Beitar Jerusalem: Forever Pure Stupidity

by | Dec 10, 2016

“At least no British club is like… that,” I had to repeat on an inner-self tape-loop as I watched “Forever Pure, Football and Racism in Jerusalem,” the latest episode of BBC4’s “Storyville” series of international documentaries. The July 2016 film highlighted Israeli Premier League (IPL) Beitar Jerusalem’s sordidly-racist fanbase and Beitar’s nutcase Russian owner, “convicted gun-trafficker” Arcadi Gaydamak, during a 2012/13 season whose second half was pock-marked by fan revolts which nearly relegated Beitar. Indeed, film-maker Maya Zinshtein, like Rob Reiner in “Spinal Tap,” got “more, a lot more” than she could have imagined. Beitar are considered part of “the hardcore of the national movement, of the right wing” in Israel, with organised fanbase group, La Familia, “known for their radical nationalistic views.” Like a perversion of “more than a club,” La Familia believe Beitar “is about more than football” and “has a much deeper meaning than the game.” However, these “beliefs would send this major club spiralling out of control” during the film.

Beitar’s season turned to mush when Gaydamak, ex-Portsmouth ex-owner Sacha’s father, took them to Chechnya for a mid-season friendly and returned with two Muslim players from their Chechen opponents, Russian Premier League side Terek Grozny. Beitar won only once with 19-year-old Dzhabrail Kadiyev and 23-year-old Zaur Sadayev in the squad. Zinshtein’s film was a magnificent attempt to tell a multi-layered tale in 83 minutes, when every quote or image was pertinent or poignant. Leading protagonists spoke for themselves, with weapons-grade stupidity from Gaydamak and La Familia, heart-wrenching frustrations of club stalwarts, from chairman Itzik Korenfine to museum caretaker Meir Harush, and the beyond-bizarre Chechen “adventure.”

Gaydamak’s criminal and Beitar investment histories were narrated as he pranced about with sticks as if auditioning for the Kwai Chang Caine part in a “Kung Fu” reboot. He bought Beitar in August 2005 and bankrolled their last national titles in 2007 and 2008 as a basis for a Jerusalem mayoral campaign. He considered Beitar’s huge fanbase a “very interesting propaganda instrument.” The campaign tanked. He got 3.6% of the vote…and lost interest in Beitar. “Football is not a very fascinating sport,” he said. “I was never a fan.” And Beitar’s on-field fortunes nose-dived.

The film joined Beitar on a two-month unbeaten run which left them fourth in the IPL in late January 2013. Then Gaydamak arranged the trip to Chechen capital Grozny, for what puzzled team manager Eli Cohen called Gaydamak’s “private business interests.” The game was goalless, one of three scores (all draws) offered by scruffily-dressed Chechen despot Ramzan Kadyrov. Gaydamak said, with trademark immodesty, that “outside the soccer field we achieved the goal…I scored the goal.” This “goal” remained unclear, although Kadyrov told Beitar officials that the prophet Mohammed “didn’t say ‘kill Jews’ but ‘develop economic ties with them.’” How re-assuring.

The film’s narration said: “While Beitar has foreign Christian players… Muslims are not their cup of tea.” So Gaydamak importing tea into Israel was oddball. Asked if he thought “the reaction” to the Chechens “would be so tempestuous?” he replied: “Yes. That was the purpose. It’s not because they are good footballers. I have no idea if they’re any good.” They weren’t great. Sadayev was a struggling striker while defender Kadiyev hadn’t made a first-team start. But Gaydamak claimed he wanted to “expose (Israeli society’s) real face.” As if Beitar fans weren’t proudly exposing their “real” face, declaring themselves “the most racist team in the country” (with added monkey noises for anyone missing the point).

Teenager Kadiyev was surely delighted to be a superfluous social experiment. “Details of the transfers are murky,” reported the Guardian’s Alistair Dawber in March 2013. So was the true motivation. Suddenly, Gaydamak’s pitiful mayoral vote seemed 3.6% over-generous. “La Familia” were more organised of deed than thought. Reportedly 3,000-strong, they populated the East Stand of Beitar’s Teddy Stadium and serenaded film-makers with ditties including “Death to all Arabs” and “(insert unpopular name here) is a son of a bitch.”

Most of Beitar’s leading lights were sons of bitches. La Familia’s insults either lacked imagination or, likelier, were too crude for proper translation. One megaphone-carrying fan stood outside Korenfine’s house to yell, in front of a crowd including kids, “the next cock you get is mine.” Curious protest, that. Korenfine had “played for 12 years, hundreds of games” and been lauded as “the captain, the leader, the symbol of Beitar” as a title-winning goalkeeper. For condemning La Familia, he became “a protection priority, a (security) category only used for government ministers. Two bomb disposal officers told me to check under my car every morning. People stood two metres away and told me ‘We will rape your daughter.’ They said it to my face.”

La Familia’s “logic” was that all Muslims were “Arabs.” One member told a disbelieving radio presenter: “If you had a daughter would you let her marry an Arab? People feel like Beitar is their own child and treat it as such.” Kadiyev asked if “they think we are Arabs?” and kindly suggested “someone should explain we are not Arabs.” One of the Chechens’ all-too-necessary bodyguards replied: “They know that but they only have one thing in their heads” (one more than I thought). “Beitar is the only team in Israel that has never signed an Arab player,” the narrator noted. They still aren’t. But that point was lost. “Has a war started?” Korenfine asked when his phone “went mad” after the Chechens’ transfer. Well…yes. “What the hell, we have Arabs in our team,” fans screamed at Beitar’s training ground. And heads exploded when Sadayev…ulp…scored in a match. Good goal, too. Well-timed run to stay onside, fabulous chest control and a neat finish.

None of which mattered. “How will you introduce yourself to fans?” Sadayev was asked on arrival in Israel. “Goals” came the reply. But fans filed out of the ground once they realised he’d scored. Sadayev tried to make light of it: “They didn’t like how I played, so they left. And I wished them Godspeed.” But it wasn’t funny. Israel’s right-wing Minister of Foreign Affairs Avigdor Lieberman managed a half-hearted celebratory fist at Sadayev’s goal, angering previously-supportive fans. “If this is their reaction, Beitar can live without them,” an indignant commentator raged, incorrectly.

“Beitar Forever Pure” read a remaining banner. “They mean Arab-free,” Korenfine explained, adding that whatever “your political views or ideology, as a Jew you cannot use this expression. Because of the past.” The horror of Beitar fans’ disregard for “the past” was not lost on him. La Familia stopped the walk-outs by not walking IN to games. “We’ll only have around 200 in the stands,” Cohen noted. The IPL table split after each team played the others twice and Beitar rejoined the bottom seven just in time for a relegation battle. “I’ll do everything to keep you out of Teddy Stadium,” Korenfine had warned misbehaving fans. They saved him the bother. “It’s incredible that a couple of hundred swept away so many thousands,” boomed a match commentator. A banner said: “The price of betrayal.” And though La Familia’s methods were not revealed, “violent intimidation” was surely among them.

Kadiyev snapped at Maccabi Tel Aviv, confronting a home fan, who thumped him, shouting “fucking Arab.” A commentator said: “He didn’t touch the ball and he gets a red card. And he’s doing it in front of his mother,” who had just arrived in Israel. “He is just a 19-year-old kid in the middle of this mayhem,” the commentator added, offering much-needed perspective. Team spirit crumbled. Reaction to one defeat involved a photogenic confrontation between a waste-bin and a player who declared himself “sick of this damn season.” Midfielder Orif Kriaf’s brother Oshri was in La Familia. And it was little wonder that Orif was the first player to side with fans, when Oshri could say to camera: “Not every Arab player is a terrorist but I don’t have to have them on my team.” Kriaf was replaced when Kadiyev made his first (only) Beitar appearance and “forgot” to shake Kadiyev’s hand when coming off.

Argentine midfielder Dario Fernandez was passionately non-plussed as to “why these people are racist. It’s Jewish people, all their life they have had that problem. These poor boys come to another country to help us and they need to eat this shit? The players, the Israelis, don’t give a fuck. The Croatians don’t have any problem. But the only players to fight against the fans was me and Ariel Harush. The others did nothing.” Harush, Beitar’s captain, bore the brunt of this “fight.” Mobbed by fans at 2012/13’s first training session, he had to skulk away from 2013/14’s equivalent while Kriaf absorbed the adulation. His troubles began after the Chechens’ introductory press conference. “I’ve never been so insulted and sworn at by my own fans…who last week were cheering my name,” he said, entering Mario Balotelli territory with a plaintive “Why is everybody so against me now?”

But unlike Balotelli, Harush had a genuine grievance: “I did what the club asked me to do and went to the press conference…and the fans turned against me.” He’d struck the right mix of diplomacy and despair at the presser: “If coach Eli decided to bring them, they must be good players. Their religion and race doesn’t matter,” he said, slyly and correctly hinting that “coach Eli” decided nothing. But his cleverly-constructed speech flew yards over La Familia heads. Harush asked fans “to accept this move but to support us no matter how hard it is,” echoing a popular terrace chant “Even when times are hard, I’ll be shouting your name on the streets.” “We’re in the middle of a great season, so let’s not ruin it,” Harush concluded, completely in vain.

Sadayev appeared largely dignified. The oafish Kriaf thought it amusing to “bring Zaur so we’ll have a full quorum” for a Jewish prayer meeting. Sadayev respectfully stood to attention when it began. In return, an unseen smartarse told Sadayev’s translator “tell him he’s going to play at home,” while travelling to Beitar’s “game of survival” at Arab club Bnei Sakhnin. So Sadayev stayed out of the dressing-room huddle and looked determinedly ahead when Beitar filed onto the pitch while colleagues turned to applaud Beitar’s fans (La Familia suspended their protest for the game, which Beitar drew to ensure safety). He was less dignified after kick-off, though, taking Cohen’s prediction, “the team that fights will win this game” too literally and seeing red for a hefty challenge. The caption at the game’s end contained wise words: “Sadayev and Kadiyev depart straight for the airport.”

The tale’s nadir was the fate of Meir Harush’s museum. Venturing towards hippydom in a Beitar context, Harush said he’d hang a Chechen’s shirt in the museum’s collection “if they send me one. They are human beings like us. I don’t care if someone is Jewish or not, Israeli or not. Thierry Henry sent me one,” he added proudly. Beitar midfielder Kobi Moyal hailed “the man and the legend.” The museum was destroyed by arsonists days later. Harush’s words on surveying the damage were heartbreaking. “It’s all our history, our memorabilia. It took us ages to gather all this and one day a moron burns everything. Bar-Mitzvah kids come here and the first thing they want to see is this beautiful room. So he burnt it down? Has he got a heart? Is this a Beitar fan?” Two twenty-something Beitar fans pled guilty that May.

There were few happy endings. “I gave Beitar away for free, said Gaydamak, masking more “murky” dealings. “I’m very happy to be out of that club without losing too much.” However, the film’s closing credits noted: “In 2015, he turned himself in to the French authorities and began…a three-year prison sentence for money-laundering.” Sadayev and Kadiyev happily flew home, or “ho-ome,” as Kadiyev said. “Goodbye…forever,” added Sadayev. Back ho-ome, Kadiyev, remarkably, matched Sadayev’s 14 Terek goals in under half the games. He “dreams of international stardom,” said the film credits. Well, he’s still young, bless. Sadayev also eventually returned to Terek. The credits claimed he “moved to…the Polish Premier League and became a top goalscorer.” But his one goal in seven Beitar games remains about his career average.

“It is clear we failed,” admitted Korenfine, suggesting support for Gaydamak’s Chechen venture. “It holds up a mirror (to) the reality of our club,” he said, adding melodramatically: “In the future, there will either be an Arab playing at Beitar or there will be no Beitar. Period.” He was “fired” by new owner Eli Tabib, after “dedicating 18 years of his life to Beitar.” Kriaf was a fans’ champion for “publicly supporting La Familia” and refusing to “condemn the racist actions.” His father’s advice was: “Play for yourself,” before the fans or the club and “invest all you’ve got in yourself, the sky’s the limit.” So when fans pledged to “fight” to keep Kriaf “at Beitar for the rest of your life,” the 21-year-old’s face briefly suggested the dawning of unintended consequences. The credits said that “Kriaf became the youngest captain” in Beitar’s history, that “after being disowned by the fans, Ariel Harush became goalkeeper of Beitar’s greatest rivals, Hapoel Tel Aviv” and “Beitar qualified for the Europa League.” A neat narrative…but wrong. The events happened in 2014/15. Harush began 2013/14 as captain. He finished it as…player of the year.

“A group of moderate fans decided to establish an alternative club, Beitar Nordia Jerusalem. The president of Israel is one of their supporters,” read more accurate credits, alongside an image of megaphone-holding fan, Itsek Alfasi, who told the film-makers: “I have been a fan…for 30 years, I sit in the East Stand. It’s my life. 3,000 fans completely hate Arabs and don’t want them at Beitar. The large majority are not racist.” He lambasted boycotters “who said all these years, when Beitar fights racism, when they sign an Arab player, we’ll be here to support the club. All those who claimed they’re not racists and are against La Familia, where are they?” And Israeli president Reuven Rivlin, an ex-Beitar manager, warned that “what we see in the East Stand is not good and our silence legitimises them.”

Alfasi became supporter-run Nordia’s “volunteer chairman” and in 2016, they won Israeli football’s fifth tier and the divisional State Cup, starting their second-ever campaign with two Arab-Israeli players. La Familia remained a sordid influence, boasting about their stadium violence during Beitar’s 5-1 Europa League defeat at Belgium’s Charleroi last year. However, days after the film’s release, 56 alleged La Familia “associates” were arrested, police believing these were members of a “more radical sub-group” of La Familia…a terrifying concept. But the film was a timely reminder that La Familia still exist. One contributor produced the hoary old excuse for espousing racist bullshit: “They are only saying what others are frightened to say.” And proud that “a few people made 20,000 Beitar fans stay away,” one member declared: “We are the team. We own the team.”

Still. At least no British club is like… that.

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