February 27, 2013

Religion sparks controversy in international sports realm

By Xavier Bleuel–

Until recently, Beitar Jerusalem was the only club in Israel to refuse to sign a Muslim or Arab player.

On Feb. 10, 19-year old Gabriel Kadiev’s entry in the 80th minute at Teddy Stadium may have seemed like a normal substitution on paper, but to those watching, it was a groundbreaking and historic moment.

He was the first Muslim or Arab player to ever take the field for the club in its 77-year history.

A recent documentary by ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap aired late last year on ESPN’s program “E:60,” revealing a dark and malicious side to one of Israeli’s most iconic soccer clubs, Beitar Jerusalem.  In the documentary, we learn that the club had long refused to sign a Muslim or Arab player, making them the only team in the Israel never to do so.

The soccer club has been known for its radical fan group called “La Familia.” Videos show them taunting opposing Muslim or Arab players, shouting “death to Arabs” and “Allah is dead,” among other slurs. Their disheartening videos of anti-Arab chants performed by children show they intend to create a long-lasting tradition of this negative behavior. They are the main force behind the club not signing specific athletes.

This unprecedented measure sparked outrage around the world, especially since the sport of soccer has tried to combat racism and all forms of discrimination through different marketing campaigns. On Jan. 30, owner Arkady Gaydamak decided to go against tradition and the beliefs of “La Familia” by signing two Chechen Muslims: the aforementioned Kadiev and 23-year-old Zaur Sadayev. Protests and counters protest ensued. Offices at Beitar were burned down, destroying countless trophies and memorabilia of the famous club. More than a week later on Feb. 8, “La Familia” members allegedly set arson to Beitar’s offices, ruining many trophies and awards.

However, things are getting better for the club and their overall perception. Israel’s President Shimon Peres spoke out and condemned the actions by these fans. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat was present and more than 500 police officers were on hand as the Chechen Muslim played his first game against Bnei Sakhnin. Once he came on to the field and made contact with the ball, thousands of fans cheered, drowning out the boo’s by the few who opposed.

“I came today to show that not all Beitar fans are punks and racists,’’ said Yair Sina, a 49-year-old lifelong Beitar fan. “I won’t let them take away my love for the team.’’

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Photo courtesy of hungeree.com

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