Guma Aguiar: The man who would save Betar

Exclusive: 31-year-old Jewish millionaire hopes to buy J'lem club "because of the fans and the pedigree."

Aguiar 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy of Yossi Zeliger )
Aguiar 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy of Yossi Zeliger )
As Guma Aguiar puts it himself, he could use his great wealth to buy "some paintings or a nice house in New York." But the millionaire Brazilian-born, US-raised, Jewish oil and gas magnate has loftier goals in mind. In recent years he has invested heavily in property in Jerusalem, donated $8 million to Nefesh B'Nefesh and given $500,000 to the March of the Living. So you can be sure he means it when he says he wants to buy Israeli Premier League soccer team Betar Jerusalem in order to "give something back to the community." Since last week his lawyers and accountants have been pouring over the club's books to determine the viability of the deal, and this week Aguiar spoke exclusively to The Jerusalem Post about his motivation for wanting to take over the team from Arkadi Gaydamak, the Russian-born businessman who is expected to end his funding of the club at the end of May, leaving it in a precarious financial situation. "When Gaydamak came in people asked 'what's this guy's agenda?' "I don't have one. Thankfully I'm not looking to run for politics. I don't need this for my ego," he told the Post in a telephone interview from the US on Wednesday. "My dream was to be a professional soccer player and I never got to do that, so this is the second best thing I can do - to try and promote the team." Aguiar made most of his money when in 2003 the company he runs, Leor Energy, discovered the largest source of natural gas in North America in decades, a few hours' drive from Houston. A year later he made another discovery. Even though he knew his mother was Jewish, Aguiar had been brought-up a Christian and it wasn't until he met Rabbi Tovia Singer of the Outreach Judaism organization that he began getting in touch with his Jewish roots. Since then the 31-year-old father of three has dedicated himself to using much of his money to further Jewish causes, especially aliya and supporting Jerusalem. Betar is the latest in a long list of projects he is interested in backing and he would like to use it to help youngsters in Jerusalem. "I could buy some paintings or buy a nice house in New York with the money I have made or I could do something which could really affect a lot of people's lives and get people off the streets and into athletics," he said. When Aguiar began thinking about buying the team earlier this month he was put in contact with former Betar player and current Channel 1 soccer presenter Danny Neuman, who then introduced him to Betar chairman Itzik Kornfein. A series of meetings were held last week when Kornfein and Aguiar met with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, both together and separately, to discuss the future of Betar. The self-confessed soccer fanatic played the game from the age of two until 16 when he was injured and turned to tennis - through which he received a scholarship to Clemson University. But despite not playing for many years he still believes he is a top player. "I think within 45 days of training I could physically play on the team and I told Itzik Kornfein I'll get the ball past him from the penalty spot within 30 days." According to Bobby Brown, one of Aguiar's advisers in Jerusalem who has been working closely with the accountants and lawyers involved, the deal could be done "within a brief period of time." "At this point his people and the people they have hired are doing due diligence. They want to understand the finances and potential costs and future debts. Betar will have to be in a situation where it can function in a similar financial fashion to other soccer teams in Israel," Brown said on Thursday. Aguiar, who is due to return to Israel from the US over the weekend, and in a sign of his rising status has been personally invited by Shimon Peres to attend the president's meeting with Pope Benedict XVI on Monday, said he is ready to commit to taking over at Betar if he is welcomed by the local supporters. "The decision [over whether I will buy Betar] comes down to the fans, number one. If the fans don't want it then I'm not interested," Aguiar said. "If the players are willing to be reasonable about what their compensation should be and if the city, i.e. Nir Barkat, is willing to provide us with proper facilities and it's a positive thing for society, I don't think there's any impediment to the deal going through. "It depends which players want to stay, which want to go and which are willing to renegotiate their contracts." Gaydamak has been out of Israel and hardly been heard of since December but Aguiar's representatives have been dealing directly with the club. "I don't have to deal with Gaydamak. I think Kornfein has the authority. He [Gaydamak] has signed a document saying he's done with the organization [after May 31]. Danny Neuman has been appointed to represent the team if it goes into bankruptcy," he said. "I don't know how serious he [Gaydamak] is, but I am. I have the wheels in motion but cannot deliver on it unless I get another signature," he said. Aguiar was somewhat critical of Gaydamak's reign at Betar, saying, "I think he was using it for the wrong reasons. It was like he came in and was looking to see 'what can I do to be the king of Jerusalem,'" Aguiar said. "I think he figured this [buying Betar] is it, came and paid an enormous amount of money and Israelis saw through it. "It was never run in the past the way Gaydamak has run it and quite frankly some of the older folk really resent the fact it's been run like this." Aguiar has lived in Jerusalem for most of the past year but has only attended one Betar game. "I wasn't really into the team while Gaydamak owned it. There were issues and I didn't know how long it would be around. I wasn't interested. But I know the raw talent of it is amazing," he said. However, he wished Gaydamak well, saying: "I hope things work out and they should if I'm able to buy the team. I think he will know its in the hands of someone who would really want to see it be successful." This week UEFA informed the IFA that Betar will not be allowed to play in European competition as the club has not been able to provide the financial guarantees required. It was given 10 days to appeal, after which the team will not play in the UEFA Cup even if it qualifies through its league position or by winning the State Cup. This is therefore one of the motivations for Aguiar to see the deal completed sooner rather than later, but he said he is not going to allow it to rush him. "If we are unable to get the deal done within 10 days I wouldn't be surprised if UEFA officials gave us an extension, especially if we formally requested one. There's plenty of time. "I think it's to their advantage to have a team like Jerusalem to play," he said. But Aguiar was quick to stress that he is not going to make any final decision until he has met with his advisers. "This is a priceless opportunity. However, Jerusalem is filled with priceless opportunities so if it doesn't work it doesn't work," he said. Gaydamak took over the club in 2005 and managed to bring massive domestic success, with the team winning the league title in 2007 and then the double in 2008. However, the Russian-born Israeli was unable to create a team which had success in European competition and this is one of Aguiar's goals. "If I take over the club I would not want the fans to expect the team to win the UEFA Cup next year. Let's not put that pressure on me. But I promise to build towards that. That would be pretty cool," he said. "From day one I want to commission a massive trophy cabinet made of Israeli olive wood that will hold the trophies we're going to win. It might not happen this year but I've got time, I'm not going anywhere soon." And he has already begun looking toward the future of the team. "I currently have scouts in Brazil who are looking for players aged 17 and under. If the team is to go forward I would like to bring a few Brazilians [to Betar Jerusalem] and work for the future," he said. Just as Gaydamak did four years ago, Aguiar spoke about his aim of turning Betar into the team of Jewish people worldwide. He also expressed concern about the lack of support for the team among Anglo-Israelis and said he understands there is an image problem for Betar. This week the Israel Football Association confirmed that the club will have a point docked from its league total as a punishment for anti-Arab chants sung by Betar fans at a match in Petah Tikva last month. Aguiar said he identifies with the fans but deplores a tendency by some to racist chants. He also said he would not put up with fans whose actions cause the club to be fined or punished in other ways and has even thought of playing loud music over the controversial chants to drown them out. "If we can get the fans to control themselves I think a lot more people will be a lot more for the team," he said. "I'm not going to be inconsistent with their views but I don't want to get fined for the fans. They need to commit to me or I'm going to get upset. "There's nothing that they're going to do that's going to surprise me. I'm very open minded," he said, before adding that he hopes he can introduce "a bigger chant that everyone can agree with." However, Aguiar is reluctant to challenge the one issue which has turned many supporters away from Betar - that the club has never employed an Arab player. "It's all about talent. Unless the entire team agrees that this guy belongs on the team and every single person would think he will be a huge success. I am not going to contract an Arab player just to be politically correct. He's got to be better than the Brazilians," he said. "I'm not a crazy fanatic who doesn't have experience with outsiders. I don't have a problem with Muslims but if we find an Arab who is the new Pele then we would take a really hard look at things. I don't think there's [currently] an Arab who belongs on the team." Despite the concerns over their conduct, it is the passion of the Betar Jerusalem fans which Aguiar said really excites him. "If someone calls me and asks me, 'Do you want Haifa, Netanya or Beersheba?' I'm not interested. The only thing I'm interested in is Betar Jerusalem because of the fans and the pedigree."