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No Arab player, but now an Arab owner? UAE royal buys 50% of Jerusalem soccer club

Team's fans have opposed signing Arab players. What are they saying about the new owner?

Beitar Jerusalem fans at the State Cup match between Beitar Jerusalem F.C. and Maccabi Bnei Raina in the Teddy stadium, Jerusalem, on Jan. 16, 2020. (Photo: Flash90)

Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, a member of the United Arab Emirates royal family, has officially completed a purchase of 50% of the Israeli soccer club Beitar Jerusalem, the club announced on Monday afternoon.

According to the club, Al Nahyan will invest 300 million shekels ($92 million) over the next 10 years.

But as a Channel 12 reporter observed, this was probably the most surprising deal to come out of the peace treaty between Israel and the UAE.

The team has a diehard group of fans that are notorious for opposing the signing of Arab or Muslim players.

The reaction of these fans was hostile as expected. One fan told reporters, "It was like a knife to my heart, a terror attack in my heart. I will never return to the field."

Another fan, Yaron Tzidkiahu, looked at the purchase as a positive development.

"This will promote normalization, it's amazing," he told i24. "It happens all over the world that soccer teams get sold to international groups. The Emiratis buy both small soccer teams and also the largest soccer teams around the world - it can only promote Israeli soccer."

After the reaction, racist messages were sprayed outside the team's stadium, believed to be by the team's fans.

The graffiti read: "Mohammed is Dead," "Death to Arabs," "F--- Dubai", and "You can't buy us!!! $ Don't f--- with us!"

Another banner, however, draped outside the stadium praised Hamad bin Khalifa and welcomed him to Jerusalem.

The club said the graffiti was "the strongest proof of the necessity of partnership with the Muslims and the Arab world in the war against racism."

Jonathan Regev, a correspondent from i24 TV, said that when the previous coach expressed interested in bringing two Muslim players from Chechnya to the team, fans reacted violently, vandalizing the club’s facilities. This and other incidents have created a reputation for the racism associated with Beitar. 

The UAE is no stranger to pushback regarding its sponsorship of sports teams. Starting in the late 1990s, UAE-based businesses interested in becoming global brands began buying advertising billboards in and around stadiums housing some of Europe’s most popular teams. This soon led to TV commercials and later internet broadcasts of games, followed by UAE-based companies buying European sports teams outright.

Today, several of the largest and most popular clubs in European leagues are owned by business interests in the Persian Gulf including AC Milan, Arsenal FC, Olympiacos FC, SL Benfica and Real Madrid, all of which are owned by UAE businesses including one of the world’s largest commercial airlines, Fly Emirates. 

Some sports leagues in dozens of countries around the world are sponsored in whole or in part by Gulf-based companies.

With so many precedents, Israelis can see for themselves the costs and benefits they will derive from having one of the most well-known Israeli sports clubs owned in part by a Gulf country business. 

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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