A member of the Abu Dhabi royal family will invest over $92 million in a football club historically linked to the Israeli far-right with a notoriously anti-Arab fanbase.

Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Nahyan, member of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family, has purchased about a 50 percent stake in Israeli Premier League football club Beitar Jerusalem, a team notorious for its racist fanbase.

In an announcement posted on Beitar's website on Monday, Sheikh Hamad's purchase also includes a commitment to invest more than 300 million shekels ($92.18 million) in the club over 10 years.

The agreement was finalised shortly after the club’s owner Moshe Hogeg travelled to Dubai last Thursday along with the club’s CEO Moni Brosh and chairman Eli Ohana to meet with the Emirati royal for negotiations.

The deal was reportedly brokered by Naum Koen, an Israeli businessman based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) who heads the holding company NY Koen Group.

Negotiations had begun as early as September, only days before the UAE, Bahrain and Israel signed their normalisation agreements.

UAE ownership in an Israeli football club marks the most significant deal signed between Israeli and Emirati parties to date.

What might raise eyebrows about the deal isn’t necessarily the business aspect of it – Gulf royals have bought stakes in a number of football teams over the years – but the team and its chequered history of racism.

‘Beitar Forever Pure’

In an interview with CNN, Hogeg hinted the motivation behind the partnership was the idea of owning a team in Jerusalem.

“It is the holiest place in the world, not only for Jewish [people] but also for Muslims and Christians and he [Hamad bin Khalifa al Nahyan] heard about the club fighting racism and we want to be part of that.”

While Hogeg, who bought the team two years ago, contends the club is “fighting racism,” the black cloud that hangs over the club – past and present – paints an ugly picture.

The idea of an Arab holding a stake in a club long known for its rabid anti-Arab and anti-Muslim supporters, would be an irony lost on no one.

Fans have openly embraced its notoriety by chanting the slogan “Here we are, the most racist team in the country!” at games. Off the pitch, the club has a vocal group of ultra-fans dubbed ‘La Familia,’ who are proud of the fact that Beitar is the only team in the Israeli Premier League that has never signed an Arab player.

In 2004 the club signed Nigerian defender Ibrahim Ndala from Maccabi Tel Aviv, who was forced to leave after just five games because of the torrent of abuse he received from fans.

In 2007, during a Toto Cup semi-final against Bnei Sakhnin, the most successful Israeli-Arab club in the country, Beitar fans chanted provocative songs insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

During the 2012-13 season in a surprise move, for the first time in the team’s history two Muslim players from Chechnya, striker Zaur Sadayev and defender Dzhabrail Kadiyev, were signed.

The transfer ignited a virulently hateful campaign as the two players were frequently abused at the team’s training sessions, and anti-Arab songs were directed at them despite the fact that neither of them was Arab.

When Sadayev scored his first goal for the club at their home ground, thousands at Teddy stadium walked out in protest. Some fans brazenly flew fascistic banners like “Beitar Forever Pure”, even with Israeli politicians and the club’s ownership in attendance.

Keeping with genocidal overtures, “Death to Arabs!” and “May your village be burned!” are some of the notable slogans that have been chanted in games by Beitar fans. “WAR!” is another popular mantra.

It’s hardly surprising then that some of Beitar’s faithful would not take kindly to the idea of their team having Arab ownership.

La Familia’s reaction on Facebook to news of potential UAE investment was hardly positive:

“Money will blind the smart people and slant the sayings of the wise. We want to remind everyone that Jerusalem is the city holy to the Jews and we are the only team in the world that has the holy symbol of our nation on our shirt.”

Yet a healthy dose of pragmatism might warm some over the deal.

According to Sports Walla, Beitar fans have endured over a decade of poor results, and the club’s management and financial structure need a major revamp, or it could spell trouble in the future.

Far-right links

Beitar was established in 1936 as part of the national Israeli movement, and what sets it apart from other Israeli clubs is how its ideology and politics remain an essential part of its DNA.

Beitar fans are often identified with the radical rightwing Revisionist Movement and its successor parties like the Likud Party. Likud leader and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is known to be a very vocal supporter of the club.

Beitar is also closely associated with Irgun, a Zionist paramilitary group that operated in Palestine between 1931 and 1949, and several players were members of the group and Lehi, another paramilitary organisation, also known as the Stern Gang.

By the 1990s a malignant form of extremist hooliganism began to grip a very vocal contingent of Beitar’s support that injected it with hardline nationalist and jingoistic sentiment that continues to pervade till today.

Many Beitar followers who were fed up with the racism and xenophobia of their fellow supporters have detached themselves from Beitar to form a new club called Beitar Nordia in 2014.

This piece was updated on December 9, 2020 to reflect the finalisation of the deal.

Source: TRT World