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UAE owner of Israeli club says ‘door is open’ to Arab players

‘We are not afraid of the racists’

JERUSALEM, Dec 8, (AP): The Emirati businessman who has bought a stake in the controversial Israeli soccer club Beitar Jerusalem said on Tuesday that “the door is open” to adding Arab players to its roster, a step that would make the team the last in Israel to integrate its lineup. At a joint news conference, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan and his Israeli partner, Moshe Hogeg, both vowed to turn the team – which has gained notoriety for its racist fans and ban on Arab players – into a model of coexistence.

“We want to set an example to both nations that Jews and Muslims can work together,” Sheikh Al Nahyan said. Beitar announced on Monday that Sheikh Al Nahyan, a member of the ruling family in Abu Dhabi, had bought a 50% stake in the club and pledged to pump $90 million into the team in the coming 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.

In this file photo, Beitar Jerusalem FC soccer supporters watch a State Cup soccer match against Maccabi Umm al-Fahm FC in Jerusalem. (AP)

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 it also has drawn negative 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. Both Hogeg and Sheikh Al Nahyan said that such behavior would not be tolerated. Asked about the possibility of adding an Arab player to the roster, Sheikh Al Nahyan said: “Our door is open for all the talent, no matter what is his religion or wherever he comes from.”

Hogeg, an Israeli high-tech and cryptocurrency investor, said he has already taken steps against racism since he acquired Beitar two years ago. The team says it has Arab players on its women’s and youth teams. Hogeg said the team would fight racism “with no tolerance” and turn to police and the courts if necessary to make sure that the team’s matches are family friendly. “We are not afraid of the racists,” he said. “We have a strategy to handle this issue.” Sheikh Al Nahyan offered a different approach, describing the La Familia members as misguided youths who have been brainwashed but who could still be set straight.

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