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How Soccer Explains Israel

Jerusalem's FC Beitar signed two Muslim players from Russia in February and — intentionally or not — stirred a national controversy

On the last Saturday in January, with most of Israel shut down for Shabbat, Beitar Jerusalem FC — the only soccer team in the Israeli Premier League to have never signed an Arab player — announced that it had picked up two Muslim players from Chechnya: Dzhabrail Kadiyev, 19, and Zaur Sadayev, 23. The first response from fans was nonviolent but brutal: At the team’s next match, members of Beitar’s proudly racist ultras group La Familia unfurled a giant yellow banner in Teddy Stadium’s Eastern grandstand. It read, in a surreal echo of Nazi terminology: “Beitar Will Be Pure Forever.” The next response was arson.

In the early morning of February 8, two men (later identified as members of La Familia) hopped a 10-foot steel fence outside Beitar’s offices, smashed a window, poured gasoline through the glass shards, and set fire to the room. The room belonged to building superintendent Meir Harush, who had spent nearly 20 years fashioning his office into an unofficial Beitar museum. Game-used cleats, signed jerseys, and championship trophies all went up in flames, and what had long been Israeli soccer’s secret little shame catapulted itself into the nation’s consciousness. That evening, the Channel 2 nightly news dedicated half its program to the story. Beitar assistant coach Jan Talesnikov, clearly shaken, suggested on air that if “they’re burning buildings now” they might just “burn people next.” Even prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu weighed in. “We cannot countenance such racism,” he said. “The Jewish people, who suffered from boycotts and ostracism, must be a light unto the nations.”

By Beitar’s telling, La Familia represents a small, disproportionately loud sliver of the crowd at Teddy, a sliver that bullies, intimidates, and disrupts the peaceful majority. “There are 500 fans here who hold the entire club as hostages,” general manager Itzik Kornfein said days after the signing. “A few hundred who hold tens of thousand of hostages.” It’s a sliver the team has attempted to contain before. As recently as 2005, they signed Ibrahim Nadallah, a Nigerian Muslim. He lasted half a season, saying, in a quote that has been gleefully re-created on La Familia banners, “I don’t recommend a Muslim to join Beitar — the extremists won’t change.” But after the fire, the consensus quietly insisted it was time to take a stand.

“Every time there was an opportunity to bring Arab players to Beitar Jerusalem, a group of fans would fight it and the team would break backwards,” Shlomi Barzel, a veteran sportswriter for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, told me. “This time the club said, ‘We’re not breaking. Doesn’t matter what will happen, we’re not breaking.’ For the first time the club didn’t get scared.” As much as La Familia spat and cursed and burned, Beitar had decided the Chechens would stay.

All of which loomed over Beitar’s next match, its first with Kadiyev and Sadayev. The next Sunday night, at Teddy, Beitar was scheduled to play Bnei Sakhnin, the league’s foremost Arab team. Knowing how combustible the post-signing atmosphere could be, Beitar lobbied the Israeli Football Association for permission to play matches without fans — a common punishment enforced against clubs for the violent or racist transgressions of their fans, but one that is almost never requested by a team. The club had actually filed its request beginning with the game before the Sakhnin contest, and perhaps would have kept its fans from attending several matches had the association not demurred. Instead, the IFA decided to bar only a handful of specific supporters, and the Israeli national police mobilized more than 700 officers for the Sakhnin match, including special patrol units, border police, and undercover agents. Teddy braced for impact.

On the train to the stadium for the Bnei Sakhnin game, I come across my first batch of diehards. A group of about 15 teenagers — in track jackets, white sneakers, kippahs, and the glaring yellow and black of Beitar Jerusalem — happily rumbles into the car. “We came with a purpose — to see sport, to see soccer,” Moshiko, who looks about 16, tells me. “Not politics, not to curse Arabs, not to curse Jews. We’re against racism, against violence — the whole word ‘racism,’ everything to do with it, we’re against.” And when the racist chants start? “We don’t sing. We shut our eyes and ignore it.” Another boy, Dan, interjects: “But [Bnei Sakhnin supporters] have to weigh their words. Don’t let them yell mavet” — death — “to the Jews.”

As for the burning of the Beitar offices, they equivocate. “Go’al nefesh” — a horror of the soul — but “believe me, it’s happened lots of times,” Noam insists, vaguely. “They” — an undefined “they” — “have burned clubs, they have burned history.” And who did it this time? “Probably Sakhnin fans. They waited until there was balagan” — trouble — “at Beitar and then they could do what they want.”

Onel, a smiley, slightly cross-eyed kid, is not so sure. The signing of the Chechens, he says, “was playing with matches next to benzene.” It’s a nicely phrased sentence, and I ask him to repeat it, to make sure I understood the Hebrew. And then the hoots and hollers start. Moshiko steps in: “What, he said something smart! Let him show off! Show it to Obama — we’re not a racist group! We’re not a racist group!”

A 20-minute drive from the sloped, twisted alleyways and ancient stone walls of Jerusalem’s Old City is Teddy Stadium, a utilitarian white-brick and cement structure. Across the street is the Malha Mall, where, after a March 2012 Beitar win, fans stormed the food court, chanting “Muhammad is dead” and assaulting Arab workers. Ringing the stadium are dirt lots and idle construction sites marked off by rickety makeshift fences. And, tonight at least, there are cops — in trucks, on horses, in battalion formation. They mostly look bored; a few are eating pitas. Several TV news crews have also arrived to cover the game, and the cameramen dart around, ready to capture anyone willing to offer a sharply worded opinion.

Outside the stadium, three teenagers are handing out flyers. They read: “Beitar, the flag of the country, racism destroys every corner.” I ask one of the kids how long they’ve been fighting racism. He can’t be much older than 14, although he answers, sullenly and through a cheek full of sunflower seeds:1 “Forty years. Sixty years.”

Nearby, a fortysomething man offering a placid explanation of the situation to a cameraman is bumrushed by a twentysomething with the slick-gelled faux-hawk, three-day stubble, and diamond earrings characteristic of the arse — a particularly useful Hebrew word for the kind of foolhardy young man you wouldn’t want dating your daughter. “It’s good this happens?” the arse yells over a string of car horns while lighting a cigarette. “All this balagan? There’s a media that wants to ruin the team!”

The cameraman tries to rein in this explosive little gift. “We’re German TV,” he says. “We don’t know the whole situation — ” He’s cut off by a small man standing behind me, in sandals and shorts, yelling “Nazi!”

I ask another portly arse nearby how they’ll react to Kadiyev and Sadayev. “We’ll continue coming to games, and we’ll continue behaving how we behave,” he says. And how’s that? “What do you mean, ‘how’s that?’ We’ll keep doing what we do.” A pause, and then: “We’re against the Arabs!”

Down the road a peace protest is taking place. About 35 people are huddled together behind a banner that reads “Beitar — Tolerant Forever.” They’re holding yellow balloons while Avraham Burg, a former Speaker of the Knesset,2 talks into a microphone: “If the question is, could you have stopped these things 10 years ago, when they were small, the answer is yes. And if we don’t do anything today, we’ll come back in another 10 years and they’ll say, why did you come 20 years too late?” Then, from across the street, comes a fusillade of sonic warfare — two guys in a beat-up gray sedan, cursing Berg and laying on a car horn. The cops move in, swiftly but not emphatically, and quiet them. Two nearby hot dog vendors have been watching the scene, and they can’t stop laughing.

A few minutes later, a new speaker takes the microphone and pleads for “patience, patience, patience.” A pair of border police walk by and one mutters, without almost any emotion, “Patience for your mother, you bat zona.” Technically, the term means “daughter of a whore,” but a better English equivalent would be “motherfucker.” Then Avi, one of the hot dog vendors, offers his opinion: “Arcadi” — that’d be Arcadi Gaydamak, Beitar’s absentee Russian billionaire owner — “wanted headlines. Publicity. Action. They knew what would happen.” But never mind that — “the time is here that there would be a Muslim player on Beitar.” His pal, laughing once again, says to Avi: “God will burn you, you dog, you garbage!” In the moment, I can’t tell if he’s joking.

Over by the main gate a crew of Bnei Sakhnin supporters have assembled. Police escorted most of the Sakhnin fans to their seats, but these guys don’t look too troubled to be on their own. One directs traffic with a smile, calling out orders in Arabic as he helps his buds pick up tickets.

He says he believes the team is changing. He says Beitar finally got the right owner and the right coach. It’s a cautious kind of optimism. “The guys who ruin the office, who ruin history — they call them fans,” he says. “But the supporters of Sakhnin — we say ‘Allahu Akbar’ — it’s a legal word, totally legitimate. And they say ‘terrorist.'”

Not far away from the Sakhnin fans I find Elad, a solidly built man huffing his way to the stadium with a group of friends. He’s pissed, and he blames Gaydamak, the owner: “He said it’s only to make history in Beitar. He wants to destroy our team. That’s it. But it won’t last. One week, two week — the Chechens will be gone. It won’t pass in silence.”

But don’t you care to see how they play first? “We don’t want Muslims on the team,” Elad says. “Doesn’t matter how they play.”

Right before I enter Teddy, I meet a cheerful, wizened little man who’s been following Beitar for 40 years. He says he’s a saroof supporter — colloquially meaning “fanatic,” but literally meaning “burned.” “In the rain, whenever — I’m there. Saroof!” He likes Kadiyev. “The kid’ll be a star,” he says. “They put him in today and he scores a goal, he’s bought his world in Beitar.” I ask what he thinks will happen with La Familia. Would they really just stop coming to games? “If they’ll come,” he says, “they’ll come quiet. They’ll come like cats.” And then, as we say good-bye: “They call me Erez, I’m from Hod Hasharon, and I fear no one.”

You could start in 1923, at a Jewish youth meeting in Latvia, when the hardline movement Beitar was founded to promote the creation of the State of Israel. You could start in 1936, when Beitar spawned a soccer club, Beitar Jerusalem FC, in what was then the British Mandate of Palestine. You could start in 1948, when Israel was founded through military action — known as the War of Independence on one side of the conflict and the Catastrophe on the other — against Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan. You could start at any point since then, as Beitar Jerusalem, with its crest of the menorah and its cry of “Beitar Forever,” has become an uneasy symbol of the city. And you’d still have a hard time explaining what the hell is going on here.

The Beitar movement was founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, a Ukrainian war reporter turned militaristic Zionist. To Jabotinsky, the only response to Europe’s murderous anti-Semitism was the training and arming of the Jews. Beitar’s oath, as stipulated by Ze’ev, read, “I devote my life to the rebirth of the Jewish State.”

During World War II Beitar sent scores of ships carrying Jewish refugees, illegally, into Palestine. Politically, the group enjoyed its greatest success in 1977, when Menachem Begin, leader of the Polish branch of Beitar, became Israel’s prime minister. For the past few decades, however, Beitar has been a political nonentity. There’s an active chapter in South Euclid, Ohio, and not much else of any consequence.

That a soccer team would be associated with a lapsed political movement is not as strange as it might sound. Most Israeli sports clubs have political affiliations: Maccabi teams were traditionally associated with the right wing, Hapoel with the Socialist left. The affiliations are vestigial now, but the Beitar extremists at Teddy seem to see themselves as carriers of a cooked-down version of Jabotinsky’s message — even if many La Familia members wouldn’t be able or willing to articulate it as such. They are the defenders of Israel, the land of the Jews. And they believe that the soccer team of Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish people, should belong only to Jews.

In January, Israelis went to the polls for the most recent national elections, and what was supposed to be a landslide for Netanyahu’s right-wing party, Likud, was mitigated by the surprising turnout for Yesh Atid, a centrist party fronted by former TV news personality Yair Lapid. The optimist would take that to mean the country isn’t drifting away from the prospects of peace talks, as was widely assumed as recently as December. The pessimist would point out that Lapid himself is no dove.

Not that any of that really matters for what we’re talking about here. At any given time, Israel’s hopes for peace reside somewhere along a spectrum. Where exactly they reside on that spectrum, and where exactly they should reside on that spectrum, is constantly being debated by — and I don’t mean to exaggerate here — everyone. But the fault lines have been the same since 1948. And Beitar vs. La Familia exists on those familiar fault lines.

“If you ask most fans of Beitar, do you want an Arab player? The answer is ‘no,'” Barzel, the Haaretz sportswriter, told me. “Will they protest? No, they won’t protest. If the team decides that an Arab player will play, most will accept it. La Familia — these are a specific socioeconomic cut. Really uneducated people, failed people. And you ask them, do you want an Arab player? ‘No!’ Will you protest? ‘Of course, of course!'”

Never mind that Kadiyev and Sadayev aren’t Arabs, and that Muslim Chechens have their own tragic history of ethnic strife — a secessionist battle with Russia that has nothing to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict. For La Familia’s purposes, Kadiyev and Sadayev represent the enemy, and the battle has to be fought in the stands at Teddy.

In America, we struggle sometimes to ascribe significance to sports. In Israel, the significance can suffocate.

A February 8, 2013 file photo shows a man looking through a window at the damages caused by a fire at the Beitar Jerusalem football club on in Jerusalem. The torching of Beitar Jerusalem's offices by fans angry at the signing of two Muslim players has spa

Inside the stadium, Beitar Jerusalem sprints onto the pitch for warm-ups, and for a few seconds I can’t believe so few people are making this much noise. Whistles are the preferred tool, some of the physical kind but many more of the two-fingers-in-the-mouth variety. A staccato burst peals out: “Fuck you, fuck you, Kadiyev!” If Sadayev hadn’t been out with an injury, that one presumably would have lasted longer.

I’m in the Northwest grandstand, looking at an empty Eastern section. Following the “Pure Forever” banner, the Israel Football Association censured Beitar on charges of racism. The punishment was a five-game shutdown of the Eastern and a 50,000-shekel fine — about $13,400. Where La Familia would usually be present, there’s a sign reading: “The Eastern Is Against Racism.”

I start talking with the guy next to me, a lifelong Beitar diehard named Alon who also happens to be a political science grad student specializing in extreme ideologies. He fills me in on the regular protocol at Teddy. “The top part of the Eastern — that’s the violent fans, the ardent fans,” he says. “We” — the non-extremists — “sit over there, too, in the lower part. In regular games you see those sides shouting at each other.” I ask why he thinks the team has dug in for this fight. He tells me it was the “Pure Forever” banner. “It shocked everyone. As Jews. In Israel. Pure?”

Tonight most of the Eastern transplants have relocated near us, in the Northwest.3 The majority of the more sane fans gather in the sections to my left and right. They’re banging drums and waving anti-racism signs. To my far left are the Sakhnin fans, in red and white — sequestered for their own safety. All around me, cops are dragging kids out by their jacket collars.

In front of me, a sharply worded, multi-person argument about the Chechens is taking place, but without much hint of violence. “I’m explaining that Arab and Muslim isn’t the same,” a guy with a shaved head and a yellow bubble jacket says. “We need to respect all religions. A Muslim player can play on Beitar. He prays in a mosque, everything’s good and pretty. But he’s playing for Beitar, he’s playing for the symbol of the menorah.” He tugs and yanks at the fabric around his heart: “So the minute you talk about an Arab, I do have a problem with it. Now if an Arab comes and says, ‘I recognize the State of Israel and I recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish nation … ‘ But let’s be honest — no Arab will do this.”

Meanwhile, the Northwest chants toward the Sakhnin fans: “The Temple Mount is in our hands! The Temple Mount is in our hands!” They’re quoting the famous words of IDF commander Motta Gur, as he claimed the Old City during the 1967 Six-Day War. It’s a particularly contentious phrase, touching on the origin of the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza as well as Israeli control of the Temple Mount, one of the holiest sites in both Judaism and Islam. The ambition of the rest of the chants isn’t quite as lofty. They’re mostly variations on calling Beitar general manager Itzik Kornfein4 a ben zona — son of a whore.

There’s the simple “Itzik’s a ben zona.” There’s the more direct “Itzik, your mother’s a zona.” There’s the impressively self-aware “Itzik Kornfein, it’s not the minority — the entire crowd hates you!” And there’s also a long, singsong one, the culmination of which is “Itzik resign, we don’t want you anymore! Go home, you ben zona cop!” (Believe me that it rhymes in Hebrew.)

Peppered liberally through the section are crudely printed “Itzik, Resign” T-shirts. Hanging over a railing behind me is a 7-year-old with a buzz cut, and he’s screaming along with as much fervor as anyone. On the ground below him are piles and piles of makeshift yellow confetti. They are the ripped shards of flyers handed out earlier, which read: “We are asking you to focus solely on cheering on the team, and encouraging them forward, with no reference to the opposing team’s identity.”

Amid the ceaseless chanting, it’s easy to miss that the game has actually started. Kadiyev’s on the bench and not yet a target for the extremists. Besides, the Beitar fans have a bigger problem right now. Sakhnin striker Mohammed Kalibat has been breaking away from the kickoff, and by the 27th minute he finds himself on the right side of the field with the ball at his feet and a full head of steam. Once inside the box he feints right, then squirrels left past two Beitar defenders, and fires a dribbler that bounces into the back of the net. Mayhem. He trips and falls on the shot, then hops to his feet and sprints to his nearest corner to find the elated Sakhnin supporters, who are dancing in the aisles. He dives to his knees then puts two palms down and kisses the ground. Meanwhile, his teammates gather behind him and lock into a bit of choreography, bouncing on their heels in a circle and raising their arms to the sky.

The Northwest responds by doubling down on Kornfein: “Itzik, you ruined the team!” But 10 minutes later the wind is taken out of their sails when Kalibat receives a beautiful feed on the right wing and barrels down on Beitar’s keeper for another shot. The goalie stops it, but the ball rebounds back to Kalibat’s left foot, and this time he buries it in the top left corner. Teddy is stunned.

Hands fly to foreheads, fans stomp away in disbelief, anguished cries of “oish” ring out. Next to me, a kid who’d just been screaming “Itzik, you’re a ben zona!” drops down to his seat, wraps his hands around his all-black kippah, and rocks back and forth. Another supporter is lamenting, to no one in particular: “We were good before all this balagan! Why did we need all this balagan?!” At halftime, with Beitar heading into the locker room down 2-0, the stadium has gone quiet and I can cleanly hear the sharp sound of peace protest balloons being popped.

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So what in the world has gotten into Beitar Jerusalem? After years of gritting their teeth through La Familia, why bring the Chechens now? The simple answer is that the league’s transfer window had opened. Until then, Beitar coach Eli Cohen had his young, mostly locally sourced team playing better than expected and within playoff contention. So why not hire reinforcements to boost the team’s postseason chances? For years, Beitar management had insisted they wouldn’t hesitate to sign Arab or Muslim players if the fit was right; technically, they were just living up to their word. But even fans that agreed with the acquisition of Sadayev and Kadiyev couldn’t understand the timing of it. Why drop a bomb like this in the middle of the season? Right as Beitar was playing so well?

The particulars of the Chechens’ transfer have raised eyebrows in Jerusalem. In January, Beitar traveled to Chechnya to play a friendly against Russian team Terek Grozny. The match was set up by Gaydamak. While there, Beitar began facilitating the purchase of Kadiyev and Sadayev from Terek. In a statement from the team, the move was described as an act “to strengthen Israeli-Chechen friendship.” This made very little sense to anyone, and two other theories emerged to explain the signing, both revolving around Beitar’s controversial billionaire honcho.

Gaydamak was one of the oligarchs who emerged from Russia’s murky post-Glasnost and Perestroika era, leaving behind a trail of billion-dollar lawsuits, Interpol warrants, and miscellaneous high drama.5 By the mid-2000s Gaydamak had emerged as a major benefactor of Israel. He poured millions into education funds, bankrupt hospitals, and evacuation packages for Israelis living in Hamas rocket zones. He bought Beitar in 2005 and, according to one account, spent $120 million attempting to turn it into a top-flight international side. Two seasons later, they won the first of back-to-back league championships. That year, he declared in an interview, “I am the most popular man in Israel.” Then things went sour.

In 2008, Gaydamak ran for mayor of Jerusalem, borrowing the yellow and black of Beitar Jerusalem for his campaign posters. But despite early promise, he netted an embarrassing 3.6 percent of the vote. The following year, after a lengthy investigation, France sentenced Gaydamak to six years in prison and a €5 million fine for arms dealing during the Angola Civil War. According to the French court, Gaydamak’s mid-’90s import/export business dealings went beyond wheat and coal: He had trafficked nearly $800 million worth of tanks, helicopters, and warships to the Angolan government. Fearing extradition from Israel to France, Gaydamak stayed in Moscow.6

After leaving Jerusalem,7 Gaydamak removed himself from day-to-day operations at Beitar and repeatedly attempted to sell the team. With the signing of Kadiyev and Sadayev, Gaydamak’s reemergence as a vocal and visible presence in team affairs was seen as highly peculiar. And so the first theory posits that Gaydamak acquired the Chechens — and shook Beitar to its core — just to make a buck. No one knows the details, but the rumor says Gaydamak wanted to butter up some business contacts in Chechnya, and somehow the Beitar deal accomplished that.

The second theory is more diabolical. After Gaydamak flopped in the mayoral election, he gave a truly unhinged interview to Ma’ariv, claming he couldn’t care less about the city, the country, Beitar, or its fans. “Instead of calling the team Beitar Jerusalem,” he told the paper, “maybe I’ll call it Beitar Arcadi. Maybe I’ll invest just the minimal amount of money, and we’ll go down to the 2nd or 3rd division. I won’t bother anymore with the fans of Beitar — if I could, I’d ban them all from Teddy.” And now, the conspiracy theorists cry, the chickens have come home to roost. Gaydamak is having his long-promised revenge.

Note that neither theory offers much credence to the possibility that Gaydamak has simply decided to confront racism at Teddy. But why not? In 2006 Gaydamak gifted $400,000 to Bnei Sakhnin to partially fund their new stadium. That same year he tried to bring to Beitar onetime Bnei Sakhnin captain Abbas Suan, one of the greatest Arab Israeli players of all time, but Gaydamak balked when Beitar fans objected.

“As far as I’m concerned, there is no difference between a Jewish player and a Muslim player,” he said after the signing of the Chechens. “We must look at things professionally. We must treat them nicely and fairly.” And while it’s hard to take a gun-running, law-dodging oligarch at his word, it’s also hard to deny that what’s happening at Beitar is the kind of clearly delineated good-versus-evil battle that rarely ever occurs in the real world.

The thing is, Arcadi’s in the high tower, tending to his empire. Who’s struggling to contain the backlash in Jerusalem, down here in the streets? That’d be general manager Itzik Kornfein.

Take the 39 bus from Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station and get off at Bayit Vagan. Cross the street, step over a low guardrail, and walk down a steep dirt path. To your right you’ll see a large, rotted piece of wood on which is scrawled, “Ya’lla Beitar,8 together we’ll relight the flame — we love you.” In front of you will be a giant blue menorah sign, posted atop the squat yellow offices of Beitar. Behind that you’ll see the pristine practice fields, tucked below street level and offset by hills crammed with white stucco homes.

This is where, at the first practice after the signing of Kadiyev and Sadayev, a La Familia faction — one of them wearing a homemade “Muhammad is 100% dead” T-shirt — came to heckle and jeer. Today, though, it’s full of happy parents cheering for their little soccer prodigies on the Beitar youth squads. After, a gaggle of kids in droopy shin guards and untied cleats pile into a car. It’s a pretty typical soccer-mom scene, except this soccer mom is joking, “Bo ena, La Familia katan” — come here, you little La Familias. I walk by a rattling fence into which a young player practicing his free kicks fires fortuitously mighty balls.

Chechen football players Dzhabrail Kadaev (L) and Zaur Sadaev, signed from Russian League club Terek Grozny, show off their new shirts during their introduction by the Beitar Jerusalem football club to the press in Jerusalem on January 30, 2013. Beitar Je

From here they broke the window. And they poured neft or benzene, I don’t know. And they tossed a match.” Meir Harush, the gruff-mannered superintendent, is showing me what remains of his office. Outside the window in question you can see the padlocked fence, and you can imagine two men, in knit caps and gloves, easily hopping over it, smashing, pouring, and hopping back to the other side, all in minutes. “And there are days when I come back from games late at night and I don’t go home. I have a couch and I sleep here. And what if I had been here? They would have burned me, too?”

More than a week has passed since the crime, and by now the room is a large empty space with new shelves, a fresh coat of paint, scattered paint buckets, layers of plastic sheets, and a team of three working steadily to refurbish it.9

“How did they know to target this room?” I ask. “They didn’t know,” Harush says. “If they did, I don’t believe they would have, because this is the room — ”

I cut in: “With all the history.”

“What history?” he says. “Everyone saying history. It’s my office. I took photos of the players, Eli Ohana’s shoes from the season he retired, shirts from players that played outside of the country, shirts from all over the place. So that was it. And they torched it.”

“Are you worried?” I ask. “Maybe someone will return?”

Balagan, always was, and always will be. I don’t know if they’ll keep burning. Let’s hope not.”

Over in the main office, the setup is spartan. There’s a kitchenette, some framed glossies of Beitar greats, a water cooler. Not that the modesty is a surprise — the Kias and Passats in the parking lot were an effective enough reminder that this is top-level professional sports in Israel, not the United States. Kornfein, one iPhone earbud in as he fields calls, waves me into his office. I sit in a big leather chair and stare at the twisted venetian blinds, which are shut tight.

Itzik Kornfein, 41, is only six years removed from an 18-year pro career. He spent the last 12 of his seasons as the goalkeeper for Beitar Jerusalem, and the last six of those as captain. He’s tall and handsome, with large features, a few days’ worth of stubble, and hair shorn close to the scalp that is, just at the edge of his forehead, beginning to recede.

We begin with how the Chechen story broke. “The headlines came out on Saturday morning,” Kornfein says, then switches briefly to a shout. “GAYDAMAK IS BRINGING TWO MUSLIM PLAYERS. Or TWO MUSLIMS — I don’t even know if they said players. So it wasn’t handled in an orderly manner. An orderly manner, I imagine, would mean the coach sitting at a press conference with the head of the Directoryon” — the team’s board — “and the owners, and would have said, ‘OK, we went to Chechnya, we saw players that can help the team, and then, also, they’re Muslims.'” Kornfein believes, perhaps a bit wistfully, that if the situation had been handled the right way, things wouldn’t have spiraled out of control.

“We don’t know how to deal with 100 people who come to a practice and yell and curse,” Kornfein tells me. “We don’t know how to deal with people who come in the middle of the night and burn at Bayit Vagan.” His voice is clipped and unemotional, but he’s not reserved.

The strife surrounding the team, he concedes, affected the players on the pitch. “The players entered a sort of trauma,” Kornfein says. “But they need to disconnect from it and play soccer. We talk with them all the time on this. One of the biggest problems is we have very young players, and a lot of them grew up here in Jerusalem. They played here in the youth program, and they are very connected to this part of the crowd that usually supports, and today is coming out against, the club.”

Some in his position might try to choke this stuff down. He doesn’t pretend it hasn’t affected him. He calls the “Pure Forever” banner horrifying. “I’m sure that the person who made the sign wasn’t smart enough to make the connection between that sign and the signs that there were 70 years ago and what the Jewish people went through in the Holocaust,” he says. “But anyone who sees that sign and has a drop of common sense knows — that sign has no place. It cannot be.”

Meanwhile, as things settle, the Chechens are being cared for closely. They don’t speak Hebrew or English. The team provides them with a 24-hour-a-day body man — he translates, he drives, and he provides security. And still, they feel “a lot of love everywhere they go,” Kornfein insists. “People wanna take pictures with them, people wanna invite them home for dinner. For Purim, people dressed up in costumes of Kadiyev and Sadayev.”

Bringing the Chechens, he declares, was not provocation. A player’s religion and ethnicity, he promises, will never be a factor either for or against signing a player at Beitar Jerusalem. And yet, a few minutes later, he makes it clear that the club had decided, before the season began, to finally confront La Familia. “The Directoryon took on for itself the problem of the image of Beitar Jerualem,” Kornfein says, “and they’re backing us up. The train is out to the track. No one is planning to bring it back. From here, we go forward.”

The approach this time has been particularly confrontational, I point out. Why so now? “For four years I’ve been saying, this is a criminal problem,” Kornfein explains. “It’s a problem of violence and racism in society, and for Beitar Jerusalem there aren’t the resources or tools or even the legal right to handle them. And these supporters, they come to Teddy once a week, twice a week. But the rest of the time they are learning in schools, they’re soldiers in the Army, they maybe even work in government offices — it’s a problem for the country.”

And in that, there are signs of promise: This time, the nation’s institutions — the police, the courts, the minister of Sport, the Office of the Mayor of Jerusalem, the prime minister — have mobilized behind Beitar.

It’s tempting to see Beitar Jerusalem and La Familia as a microcosm for Israeli society, for the bitter, endless Arab-Israeli conflict, for the evil that men do. And trust that Israelis can’t help but also think in these grand terms. As much as the world obsesses over this tiny place, this tiny place obsesses over itself. Israel is a nation whose citizens never refer to it by its name, but always as ha’aretz — the country.10 And so when Kornfein says, of the international media’s coverage of the Chechen story, “they present not Beitar as racists but they present Israel as a racist country,” trust that it weighs on him. But his job is to field a winning soccer team. And so he tries, as best he can, to reduce the problem down to its most manageable blocks.

He stresses that Beitar doesn’t have an issue with its crowd — he says the team is dealing only with specific outbursts of racism or violence. He’s even hesitant to speak harshly of La Familia. They’re mostly youths, he says. Wrongheaded, yes — but naive and easily corrupted. And if they want to support Beitar without singing racist chants or inciting violence, they’re always welcome. That’s the tightrope Beitar walks: How does he lead a team into battle with its own fans?

“What makes us different?” Kornfein asks. “We’re not the team with the most championships, the team with the best reputation. What separates us is that — first of all — we’re in Jerusalem. And there’s one city in the world, and then there are all other cities. And the second thing is we have a crowd that’s fanatic, that’s connected, that’s emotional. I suspect that they love Beitar.”

Now, as the team pursues players of any faith and ethnicity, the limits of that love are being tested. “It’s clear to everyone that it won’t stop here, with these two players,” Kornfein says. “And we’ll see how it’s received in the next player we bring, and the next player we bring. And I have no doubt that, eventually, they’ll look at this period of time and they won’t even understand how Beitar Jerusalem could have been like this.”

For now, though, Kornfein, along with the Chechens, has security assigned to him. I ask if that scares him. “It’ll pass,” he says. “It’ll pass.”

Before I leave we circle back to his playing days. The last man on the field, of course, knows pressure. “The goalkeeper is the hardest position on the field,” he says. “Every small mistake … ” He grins big — “and it’s not even close to what’s happening here. If they said to me, ‘Itzik, you wanna go back?'” he laughs, slapping the back of one hand into the palm of the other, over and over. “Of course! I would pay money to go back!”

FC Beitar Jerusalem

During halftime, Kadiyev makes his first appearance. He sprints onto the pitch to warm up in sweatpants and a no. 44 jersey over a bubble jacket, his full head of curly hair bobbing with him. And every time he receives a pass, the sound comes — a mass of ascending whistles, like the shrill din of a swarm of bees. Underneath that, fans shriek bizayon — disgrace — and bennnn zooonnnnnaaa! They raise the Middle Eastern “fuck you”: Palm up, middle finger bent back toward the body, arm outstretched.

Over in the hallway, by the food stands, a small gathering of Beitar fans in kippahs have assembled to pray. They face the same direction, small prayer booklets in their hands, bowing irregularly and chanting “Amen” in unison. I ask a nearby couple — the guy with a too-short haircut and messy teeth, the girl with bleached-blonde hair and a yellow bandanna tied around one knee — what they think of the treatment Kadiyev is receiving. “The Chechen?” the girl jumps in. “She yecholim leshrof oto” — “they can go ahead and burn him.” She marches off and the guy trails dutifully behind, his face suggesting some beatific mix of pride and awe.

In the second half Beitar wakes up. They’re finally attacking, and when they push forward the whole crowd is with them. In the 71st minute, big Beitar midfielder Eran Levi streaks to the left, one-touches a nifty lead pass, and hammers in a goal with his left foot. Teddy erupts in hugs and shrieks and chants full of warmth and fuzz and undying devotion. “My parents sent me to a psychologist, I went to the Army psychiatrist as well,” Teddy sings, full-throated. “I know that nothing will help — it is because of you, Beitar, that I am crazy! O’he, o’he, o’he, o’he — Beitar, I love only you!”

And then the mood transforms again. Dzhabrail Kadiyev is up on the sideline. He’s trotting, getting loose. My stomach flutters. Holy crap, Kadiyev’s actually going to play. And in the 79th, when he comes on as a defensive substitution, it’s cacophony. The whistles and taunts return, and in the upper deck a man holds the flag of Israel, taut and defiant, his face screwed tight. But also, all around the stadium people stand and clap. I can’t say who outnumbers who — later, reports would claim it was the side of good. In the Northwest, it certainly was not. But it’s something to see — shrieks ringing out, whistles blaring, and through it all Beitar supporters, respectfully, peacefully, just standing and clapping.

Kadiyev plays through the noise and plays within himself. He traps gingerly, he wins balls, he sends out quick passes to the right spots. He’s solid. And in the 83rd, while he’s on the pitch, Beitar cooks up a gem: An outside-inside tic-tac-touch, and a perfectly lofted ball for Steven Cohen to head into the back of the net. Oh, what a joy. Beitar has tied the game.

In the last few minutes they earn chances to win, again and again, and I can’t help but hope Kadiyev scores, unlikely as that might be for a defender. I think about how he’s just 19, playing with teammates he has just recently met, on a field he has never touched, in a foreign country. I wonder if he assumes that it’s not just here at Teddy but throughout the country that people hate him for no reason. I can’t believe he’s playing this calmly. If he scores the winner, I think, I have no idea how this place will react.

Before time is up, Kadiyev gets a chance. With the offense way up, he traps the ball just past the penalty box and sees an opening. He collects himself and fires. For the wiiiin — it pings to the goalie. Minutes later, the game is over. Levi grabs the ball and spikes it to the ground, then a member of the Beitar coaching staff runs up and boots it halfway across the field.

Walking out of Teddy, the crowd is mostly deflated, except for a trio of excitable tween girls who are marching together arm in arm. “They came to ruin our team!” one girl tells me. “Terrible about this Gaydamak that we didn’t vote for — this maniac.” Her friend adds: “Listen, you have to do something. Talk with whoever brought these Arabs.” “They’re lefties,” the third girl shrieks, louder than the others. “They’re lefties! And they don’t like us. They can’t stand us. You understand?” I nod, by now tired of hearing this stuff, and quickly shut the tape recorder off. The girls turn, grinning, and begin yelling the next thing that pops into their heads, which happens to be the sales jingle of a nearby vendor: “shalosh casatot b’eser, shalosh casatot b’eser, shalosh casatot b’eser” — “three ice cream sandwiches for 10 shekels, three ice cream sandwiches for 10 shekels, three ice cream sandwiches for 10 shekels.”


Epilogue

After the Sakhnin tie, Beitar Jerusalem was blown out in their next two games and fell out of contention for the upper-level playoffs. Then, when the narrative of Beitar’s season had just about been written — racism fight sinks club — there were signs of life. Beitar shocked powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv, 2-0 on the road, then tied Maccabi Netanya, and they were on the brink of earning the last playoff spot. It wasn’t to be. In the last game of the season, a rematch with Tel Aviv, they coughed up five goals and got dropped to the lower bracket’s playoffs.

There’s one more footnote, though. The tie against Netanya was earned via a goal scored by the Chechen Zaur Sadayev. I’d already left the country by then, but I’d kept in touch with Alon, the grad student, and he filled me in via e-mail: “At that moment, about 300 fans sitting on top actually left the game in protest, amidst our heckling them and cheering. For most of us, this symbolized some sort of victory — watching them walk out.” After the game, Talesnikov, the assistant coach who earlier feared further physical attacks, was asked how he felt seeing Sadayev score. “I felt that love wins,” he said, “and that sport is the important thing and not a man’s religion.”


Tamar Barshad assisted with translations for this story.

Filed Under: Soccer, Sports

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Amos Barshad has written for New York Magazine, Spin, GQ, XXL, and the Arkansas Times. He is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ AmosBarshad

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