HOLY WAR – The rivalry of Beitar Jerusalem and Bnei Sakhnin
In seeking footballs biggest fixture, it is necessary to look at some of the fiercest rivalries within the sport and the reasons they exist. There are social rivals such as Boca Juniors vs River Plate, religious rivals Rangers vs Celtic and rivalries driven by regional pride such as Barcelona vs Real Madrid. There is one rivalry however which encompasses all of those aspects, yet it is rather less well known. The teams involved are Beitar Jerusalem and Bnei Sakhnin.
Beitar are set within the relatively prosperous Israeli neighbourhood of Malha, which saw conflict within the 1948 Arab–Israeli war. Its fans are traditionally right wing and Jewish, with a reputation for violence that has earnt the club financial penalties off the pitch and points penalties on it. Their fans (known as La Familia) have strong links to the Likud party and Ariel Sharon is a fan. It has been stated that by winning over the Beitar fans, a politician can guarantee himself a million votes.
Jeremy Last, Sports Editor for the Jerusalem Post states: “Beitar is a club whose fans have always had strong links to right-wing political groups and who have a deep distrust, and in some cases hatred, of the Arabs. Sakhnin is the one Arab club which has had success in recent years, and their prominence in Israeli football has fuelled the rivalry.”
Sakhnin is a small town of 25,000 which has a high proportion of poverty and unemployment and little in the way of prospects. Some Israeli Arabs see Sakhnin as a beacon of Arab Israeli identity. Sakhnin fans see themselves as outsiders, disliked by Israelis but also by fellow Arabs who may view them somehow as collaborators
La Familia’s offences have included heckling during a moment of silence for slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and chanting slogans derogatory to Muslims and Arabs. After Sakhnin won the state cup, Beitar fans paid for an obituary within the local newspaper claiming that Israeli football was dead. Following one punishment, fans attacked the offices of the FA daubing death threats on its walls. In June 2011, Beitar were the only top flight Israeli club never to have registered an Arab player.
The supporters of Sakhnin for their part, also have a reputation for violence. In 2005 fans rioted during a game with Hapoel Tel Aviv, after an incident between a club official and the referee due to the latter earlier sending off two Sakhnin players. Their next two games had to be played behind closed doors.
The fixture also takes its toll on the players. Abbas Suan captained Sakhnin through its most prolific period which included top flight football, the national cup and qualification for European football. He also scored the equaliser against Ireland in the qualifiers for the 2006 World Cup. Qualification was still a probability and Time magazine named him one of 2005’s heroes of the year. However a week later Sakhnin travelled to Beitar for the next round of league matches and Beitar fans unfurled a banner that proclaiming ‘Suan, you are not one of us.’
Etgar Keret, a Jewish New York Times journalist, once attended a match between the two teams. He suggested to a Sakhnin fan that the match was merely a game and received the vitriolic reply “For you, maybe, because you’re a Jew. But for us, soccer is the only place we’re equal in this stinking country.” Throughout the match Keret observed fans testing the sticks and stones adage as they exchanged racial insults as well as rocks. At a game between the two teams in 2011, a Sakhnin fan lost an eye. Police claimed it was due to a firework, but fans said it was due to a plastic bullet. The fan from his hospital bed vowed to be at the fixture the following season.
In a bid to ease tensions between the clubs, Beitar owner Arcadi Gaydamak donated $400,000 to Sakhnin. The move angered Beitar fans across the board whether moderate or hardcore. Gaydamak further angered fans by sounding out Suan about a possible transfer to Beitar. Gaydamak soon distanced himself away from any such possibility once fans found about the transfer. Rioting and demonstrations in the streets followed and Suan signed for Maccabi Haifa instead. Gaydamak seems increasingly frustrated at the attitude of his fans too, talking on local radio he said “I am the team and I have no intention to sell it. The idiot bastards can leave”.
However, despite Gaydamak’s best intentions, the situation at Beitar remains confused. The club signed midfielder Dzhabrail Kadiyev and striker Zaur Sadayev, two Chechen Muslims in early 2013. Some La Familia reacted by unfurling a banner proclaiming “Beitar will always remain pure”. Their touches on the ball were booed by sections of fans and when Sadayev scored in a game against Maccabi Netanya around 300 Beitar left the match in disgust.
Israeli football is beginning to change as more money flows into it. Bnei Yehuda, a club in Tel Aviv whose fanbase is almost as fervent as Beitar’s recently signed an Arab player and its fans are open to more joining the club in the future. The Australia Israel Jewish Affairs Council has also noted that Israeli football has joined Football Against Racism in Europe and that Israeli players face anti-Semitic chants when playing in Europe.
The AIJAC also point out that many of Beitar’s fans “condemned” the behaviour of their fellow supporters for walking out of the stadium after Sadayev’s goal. When Sadayev was substituted later in the second half he received a standing ovation from those remaining. Speaking after the fixture, Beitar assistant coach Jan Talesnikov stated “We respect every person regardless of his religion. Those fans who stayed in the stadium are Beitar’s true supporters.”
Beitar fans fed up with the attitudes of La Familia have opened up Facebook group eschewing the positive elements of the club. They have also organised welcoming committees for Kadiyev and Sadayev and held up signs during games in support of the two players. AIJAC believe that La Familia represent Beitar no more than extreme elements of any club represent the club that they support.
Its easy to look at this fixture and think that as Israel is a small league, games like this don’t matter as much as some of the bigger European ones. However, owing to the instability of the region as a whole, this fixture polarises the tensions of a country and has the potential to be a starting point for trouble to flair on a grander, globally destructive scale. We’ve seen military conflict start before from a football match in both Central America and the former Yugoslavia, it has the potential to happen here in the future too.
In July 2012, Gaydamak announced his decision to give up the ownership of Beitar Jerusalem. The team was looking for a new owner that will contribute to the Jerusalem Community. At June 6th 2013, the team was bought by Russian businessman Telman Ismailov.