The Last Word: Can Guma make Jerusalem the sporting capital?

American businessman speaks at length with the Post about his hopes for the future of the city.

jeremy last better pic (photo credit: Courtesy)
jeremy last better pic
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The revelation this week that American businessman Guma Aguiar is deep in negotiations over the purchase of Hapoel Jerusalem Basketball Club sent shock waves through the Israeli sports world. Aguiar has already funneled some $4 million into Betar Jerusalem soccer club to save it from bankruptcy, and made it clear that he plans to buy the team from Arkadi Gaydamak as soon as possible. A number of media analysts have therefore voiced concerns over the Brazilian-born energy magnate's monopolization of sports in the capital - soccer and basketball are the only two sports which attract any significant interest. It is only a couple of years since Gaydamak, who still officially owns Betar, attempted to take control over Hapoel, another club now deep in financial trouble. When the Russian allegedly began telling people that he planned to change the team into Betar Jerusalem basketball club, complete with yellow and black uniforms, Hapoel chairman Danny Klein was suitably unimpressed and rebuffed the offer. Luckily for Klein, Aguiar has no such ideas. The 32-year-old is quite clearly enamored with Jerusalem and is doing his utmost to use his sizable wealth to help the city as much as he can. As a sports buff he has decided that the best place to place his cash is in Betar and Hapoel, and who are we to argue? On Wednesday, Aguiar spoke at length with The Last Word about his hopes for the future of the city. "Sports brings more people to Jerusalem," he said. "The athletes are the best ambassadors to Israel to the world. If you take a team to London or Barcelona it makes a big impact." Aguiar is right. If he goes about the two ventures in the right way, he could eventually build up both teams as strong players on the European scene and show off some of the most positive sides of Israeli culture. In each project he has managed to identify that the individuals in charge are still the right people to look after affairs at the clubs. Rather than rushing in and changing the management system at Betar, Aguiar has allowed Itzik Kornfein to continue as chairman and has said he sees no reason for Klein not to carry on in his position. He has also illustrated a mature business attitude, both through the extensive due diligence process he put in place to look into the financial background of both organizations, and in the way he has been clear in his plan to be involved with the clubs for a number of years. One of the big questions that has been asked about the future of Hapoel is the planned construction of a new arena next to Teddy Stadium. Proposals have been launched time and again but building work has never begun. In his conversation with us this week, Aguiar did his best to put Hapoel fans' minds at rest, saying the arena "is part of the whole deal." "In the next two years there's going to be a brand new arena," he stated. But, as usual, Aguiar is looking at the investment as just that. "There's potential for this to be a successful investment, not just a donation. That way it's a win-win. Whatever [financial] success I achieve I'll pour it into the team," he said. Aguiar revealed that he has been targeted by representatives of almost all the pro sports teams in America looking for him to invest in their clubs, but said he "was not interested." "I thought, I know and love those teams but I love Jerusalem so I want to build from the bottom up," he explained. Aguiar is far from the first wealthy businessman to own two major sports clubs in one city. In Texas, Tom Hicks owns both the Dallas Stars NHL team as well as the Texas Rangers MLB club, while in Detroit, Mike Ilitch is the owner of both the 2008 NHL champion Red Wings and the MLB's Tigers. If Guma keeps to his word and continues to support both Betar and Hapoel, slowly but surely the capital city will also become the sporting capital.