Middle East

UAE sheikh buys stake in controversial Israeli soccer club

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s Beitar Jerusalem soccer club, which has gained notoriety for its racist fans and refusal to have an Arab player on its roster, announced on Monday that an Emirati sheikh has purchased a 50 percent stake in the team.

The team said that Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, a member of the Abu Dhabi ruling family, has pledged to invest 300 million shekels, or about $90 million, into the club over the next decade.

The announcement, following Israel’s historic agreement to establish diplomatic ties with the United Arab Emirates earlier this year, upended one of Israeli soccer’s most infamous and controversial traditions.

Beitar, loosely linked to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, is one of the country’s most storied franchises, winning 13 trophies and counting Israeli presidents and prime ministers among its fans. But in recent years it has drawn attention for being the only major club never to have an Arab player. Israel’s Arab minority makes up roughly 20% of the population, and Arab players star on rival teams and the country’s national squad.

Club officials have in the past said their hands were tied by a hardcore base of fans who wield significant clout over personnel decisions. A small group of fans, known as La Familia, have been known to whoop like monkeys when an opposing team’s player from Africa would touch the ball and chant “death to Arabs” toward opposing Arab players.

That could now begin to change.

In a statement, team owner Moshe Hogeg said the deal, coming on the even of the Hanukkah holiday, symbolized a “new and exciting light.”

“Together, we all march the club to new days of coexistence, achievements and brotherhood for the sake of our club, community and Israeli sports,” he said.

Al Nahyan said he was thrilled to be a partner in a “glorious club that I have heard so much of.”

“I have heard a lot about the change taking place in the club and the way things are going, and I am happy to take part in that,” he said.

He also referred to Jerusalem as “the capital of Israel,” taking sides with Israel and the Trump administration in one of the most incendiary issues in in Middle East politics.

The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as their capital. The international community overwhelmingly accepts this view and says the city’s fate must be resolved through negotiations, and few nations, including the UAE, have joined the U.S. in recognizing the city as Israel’s capital.

The team said that Al Nahyan’s investment would be used to invest in team infrastructure, its youth program and acquiring players. Al Nahyan’s son, Mohamed bin Hamad bin Khalifa, will sit on the team’s board of directors.

The statement did not say whether the team finally plans on adding Arab players to its roster, though Hogeg has signaled that is his plan.

“From the day Moshe Hogeg joined the team he said that religion is not an issue at Beitar,” the team said.

Under previous ownership, the team brought in two Muslim players from Chechnya in 2013 — a decision that bitterly divided the fan base. Days later, the team’s offices were set on fire, and two members of La Familia were later charged with arson.

Currently, the team has a Nigerian player named Ali Mohamed who has Muslim lineage, according to the team. It also says it has Arab players on its youth and women’s teams.

As the UAE deal came to light in recent weeks, the club has come under criticism on social media from some of the more radical fans for seeking out Al Nahyan as a partner.

In an apparent response to the criticism, Hogeg wrote in an Instagram post last week: “Racism is a desecration of God’s name, we will do what is good for the club, not for the media and the racists, for the club.”

Since Israel and the United Arab Emirates agreed in August to establish full diplomatic relations, there has been a flurry of business activity.

Monday’s deal was brokered by Jewish-Emirati businessman Naum Koen, chairman of the NY Koen Group.

“This is a very exciting moment,” he said. “This deal is going to promote Beitar Jerusalem in the European arena, making it a club that will compete with the best teams in the world.”

In this Tuesday, January 29, 2013 photo Beitar Jerusalem F.C. soccer supporters watch a State Cup soccer match against Maccabi Umm al-Fahm F.C. in Jerusalem (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue).

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