"Shame on you!” may be a tired cliche but it is the only possible response to Beitar Jerusalem’s first soccer practice on Monday.
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The team, which fought racism with all its might last season, returned to its dark days. Some 2,000 fans arrived for the practice, many of them from the La Familia fan organization. These fans took advantage of the event to throw stones and spit on two of the team’s players, Ariel Harush and Dario Fernandez.
Only the previous day Harush appealed to the fans in an attempt to calm the atmosphere, but it turns out that nothing changed. Racism filled every last square centimeter of the pitch in the capital’s Bayit Vegan neighborhood.
Harush and Fernandez, who suffered for much of the past season after supporting the team’s signing of Chechen players Zaur Sadayev and Gabriel Kadiev and criticizing its bigoted fans, looked stunned when the celebratory occasion turned into a scene of brutality.
Former owner Arcadi Gaydamak left, ostensible savior Eli Tabib arrived, the fan association promised a new era and everyone spoke of a return to sanity.
In practice it turns out the expectations for the season’s first practice were too high. The enlistment of the fans was supposed to prove to everyone that upon the end of era of Gaydamak and his chairman, Itzik Kornfein, the club would embark on a new path. And indeed, large numbers of fans came to Bayit Vegan in a demonstration of strength, but apart from their respectable numbers, the news from the first practice was ugly and nauseating.
One could criticize Gaydamak, one could wage a struggle to oust Kornfein, but what we’ll remember about this practice is a new owner who was missing in action from the event, and in his absence no club official had the courage to stand up to the fans’ abominable behavior.
Tabib, meanwhile, is exercising his right to remain silent. If he wants, he could claim he is not yet the team’s official owner.
The worst thing to happen to Beitar with the departure of Gaydamak and Kornfein is the absence of anyone who will fight the extremist and racist fans. After a long period during which Kornfein ostracized and pursued them, and many of them were arrested, the fans feel responsible for Tabib’s arrival. Everything Beitar tried to rebuild over the last six months has been destroyed.
On Monday the fans shouted at coach Eli Cohen that Tabib should take care not to sign an Arab player. They declared their love for Tabib and said they had his back, but insisted that no Arab or Muslim should be on the team. They yelled they got rid of everyone in order to have an “ethnically clean” team.
Cohen, who is not accustomed to such things, appeared to be in shock. When he tried to get a word in edgewise, the fans pounced on him, particularly the extremists among them.
“The Beitar Jerusalem soccer club condemns and firmly denunciates the violence by part of the team’s fans against Ariel Harush and Dario Fernandez at the season opening practice,” the team commented in an official statement. “We are shaken by the stone-throwing and the spitting at the two players. It’s an act that has no place in sports in particular and in life in general. The club supports goalkeeper Harush and midfielder Fernandez, who during the entire period in which they have been Beitar players have been a symbol of loyalty and professionalism.”
Earlier om Monday Cohen named David Amsalem his assistant coach, a move calculated to bring the team closer to its fan base. Amselem was excited to return to Bayit Vegan, three years after resigning from his position as coach just before the start of the season. “It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “I am happy to return. You’ll soon see a new team. We need to connect the fans to the team, because they are the club’s strength.”
Some fans expressed that strength in more traditional ways. Besides the stones, curses and threats, there were fans who hoisted players onto their shoulders. In the absence of Avi Reikan and Eran Levy, the fans anointed Ofir Kriaf as their new god. He also received clear messages from the fans that he shouldn’t dare leave Beitar.
On the pitch, it looks like Tabib will need to work hard to field a quality team. Amit Ben Shushan, Kobi Moyal and Haim Megrelashvili didn’t show up to practice because they have yet to sign contracts. Fernandez and Steven Cohen opted to come even though they, too, do not have signed contracts in hand. The incident with the fans is liable to make Fernandez and Harush think twice about staying on the team. It cannot be ruled out that Harush will try to join Maccabi Haifa, which failed to come to terms with Boris Kleiman.