A Muslim soccer player made an historic debut for Beitar Jerusalem on Sunday, despite violent protests prior to the game, including a fire that destroyed the team’s offices. The fire, believed to have been set by hardcore anti-Arab supporters known as “La Familia”, destroyed trophies and other Beitar mementos two days prior to Sunday’s game against Bnei Sakhnin, an Arab team. As a result, more than 500 policemen were deployed outside Beitar’s Teddy Stadium for the match, which ended 2-2, while Sakhnin players were escorted to and from the field by policemen on horseback.
The protests had been aimed at Beitar management, which bought two Muslim players from Chechnya during the January transfer window. Only one of them, 19-year-old Gabriel Kadiev, was fit for Sunday’s game. And yet, when he entered the field in the 80th minute, Kadiev received a standing ovation. Every time he touched the ball, the crowd cheered loudly, although a few boos were still audible. As several fans noted after the game, Bietar supporters wanted to show that the majority is not racist.
Beitar Jerusalem, which has six Israeli Premier League titles and seven domestic cup triumphs in its 77-year history, has strong ties to Israel’s nationalist right-wing Likud party, and has a legendary following that includes several former Israeli prime ministers, including Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu.