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25 Aug 2009

Israeli Football: The Politics of Play

Pyrotechnics at the Derbi game, courtesy of Itayab/Wikipedia
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Pyrotechnics at the Derbi game, June 2005.

The struggles of Israeli football to cope with racism on the terraces, corruption scandals and changes in a key politically influenced sporting rivalry reflect wider societal tensions and shifts, Dr Dominic Moran writes for ISN Security Watch.

By Dominic Moran in Tel Aviv for ISN

Under seeming pressure from UEFA, the Israeli Football Association (IFA) has sought to clamp down on overt expressions of racism and fan violence.

Beitar Jerusalem has been the club worst affected, with points docked and the club made to play some games in an empty stadium.

Predictably, these measures have had a limited impact on fan behavior for a club that has long been the darling of the political right. Beitar sports clubs are an outgrowth of the eponymous youth wing of the Revisionist Zionist movement, which spawned the Likud and other secular right-wing movements.

Due to its rightist profile and the predominantly Mizrachi lower- and middle-class support base of Israeli soccer, Beitar Jerusalem has by far the largest supporter base among Jewish Israelis.

La Familia

To many Beitar fans, the open racism of a core support group, now organized in the stands as 'La Familia' ultras group is anathema and an embarrassment. (Ultras are fan groups dedicated to providing strong support for their team through continous songs, chants, and production of pre-match banners and flare displays known as tifo.)

Nonetheless, La Familia has taken on a media and public profile somewhat out of keeping with its actual size and import due to its openly racist dialectic.

In a November 2008 editorial on the La Familia site the writer exhorts Beitar's players before a match against the only side in the top league from an Arab town, Bnei Sakhnin: “We don’t care about anything except victory over the Mohammed [Muslims]. “From this game the Arabs will not get any points. […] execute Khalilah [a Sakhnin player], throw stones at Sakhnin's bus [...]."

At the bottom of the page is a photograph of a soldier, identified as a La Familia member, at a roadblock in the West Bank, holding a Beitar scarf in front of a Palestinian. Under the photo it says, “Slaves for the Jews […] to those who don’t understand, our friend from the stands in a typical picture at one of the roadblocks, ‘Kiss the scarf and then you pass.’"

It is important not to take too seriously the exhortations of Israeli fan groups, which tend towards the extreme - in one song Hapoel Tel Aviv fans urge that their hated rivals Maccabi Tel Aviv be killed and burned.

There are regular small-scale clashes between rival fans, but these are not on the scale seen in some European countries and there are no real hooligan firms per se.

However, the police appear to be taking the threat of violence from a small group of Beitar fans very seriously, providing an escort to the Sakhnin team bus well before it reaches the city when the teams play in Jerusalem.

ISN Security Watch asked Beitar fan Ahron N for his thoughts on La Familia: "These are not fans […] I am ashamed of them. All this ‘Death to the Arabs’, and the rest of the extreme expressions, this is not Beitar. The true fans are coming to cheer, to eat [sunflower] seeds and to vent" their emotions.

Asked what attracts him to the club, he said, "The crowds, the symbol [menorah], the color and the home players."

No Arabs

On Friday, the Hebrew daily Maariv interviewed Guma Aguiar, who is likely to be Beitar's new owner, taking over from Arcadi Gaydamak. The latter is wanted in France on fraud and gun-running charges.

Asked when Beitar will have its first Arab player, he said, “When they’ll be good enough to enter the team." Most Israeli premier league sides currently have Arab players in their squads.

"I think that in the Noar [youth squad] there is an Arab player. I think that the crowd will eventually accept him […] The thing is that the Arab sector don’t want to play in Beitar because of the crowd," Ahron said.

"I don't care who is coming to play at Beitar as long as they are good," he said.

"I always hope that one of our Arab players will score [against Beitar] because that's what makes it even sweeter," Yoni V, who has close ties to Ultras Hapoel (Tel Aviv), told ISN Security Watch.

Ultras Hapoel and Ultras Sakhnin have cooperated in a joint anti-racism campaigning, with the Tel Aviv supporters extending this through outreach to allied left-wing fan groups overseas.

This activism is partly mirrored by Hapoel Tel Aviv FC, which maintains youth programs in Jewish, Druse and Arab-Israeli areas, and has instituted a football program in West Bank Palestinian villages.

False dawn

Bnei Sakhnin won the State Cup in 2004, becoming the first side that draws most of its support from Arab-Israelis to take a major honor.

The victory was greeted in the liberal Israeli press and abroad as an important marker in the integration of Arab-Israeli citizens into the state.

This claim always lacked a fundamental basis in fact and, predictably, there has been no real change in fan relations or the wider social milieu of which they are a reflection.

Indeed, intervening years have seen a progressive deterioration in domestic race relations with the rise of hard-line Islamic sentiment in some northern Arab communities and the political rise of Yisrael Beiteinu, which advocates the transfer of several Israeli-Arab communities to a future Palestinian state.   

Corruption

Israelis tend to be forgiving of corruption and the exercise of improper influence. This attitude extends to football, where there has been a series of corruption scandals in recent years.

In October 2006, a referee was sentenced to three years in prison in a match-fixing scandal that involved five referees in all. The whistleblowers were allegedly involved in deciding the outcomes of games at the behest of betting syndicates with ties to organized crime.

In a second incident in December 2006 - dubbed Israeli football's Black Sabbath by then-IFA chair Iche Menachem - four Hapoel Beersheva players, including the team's goalkeeper, were taken into custody by police on suspicion of involvement in throwing a game against Hapoel Ra'anana.

This scandal came in the wake of the suspension of Hapoel Kfar Saba's stopper, who appeared to throw himself over his own line with the ball to secure a draw against Maccabi Haifa when his team was on the cusp of an unlikely win.

Israeli football is reflective of its wider social milieu. Despite the involvement of millionaire owners in recent years, football remains a predominantly working class sport and is an integral part of the lives of many disadvantaged Jewish and Arab Israelis.

Poor towns and neighborhoods in both sectors are beset by the activities of organized crime syndicates and gangs, which constitute the real authority in destitute neighborhoods, towns and villages.

The extent of this authority can be seen in the fact that the man considered by most to be Israel's greatest footballer, Haim Revivo, was reportedly forced to flee the country in June after receiving a warning from police that his life was in danger.

Haaretz reports that Revivo was "sentenced" to exile by an alleged crime boss from nearby Ashqelon after becoming entangled in business dealings with a merchant with mob links.

The dispute appears to have less to do with the actions of the star himself than a spat between two leading mob families, one of which had purportedly been protecting Revivo from organized crime interests in the past.

Dodgy decisions

While overt corruption is seen by some fans as a confirmation of their worst fears regarding the purportedly compromised state of the league, the actions of top officials also often raise significant concerns.

In 2007, the IFA decided to expand the top league; widely criticized as flooding an already poorly performing top division with clubs without the financial or player base to maintain a challenge for top honors.

"The head of the hit'akhadut [IFA] was once the chair of Maccabi Petah Tikva and they issued a new ruling that a team that arrives in the second round on 60 points, they drop it to 30. It is good for the small teams [such as Maccabi Petah Tikva] and it gives them a chance to take the championship," Ahron explained.

The decisions appear to secure the future of Maccabi Petah Tikva and other small clubs in the top flight for years to come. The manner in which the decisions were taken was quintessentially Israeli: The presentation of an effective fait accompli by top management, forced through in an open bloc vote by delegates of the three major associations, Hapoel, Maccabi and Beitar.

Hatred

The overtly political nature of Israeli football as a reflection of wider class and ethnic divisions and ideological propensities is not what it once was, but still has limited salience in the case of Hapoel Tel Aviv and Beitar Jerusalem.

The Hapoel sides were controlled by the Histadrut labor federation, until that body divested itself of control of sporting associations during internal reforms.

The changes in support for Hapoel Tel Aviv are an important reflection of wider political and social shifts in Israeli society. Originally seen as a workers' team in direct conflict with the purported bourgeois support base of Maccabi Tel Aviv, the team's association with the political left has led to its popular association in recent years with the Ashkenazi elite and mythical North Tel Aviv liberal-left bubble.

Asked if the club's identification with the political left is important to him, Yoni said, "That certainly helps. I'm coming from a left-leaning home."

But he cautions: “If you go to the field you won't necessarily experience any political agenda. […] Not everybody in Shaar 5 [Ultras Hapoel gate] is left wing - it might even be 50-50."

As noted above, Beitar has always had close ties with the political right - an association that has been seen as useful by some past and present Likud leaders, including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his predecessor Ehud Olmert.

Beitar fans tend to respond with mixed feelings to such overtures, viewing them in light of actual financial support for the club.

"Netanyahu is using the situation for personal interests, but Olmert is a real fan. Netanyahu never helped Beitar, but Olmert did, and so did," Ahron said.

The perceived political division and memories of reported slights on the field have fostered an incendiary atmosphere between the fan bases.

Asked on Monday about his feelings regarding Beitar-Hapoel games, Ahron said: "It is the most important; nothing is more important than this," while adding that he does not care about the political aspect.

Yoni: "It is pure hate. And the political aspect drives it for sure."


Dr Dominic Moran, based in Tel Aviv, is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in the Middle East and the Director of Operations of ISA Consulting.

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