Under heavy security, Gabriel Kadiev (19), a Muslim football player whose signing with the Jerusalem club Beitar sparked a violent uprising by a hardcore group of racist fans, made his much anticipated debut recently to a rousing ovation.
Tensions remained high as the team faced off against Bnei Sakhnin — an Arab team whose fans have clashed before with Beitar’s. But the thousands of fans and foes who flooded to Teddy Kollek Stadium on Sunday presented a show of strength against a rising tide of racism among Israeli soccer fans.
“I came today to show that not all Beitar fans are punks and racists,” said Yair Sina (49), a lifelong Beitar fan. “I won’t let them take away my love for the team.”
In contrast to the previous taunts and jeers directed at the players, the crowd of thousands erupted into a rousing standing ovation when Mr. Kadiev (19), a defender recently brought over from FC Terek Grozny, entered the game in the 80th minute. Every time he touched the ball the crowd cheered wildly, mostly drowning out a smattering of boos. The trend continued when a few minutes later Beiter scored a late goal to secure a 2-2 tie.
Mr. Kadiev’s Chechen teammate, Zaur Sadayev (23), was injured and not included in the team lineup. The goodwill was felt throughout the stadium with banners reading “Violence and racism? Not on our field”.
Racist support group
Beitar has long tried to contain a tightly knit fan group called La Familia whose behaviour has forced it to play before empty stadiums. The group is routinely abusive toward opposing players, taunting them with racist and anti-Arab chants.
After the signing of Chechens, including Mr. Kadiev, a full-fledged confrontation erupted between the Beitar fans and team management.
Most of the ire has been directed toward general manager Itzik Kornfein, a former Beitar goalkeeping great who has spoken out forcefully against racism.
La Familia was created in 2005, and it quickly became the team’s loudest and most visible supporters. The fans routinely chant racist slogans toward Arab players.
Their behaviour has drawn a cascade of condemnations from Israel’s President on down.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opened his weekly Cabinet meeting on Sunday with a call for fans to reject racism.
Beitar Jerusalem, which has won six league championships and seven cup titles in its 77-year history, is a powerhouse in Israeli soccer and has a legendary following that includes several Israeli Prime Ministers.
The team has historically been strongly aligned with Israel’s nationalist right wing and its name, Beitar, comes from the Zionist youth movement that is linked to the ruling Likud Party.
The team and its fans have since been a steady source of support for Likud politics and a string of politicians have served as team chairman. Prime ministers with Likud roots from Ariel Sharon to Ehud Olmert to Mr. Netanyahu have called themselves fans and made pilgrimages to the club’s Teddy Stadium.