Sports Comment: Unsporting spectators

Are racially based taunts simply part and parcel of soccer culture, or do they reflect deeper rifts in our society?

beitar jerusalem 88 (photo credit: )
beitar jerusalem 88
(photo credit: )
The crowd at Teddy Stadium barely had time to stoke the flames of its anger before Bnei Sakhnin's Maor Buzaglo struck a precise half volley past Betar Jerusalem's goalie to put the Arab side 1-0 up in an end-of-season league tie last month. Fans of Betar, Israeli soccer's current league champions, had greeted the Bnei Sakhnin players with jeers as they entered the pitch, rekindling an old rivalry. Since the Premier League title had already returned to the capital for another season, the soccer was reduced to a role of secondary importance. Instead, the rallying cry is group hatred. And filling the role of the enemy - the only group for whom Betar fans reserve more hatred for than for Hapoalim fans - was Bnei Sakhnin. To make matters worse, the opposition's ranks included Buzaglo - a "traitor," a Jew who dares to play for a club of "mehablim" (terrorists). As Buzaglo spun away from the goal, celebrating his seventh-minute strike, the sea of yellow and black above him erupted into whistling and struck up a chant that cast aspersions on his mother's past. The young striker, who is on a season-long loan to Bnei Sakhnin from Maccabi Haifa, has shown great composure in his break-out season, and dealt with the abuse by putting his hand to his ear and sticking up his fingers to make his shirt number, 11. Meanwhile, the Betar line-up struggled to get back into the game, coming closest when Yoav Ziv skipped past several defenders before chipping the goalie in the 12th minute. But on the whole, the home side gave its supporters little to shout about. One fan only came to life when word spread that Buzaglo's father was watching the game from the VIP area. A chant of "Die, Buzaglo, die" started up and, as if stirred from a deep dream, the man marched to the edge of the enclosure and proceeded to shout at the top of his voice, angrily stabbing his finger towards Buzaglo's dad.. During halftime some Betar fans shared their views on Bnei Sakhnin. "We hate the Arabs so much," said Lior, a life-long Betar fan, adding that Bnei Sakhnin and other Arab teams should not be allowed to play in a Jewish league. Justifying his position, he explained that "when we go to watch a game in Sakhnin, they say that the Holocaust never happened." "It is in my nature to hate Arabs," said another teenager, a grin on his face. "I hate the way they eat and how they walk." But a boy no older than 10 declared that he liked Buzaglo. When it was pointed out that he'd been calling the player a "son of a bitch" for half an hour, he replied: "That's because he plays with the Arabs. If he plays for us, I'll like him." The other fans agreed that Buzaglo could still redeem himself by moving to a Jewish club, preferably theirs. Jerusalem's soccer club, which enjoys a reputation for being right-wing, reflects a certain political ideology, and has never signed an Arab player. So when Betar and Bnei Sakhnin meet, there is usually trouble. Earlier this season, Betar was punished by the IFA after its fans chanted slurs against the Prophet Muhammad. The incident followed riots at a game in Sakhnin last year at which Bnei Sakhnin fans pelted Betar supporters with stones. The Galilee club boasts a more diverse fan base than Betar. Bnei Sakhnin has a few hundred Jewish fans from neighboring kibbutzim, and a couple had made the trip down to Jerusalem. Itzhak, a middle-aged and rather quiet spectator from the village of Tuval, explained the situation. "The Sakhnin fans also shout things like 'we hate Jews,'" he said. He described the behavior of fans of Betar and other Jewish teams as racist, but added that the same did not apply to Bnei Sakhnin. "Racism is when you think you're better than another race," he says. "Being a minority in Israel, [Bnei Sakhnin's chants] aren't racist, because the Arabs are afraid [of the Jews]." When Jews come to their town or play in their team, Itzhak said, the Arabs are warm and friendly to them. "There are laws that say you are not allowed to shout racist chants in stadiums, and you can go to jail if you do, but the police never enforce them," he lamented. Itzhak has taken it upon himself to try and dissuade the Bnei Sakhnin fans from being aggressive. His efforts are mostly well-received. As the second half progressed, Betar came back into the game when Toto Tamuz scored in the 65th. The Bnei Sakhnin fans became more subdued and the home support was jumping around in delight. Betar's happiness was to be short-lived, though. Buzaglo was at the fore once again in the 78th, sprinting down the wing before setting up Bogdan Apostu for the winning goal. The away fans hugged each other in elation and shouted "Allah hu Akbar [God is great]!" "Jerusalem is an Islamic city," one explained, perhaps irrelevantly. The police closed in as the Bnei Sakhnin fans shouted slurs towards the Betar section, and Itzhak was playing intermediary. But all the hostility clearly had little effect on Buzaglo, who showed remarkable professionalism for someone so young. This came across not only in his performance on the pitch, but also his performance off it. When asked what he thought of how the Betar fans had treated him, he at first avoided the question, replying "I think we played a very good game and I took my goal very well." When told that despite all the chants, one young fan still wanted him to play for Betar, he laughed and said, "I like their fans." "The sky is the limit," he said of a possible move to the champions. What does all the hatred mean? Does it signal a pervasive racism, or is it merely a show of the machismo that is part and parcel of soccer culture? According to Pierre Clochhendler, who directed the film We Too Have No Other Land about Bnei Sakhnin, which was aired on Channel 1 last year, racism in soccer should not be treated as an issue separate from politics. Clochhendler defends Bnei Sakhnin, saying its fans only throw back Betar's insults in jest. Whereas Betar's fans, he said, represent racism that is prevalent in Jewish Israeli society. Complaining that nothing is done to stem the problem, the filmmaker argued that "if there was education against racism, starting in football, it would have an effect on society as a whole, because football has a high profile." In the view of this reporter, we should be cautious about deriving any clear-cut conclusions from the actions of fans at a soccer match. While some Betar fans were full of rage at Buzaglo, for many he was only a means of attacking the opposition. Similarly vicious abuse is hurled at matches between two Jewish sides, as well. But, as Clochhendler says, racism contaminates all the spectators, whether they join in or not. Part of the enjoyment of soccer is in the divisiveness it creates between rivals. But stadiums also provide people with anonymity, allowing them to vent their true feelings - and these can have a profoundly negative impact on the young audience around them.