Fighting Soccer’s Barbarians
My beloved Beitar Jerusalem has some racist fans. Instead of abandoning the team, we should take it back.
This was more than Gaydamak was willing to take. Drawing on his extensive business connections in the former Soviet republics, he reached out to Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of Chechnya. Kadyrov is known both for his alleged involvement in human rights abuses and for his lavish lifestyle; in 2011, he celebrated his 35th birthday by flying in a bevy of Western celebrities, including action star Jean-Claude Van Damme and actress Hillary Swank. He is also the former president of Terek Grozny, the republic’s premiere soccer team. Gaydamak needed help: La Familia, he knew, would block any attempt to recruit an Israeli-Arab player, but a Chechen Muslim baller might pass, buying Beitar some desperately needed good will. Kadyrov’s proposed prospects were far from stellar, a 19-year-old defender with little experience, and a striker with a middling record. But if signed, they would set a precedent. Gaydamak returned from Grozny and announced the deal.
La Familia’s response was prompt. In last week’s game against Bnei Yehuda, the group took its usual place in the eastern terrace of Beitar’s stadium by giddily chanting, “We’re the country’s most racist team,” and then launched into a barrage of songs, most of which dealt with killing Arabs. As the match was reaching its peak, they unveiled an enormous homemade banner that read “Beitar will forever remain pure.” Their antics cost the team a $10,000 fine. In an effort to quell the conflict, Beitar’s coach, Eli Cohen, tried his hand at a bit of commentary. “We have no problem with Muslims,” he told the Israeli press. “We have a problem with Arabs. There’s a difference between a European Muslim and Muslims from the Middle East.” Needless to say, the statement did little to help the team appear more enlightened.
And while this week’s game against Umm al-Fahm, thanks mainly to massive security, proceeded without incident, some of Beitar’s most prominent fans, disgusted with La Familia’s antics, are publicly disavowing the team. Olmert, for example, wrote a widely discussed op-ed on Wednesday, announcing the he will no longer attend Beitar’s games until La Familia is stamped out. “If we do not remove these racists from our stadium and disconnect them from the team,” Olmert wrote, “we will be just like them. I will not be attending Beitar games until they are removed. I am sick and tired of being affiliated with the dark vulgarity of people who will never be a part of what Beitar is supposed to symbolize in sports and in Israeli society.”
I applaud Olmert’s sentiment but cannot bring myself to boycott Beitar. The thing is, I love that team, love it in an uncomplicated way, love it despite of its athletic shortcomings and its moral failings. I learned to love soccer on the eastern terrace, in the 1990s, and a big part of the attraction was the wild energy—then not nearly as odious as it is today—of the team’s most dedicated fans. And being a fan of Beitar also taught me that Frank Foer was right when he observed soccer’s canny capacity to preserve and cultivate nationalist pride while reining in actual tribal violence. As much as the goons of La Familia are injurious to my sensibilities, I am relieved to see that beyond the sporadic outburst here and there, the group has failed to join forces with any of the like-minded—and truly violent—radical right-wing organizations working in Israel today, such as the Kach movement or fringe settler groups like the hilltop youth. Instead, La Familia invests all of its considerable resources—manpower, cash, enthusiasm—in Beitar. And while their behavior is offensive, it is, taken in perspective, without much consequence.
Rather than abandon the team and leave it with few fans but the fanatics, I hope to see more diehard Beitar followers pack its stadium and counter La Familia’s viciousness with humor and creativity. For every violent call to genocide they compose, let’s write wittier, peaceful ditties. True, there’s not much that rhymes with “Muslim” or with “Chechnya,” but we shall overcome. And rather than exhaust itself in endless war against La Familia, Beitar should find better ways to attract new fans. It should not focus on what it’s not—not racist, not hateful, not violent—but on what it is. And what it is, what it has always been, and what I deeply believe it will always remain, is a fine, fine soccer team.
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