Soccer: Vandals set fire to IFA offices

Vandals apparently connected with Betar Jerusalem smash windows of Israel Football Association's offices and set reception area on fire.

betar fans 88.298 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger [file])
betar fans 88.298
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger [file])
Israeli soccer was plunged into a new crisis on Wednesday, when it was discovered that during the early hours of the morning vandals, apparently connected with Betar Jerusalem soccer club, had smashed the windows of the Israel Football Association's offices and set the reception area on fire. The perpetrators also daubed graffiti on the walls of the IFA offices, which are located at the National Stadium in Ramat Gan, with messages for Avi Luzon, chairman of the IFA, saying "Avi Luzon should die" and "We will kill you." The intruders identified themselves by smearing "Betar Jerusalem", the symbol of a menorah and the initials "L.F." across the walls. "L.F." is known to stand for "La Familia," the Betar Jerusalem supporters association, which is quickly gaining a reputation for extremism and violence. Later on Wednesday, Israeli sports Web site reported that leaders of "La Familia" had denied any involvement in the incident. Fire crews managed to put out the flames early on, thus avoiding large scale damage. But the walls of the reception area were clearly blackened by the smoke and, among other things, plant pots were destroyed. There has been a massive escalation in tension between Betar and the IFA in recent weeks after the soccer association decided to punish the club for curses chanted by Betar fans, slurring the Prophet Muhammed, directed at supporters of Arab team Bnei Sakhnin during the Toto Cup semifinals in December. The IFA forced the club to play last Saturday's Israeli Premier League game against Sakhnin behind closed doors, a match which Sakhnin went on to win 1-0. Betar president Arkadi Gaydamak reacted angrily to the punishment, claiming that the IFA was an "embarrassment" and accused them of being responsible for provoking the fans. On Monday, however, Gaydamak released a letter written directly to the fans saying Jews and Arabs should live together in Israel in peace and that any battles should be constrained to the soccer pitch. On Wednesday Gaydamak reacted to the intrusion by holding a press conference in Tel Aviv in which he threatened to quit the club if the violence continues. "I do not know what happened tonight in the premises of the Israel Football Association [or] by whom it was done," said Gaydamak. "But if it continues... and if it is discovered that they were Betar supporters, because their actions were very, very grave, I will be obliged to stop my activity as owner of Betar football club and... also stop providing financial support to Betar... because in our country this kind of action can have very serious consequences." "I ask all Betar fans to stop expressing slogans cursing the IFA," he said. "Those fans who express their protests in an aggressive manner should realize the seriousness of their actions. [They] are withdrawing their right to be part of Betar Jerusalem Football Club and we do not want their financial support. I condemn all the violent acts that were perpetrated." The Russian billionaire also repeated his blame of the IFA, saying "they use their position to create some kind of moral and political authority." The police have now launched an investigation into the vandalism, and a special investigative team has been set up to deal with the incident. Israel Police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld said: "We believe the motive behind the fire was arson, in that those responsible intended to set the reception area on fire. An investigation has been launched and as yet no suspects have been arrested." The incident was immediately condemned by Betar chairman Eli Arazi and spokesman Oded Zargari. In a statement released by the club, Arazi said: "I and the Betar management condemn these acts in the strongest terms and we will do our best to ensure that these people will not continue to be part of the club. We will do everything we can to help the police to find the people who did this. These are the people who give Betar a bad name. We do not accept any type of violence in connection with sport. We do not find these acts at all acceptable." Arazi himself has also been a vocal critic of the IFA, most recently on Wednesday last week, when Betar's appeal against the IFA's decision to punish the club was rejected. Arazi was seen shouting at the IFA judges in the court. The IFA, meanwhile, set up an impromptu press conference at its offices on Wednesday morning to address the issue. The CEO Uri Shilo called the incident an act of "barbarism." The vandalism was perpetrated on the same day that a FIFA representative was due to arrive in the country for a three-day visit.