The two faces of politicized Israeli football

Football is usually a true reflection of the society where it takes place. As in Jerusalem, where Beitar and Hapoel Katamon live together, two antagonistic ways of understanding this sport and this country. The shield of the first bears the menorah (seven-armed candlestick), an important symbol of Judaism. The second one is red and black, with the hammer and sickle.

Israel is a polarized state, marked by the violence of a conflict that does not seem to have an end. Jerusalem, a broken city. Like almost everything in the country, football has always been very politicized. In the first decades of Israel’s existence as an independent state, Labor governed and, through its organization of Histadrut unions, created soccer teams in all major cities with the name of Hapoel (worker). With the fall of Labor in the 70s, the majority ended up in the hands of businessmen, such as Hapoel Jerusalem, which has spent most of its history in Ligat ha’Al, the first division. But, in 2007, with managers fighting each other for the power of a club in decline, they descended to Third. Fans, fed up, took action on the matter, creating a new team with the idea of ​​recovering the initial spirit of the institution: Hapoel Katamon, referring to the neighborhood where the team originally played. They started competing in the fifth division and, five seasons later, they won their former team in Second.

In a country where the majority of teams were born as a result of a political movement, clubs linked to Zionism have gained prominence in recent times. The best example is the Beitar which, with 80 years of history, has won its six league titles in the last three decades. Currently, it is one of the clubs with the most followers in the country, but it is also the most controversial. An important part of the right-wing leaders of the city are followers of the Beitar, and have used it as a political springboard at some point. It is the only team in the league that has never hired an Arab player and his ultras are the ones that have performed the most violent acts. They claim to be the most nationalist and “Here is the most racist team in the country” is one of their usual songs. Among Israeli flags, it is common to see banners with anti-Palestinian slogans in their stands. Three years ago, we saw how far they could go. The club hired two Chechen Muslim players and “La Familia,” as this ultra group is called, did not stop until they were kicked out. They harassed the players and the board, destroyed a clubhouse and achieved their goal in a few days. The coach ended up publicly admitting that they would never consider signing Arab or Muslim players.

Beitar Jerusalem F.C. soccer coach Eli Cohen, center, poses for the media with new Beitar players Gabriel Kadiev, left, and Zaur Sadayev, right, during a press conference in Jerusalem, Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013. The arrival of Zaur Sadayev and Gabriel Kadiev to Beitar Jerusalem’s squad comes amid rising tensions. The team’s fans chanted anti-Muslim slogans at a recent game and unfurled a sign protesting the Chechens’ arrival. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)


The Katamon, the split of Hapoel Jerusalem, is the opposite example. Despite his short life, he was the first team in the country to line up an Arab player. It is owned by its fans and, with only nine years of existence, already competes to ascend to the highest national division. Every day it has more fans, for its cooperative structure and for its social commitment. It is a club of the people and for the people, with a clear tendency towards the left. A third of the budget goes to develop social programs to fight racism and homophobia and promote women’s sports and immigrant integration. “La Liga de Vecindades”, a children’s championship between the different schools in the city with mixed teams of Arab and Jewish children, is one of the projects that has had the greatest impact. In its stands, we see Cuban flags and anti-fascist symbols. Economically, they cannot compete with the great clubs of the country, but that is not their goal. They do not forget their roots and, although they do not stop growing in all aspects, their ultimate goal is to buy back the Hapoel, from which they were born, and return to be a single team, as dictated by the second statute of the new club. Several times they have tried, but the current owner is not willing to sell at least for now.

Two realities faced, with Jerusalem in the background. Two very different ways of understanding the ability of this sport to influence society. Two extreme clubs, which represent much more than colors.