jerusalem could be a strategic step in this direction. Shklar is head of the municipal Sports Authority and considered to be close to Ariel and Omri Sharon and to their newly-formed Kadima party. And Gaydamak is also looking to the future by investing in the club's strong youth department. One trainer, who works with Betar's school children, speaks with excitement about the impact Gaydamak's money has already had. "He has brought a new professionalism to the club. Not just in the first team but in the younger sides as well. I believe we can develop a strong youth system like in Europe and help make Betar a top team," the coach says. Whatever happens in the future, whichever players come in January, much of Jerusalem is waiting to see how far Betar Jerusalem can go.