AP Interview: Owner confronts Israeli team’s racist past

AP Sports

JERUSALEM (AP) — At the age of 39, Moshe Hogeg has made millions of dollars trading in cryptocurrency, bought one of Israel’s most prominent soccer teams and brought in a wealthy Emirati sheikh as his new co-owner.

Now comes what may be his biggest challenge.

As owner of Beitar Jerusalem, the only major Israeli soccer club never to have signed an Arab player, Hogeg says he is determined to remove the stain of racism from the team and sideline its most rabid anti-Arab fans, all while transforming Beitar into a soccer powerhouse with a diverse lineup.

“The racist image that the club had was one of the key elements that brought me to buy this club,” Hogeg told The Associated Press in an interview at the team’s Jerusalem training facility.

“I saw this problem that reflects bad not only on the club, but also on Israel,” he said. “I love football, and I thought it was the opportunity to buy this club and to fix this racist problem. And then I could do something that is bigger than football.”

Beitar, rooted in the same pre-state Zionist movement that inspired the ruling Likud party, is one of the country’s most storied sports franchises and counts Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin among its fans. It is seen as a potent symbol of the Israeli working class at the heart of Netanyahu’s nationalist base.

But in recent years, it has drawn negative attention for its refusal to integrate. Israel’s Arab minority makes up roughly 20% of the country’s population and Arab players star on rival teams and the national squad.

Club officials have in the past said their hands were tied by a hardcore base of fans who wield significant clout over personnel decisions. A small group of fans, known as “La Familia,” have chanted “death to Arabs” and other profanities toward opposing Arab players.

During the team’s 2013 season, a move to bring in two Muslim players from Chechnya badly misfired. La Familia led a boycott that famously left the stadium empty during a home match, several fans were charged with torching the team’s offices, and the club was nearly relegated to the second division as its season fell apart.

Hogeg, a high-tech entrepreneur and cryptocurrency trader, bought Beitar two years ago and said he set out to change its culture from the “very beginning.”

He said he has spoken out against racism and even filed lawsuits accusing fans of damaging the team’s reputation. Last year, Beitar signed Ali Mohamed, a player of Muslim descent from the African country of Niger.

But his biggest move by far was this month’s blockbuster announcement that he had sold a 50% stake in the club to Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, a member of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family. Al Nahyan has pledged to pump $90 million into the team in the coming decade.

Hogeg said he was inspired to look for an Emirati partner after the U.S.-brokered agreement establishing diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates in September. He spoke to several potential investors before mutual acquaintances put him in touch with Al Nahyan.

Jewish Israelis have warmly embraced the establishment of ties with Gulf Arabs, despite continued discrimination toward Israel’s Arab minority in areas like housing, jobs and government budgets. Hogeg believes that sports can provide an example for others to follow.

“I looked for a partner that will have the same vision of showing the world, showing kids, showing everyone that Muslims and Jews can work together and build beautiful things together,” he said. “And I think football is the best platform for it.”

The bearded Hogeg, wearing a sharp suit and black dress shoes, stood on a soccer field at the practice facility for the interview. He happily dribbled a soccer ball and kicked it into the goal as he discussed his love for the game he still plays recreationally.

Hogeg said he and his partner plan a “carrot and stick” approach, using their expertise and deep pockets to reward the fans with a perennial soccer powerhouse, while simultaneously letting it be known that anyone who objects to their message of coexistence is unwelcome.

“Either you are for the club or you are about something else. If you are about hate and racism, you are not part of us,” he said.

The team is mired at the bottom of the league this year and has few prospects for success. But Hogeg is predicting a quick turnaround next year and expects to contend for the Israeli championship through aggressive player acquisitions. In the longer term, he and his partner plan to invest heavily in young homegrown talent and aim to compete on the European stage.

With Al Nahyan as co-owner, Hogeg said that adding Arab players to the roster is a “non-issue.” He said the team already is trying to recruit an Arab player who competes in Europe, though it is unclear whether his current team will release him.

“We are actively looking for A-class players that can upgrade the level of our team,” he said. “Religion is not a factor by any means.”

Avigail Sharabi, a diehard Beitar supporter who currently appears on a reality TV show, accused Hogeg of abandoning the team’s traditions for money.

Sharabi, 54, insisted she was not a racist, but that it was unfathomable to her to have an Arab player wear the team’s Jewish candelabra logo and sing the Israeli national anthem yearning for a Jewish homeland.

“He sold everything. He sold our name, our principles, our life, our heart,” she said of Hogeg.

Maya Zinshtein, a filmmaker who made an Emmy-winning documentary, “Forever Pure,” about the tumultuous 2013 season, called herself a “crazy optimist” and said she believes Hogeg will succeed in changing the team’s culture.

Zinshtein described La Familia as a small but vocal minority that in the past had been allowed to bully the broader fan base. She said much has changed since her documentary came out in 2016, in part because of the embarrassing scenes of racist behavior. Those changes have only gained steam since Hogeg’s arrival, she said,

“La Familia won’t change. It’s just a question of what is the space they are receiving,” she said. “Most fans are not radical.”

Since Hogeg brought his Emirati partner on board, La Familia members have made some noise on social media. But when they recently tried to protest the deal at a team practice, they were outnumbered by supporters.

“It’s not going to be easy,” Hogeg said. “There’s a group of radical fans that are going to do everything in their power to damage (us). But I’m sure that we will win.”

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