Hope for soccer

About the politics of the popular sport.

Soccer ball (illustrative) (photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
Soccer ball (illustrative)
(photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
Racism and violence have long been a staple of the Israeli soccer scene. In 2008, for example, Beitar Jerusalem, one of the leading teams of the Israeli Premier League, was banned from allowing fans to attend a game against Bnei Sakhnin, an Arab club. The ban was imposed after Jerusalem supporters chanted insults against the prophet Muhammad during a semifinal match Sakhnin played against Bnei Yehuda.
In 2014, after a goalless draw between Bnei Sakhnin and Beitar Jerusalem, violent clashes erupted between fans of both teams. Stones were thrown, clashes broke out, and police had to escort Sakhnin players out of the stadium so they wouldn’t be harmed.
As the violence continued to escalate, the police began to take more serious action. Their primary target was La Familia, a Beitar Jerusalem fan club, which gained notoriety for racist chants and recurring violence. In October 2015, three suspects allegedly linked to La Familia were arrested in connection to a violent attack on a Hapoel Tel Aviv fan, who was hit in the head with a hammer and seriously wounded.
Having such a fan club has come at a price for Beitar which has faced disciplinary action on numerous occasions, fines, point deductions, and has had to play a number of matches behind closed doors for offenses including the use of flares, pitch invasions and racist chanting.
When one of the team’s former owners signed two Muslim players from Chechnya, their lives were made miserable and as a result, their time with the team was short-lived.
This is not the way sporting matches are meant to be held.
That is why we were happy to see a meeting on Thursday hosted by President Reuven Rivlin between Beitar’s new owner Moshe Hogeg – who declared when buying the club a few months ago that race and religion would not be a factor in who could play – with Bnei Sakhnin chairman Muhammed Abu Yunis.
Yunis had spoken to Hogeg and suggested they jointly work to rescind a Premier League ban on crowds at matches between the two teams. Abu Yunis, The Jerusalem Post’s Greer Fay Cashman reported on Friday, argued that football is a spectator sport, and without spectators, especially die-hard fans, the game loses its spirit.
On Monday, the two teams will meet for the first time in years in front of a crowd. The game will be held at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem and will be a test for fans of both teams and their ability to remain civil throughout and after the match.
At their meeting, Rivlin, Hogeg and Abu Yunis spoke about the need to eradicate violence and racism from sport, and to promote tolerance and equality.
“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,” Abu Yunis said. “It’s only a football game. It’s not a matter of life and death.”
Politics are not meant to play a role on the basketball court, the soccer pitch, or the football field. Players are, of course, entitled to political opinions and to express them like some NFL players have recently by bending down on one knee during the playing of the national anthem at the start of their games. But there must be a limit. Sports are meant to bring people closer, not draw them apart.
If Monday’s game passes peacefully, as we hope, it would be a much-needed example for how different people can get along in Israel. Too often it seems that these pages are filled with stories of increasing polarization and rejection of the “other”. Interaction between Jews and Arabs in Israel is anyhow limited, and sports is one of the few places where people of different backgrounds and religions have an opportunity to meet and get along.
We will be cheering on Monday for both Bnei Sakhnin and Beitar Jerusalem. The winner won’t be decided by the number of goals. If the game passes quietly and peacefully, both teams – and especially their fans – will all be winners.