Israeli soccer faces troubles off the field
While the local game continues to stagnate at best, soccer is making headlines for the wrong reasons.
The Israel Police Central District fraud squad Tuesday advanced significantly in investigation of the “central ball affair,” involving allegations against officials from various teams of match-fixing and financial misconduct.
Police Tuesday raided the homes of several Hapoel Petah Tikva officials, searching the premises and confiscating personal assets that police officials say they mean to seize in the event their owners are prosecuted.
The team figures were detained for questioning in the fraud squad’s interview rooms in the Yavneh police station.
The main suspects are former Hapoel Petah Tikva owner Gal Hatzor; Danny Levy, Raz Hamoosh and Ronen Elad, members of the nonprofit organization that operates the club; and former coach Yuval Naim. Naim, who now coaches Hapoel Acre, took over at the beginning of the 2010-11 season but was sacked in April 2011 following a dispute with Tomer Sinai, one of the club’s owners.
The men are suspected of embezzling the funds of the nonprofit organization for personal use and economic crimes in a separate affair in which they are suspected of fixing games and bribing referees.
The investigation began in 2011, when the owners of Hapoel Petah Tikva were suspected of fixing team matches and bribing referees and of associating with known criminals who profited from betting on the fixed games. Some of these allegations are still being investigated.
Soccer players, game officials and even Israel Football Association chairman Avi Luzon, who was questioned under caution, have been interviewed in connection to the affair.
The police probe seemed to have run into a dead end until recently, when the fraud squad received intelligence linking certain Hapoel Petah Tikva officials to suspicions of fraudulent reporting of corporate documents and tax evasion over the past decade.
The dire financial plight of the team, which now plays in the second-tier National League, led to the appointment of a liquidator, attorney Amit Pines. While examining the club’s conduct over the past decade Pines found a number of ostensibly criminal offenses performed in the club’s name and concluded that the nonprofit’s managers misused the team’s money and failed to submit proper financial reports to the relevant authorities. Due to the seriousness of the alleged offenses the police brought the Israel Tax Authority’s investigative unit, Yahalom.
Most of the suspects brought in for questioning yesterday had been interviewed previously by police in connection to the affair and had denied all allegations against them. It now seems that the police have obtained stronger evidence against them.
Couldn’t they wait?
In a bizarre affair, police arrested Hapoel Rishon Letzion player Lior Assulin during halftime of his team’s National League game against Hapoel Nazareth Ilit on Monday night, for failure to pay alimony. Assulin locked himself into the locker room to evade arrest, and team owner Raviv Sapir pleaded with officers, offering to pay off Assulin’s debt after the game, but in the end the player was taken away.
“It’s scandalous,” Sapir said after the game. “The police did not use reasonable judgment. They took the sporting value out of the game. I told them in the clearest terms that after the game we’ll go to an ATM and withdraw the cash, but that didn’t help. It’s a trifling sum - how could they hurt the game’s sporting value over something like that. It’s outrageous. I agreed to take responsibility but the police just came and destroyed.”
In fact, the halftime hullabaloo was probably the most interesting part of the game, which was dull and ended with no goals.
After being sworn at by Beitar Jerusalem fans for signing two Muslim players, team coach Eli Cohen now finds himself accused of racism. The Israel Football Association’s legal advisor, Shalom Even Ezra, notified the club in writing yesterday that the governing organization intends to charge Cohen with making a racist remark.
Who is a racist?
Even Ezra noted that the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism demanded that he take action against Cohen for saying, after Beitar lost to Bnei Yehuda, “I don’t understand the fans. There are also Muslims in the world and they need to know to live with them. A Muslim from Europe isn’t like a Muslim from here. We don’t have any problem with Muslims, we have a problem with Arabs who live here. We won’t live by the sword forever, I hope. I didn’t know the players were Muslims [before they joined the team from Chechnya’s Terek Grozny last month]. I believe that with the directors’ help we’ll find a solution.”
In a letter of response addressed to Even Ezra, Cohen wrote: “The attempt to link me with the phenomenon of racism and to portray me as a racist is slanderous and unfounded. It is based on a partial quote from a television interview I gave after the game, and is unrepresentative of what I said in the rest of the interview. I began the interview by speaking against racism and said that I don’t understand the fans and why they object to Muslim players in Beitar. My children play for teams from the Arab sector. I am sorry about the populist complaint that is seriously harming my good name,” Cohen wrote.
Cohen, who was verbally abused by some of the team’s fans during training yesterday and required an escort to his home afterward, said he did not understand Even Ezra and the IFA’s prosecutor: “What do they want to charge me with? Did anyone listen to the interview in its entirety? I don’t think so. I suggest the IFA officials ask the television company for the interview tape and listen to the complete interview before deciding whether to try me.”