A section of supporters of Israeli club Beitar Jerusalem have reacted angrily to the purchase of the team by a member of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, who now owns 50 percent of the club.
Beitar Jerusalem remain the only major Israeli team to have never fielded an Arab player in their history but the club, who have some fans known to echo chants of “Death to Arabs” from the stands, are now grappling with the news that the team is now part-owned by an Arab sheikh – something that would have seemed an impossibility in years gone by but became a reality earlier this month.
“The deal has turned many fans against the club,” supporter Moar Ifrach told the Guardian. “The reputation for racism did not come from nowhere.”
Ifrach added that he supports the deal and hopes the cash injection could have a similar impact on the Israeli side as newfound wealth had on Manchester City several years ago.
Al Nahyan has committed to investing around £70 million into the club in the next decade and spoken of being overjoyed to invest in a club in “one of the holiest cities in the world“.
The feeling wasn’t necessarily mutual. Shortly after the purchase was announced, members of the team’s radical ‘La Familia’ supporters’ group were accused of spray-painting anti-Arab slogans in and around the training ground. Police, some of whom were working undercover, said that four arrests had been made.
The deal came amid a normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates after both agreed to establish formal ties in September.
Moni Barush, Beitar’s CEO, said that the deal was an example of the correct way to “spread peace” while Moshe Hogeg, an Israeli cryptocurrency magnate who also part-owns the club, said that his partnership with Al Nahyan would “show the world that Jews and Muslims can do beautiful things together and inspire the young generation.”
It remains to be seen if fringe elements of Beitar Jerusalem can be convinced. In 2004, a Nigerian Muslim player quit the team over abuse he received from fans.
Several years later, fans set the team’s club offices on fire after the signing of two Chechen Muslims.
However, amid the racial acrimony which observers see as ingrained within the club, some see this development as crucial for the club to remove itself from the dark ages.
Effi Gorodetzer, a Beitar supporter who has fought against the racial overtones some of its fringe fans espouse, said that the new ownership might finally alter the Beitar DNA.
“We still don’t have an Arab player, but I think that changes take time,” she said.
“It is so rooted, almost as if it’s a part of the DNA of the club. Karma plays out in a very interesting way.”