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An end to Jerusalem football racism? This week in Middle East football Open in fullscreen

Uri Levy

An end to Jerusalem football racism? This week in Middle East football

Bnei Sakhnin and Beitar Jerusalem have developed a fierce rivalry [Getty]

Date of publication: 25 September, 2018

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Has a new chapter been opened in the fierce rivalry between Beitar Jerusalem and Bnei Sakhnin?
It's been a few years that the rivalry between Beitar Jerusalem and Bnei Sakhnin has been known as one of the most fierce in the Middle East.

Beitar is identified with the Israeli right wing, and Sakhnin with the Arab minority in Israel who identify with Palestine, and that's more than enough to create turmoil between the clubs' fans.

In the past decade, these matches have become a demonstration of national identities, full of racist and violent songs by Beitar fans, and inciting chants by Sakhnin fans.

In 2016 it was decided that these matches would be held with home fans only - Sakhnin fans would not visit Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem, and Beitar fans would not travel north to the Doha Stadium.

Last month Beitar was purchased by a young businessman named Moshe Hogeg, a famous figure in the world of crypto-currency. Hogeg marked one specific goal in his three first missions: to normalise the relations between the two clubs.

He approached Mohamed Abu Yunis, Sakhnin's chairman, and the two agreed to lift the ban on away fans. The rivalry opened a new chapter.

This Monday in Jerusalem was the first test. More than 1,500 Sakhnin fans took to the away stands, while 19,000 Beitar supporters filled the rest of the stadium.

Fans from both camps told The New Arab that they hoped a new chapter would bring a new atmosphere, and that extremist fans would not take over the scene as they have done throughout the years. Both Beitar and Sakhnin fans said they were happy the away ban had been lifted.

"Football must be a place that everyone can come and enjoy," said one fan before the match. "Songs and rivalry are part of the game, but not racism."
In the past decade, these matches turned in to a demonstration of national identities, full of racist and violent songs by Beitar fans, and inciting chants by Sakhnin fans
Beitar Jerusalem has been strongly associated with
Israel's far-right [AFP]

Surprisingly, during the match, there were zero racist chants from the stands. Nothing. Not the "Here come the country's racist team", nor "Death to the Arabs", nor a new song of hatred. Simply nothing.

The Jerusalem Police later told The New Arab that 11 arrests had been made during the game. Seven were of individuals caught shouting racist slogans (four from Sakhnin and three from Beitar), and another four for illegal re-selling of tickets.

One incident crossed over into actual violence before the game, when a group of Beitar fans attacked a group of Arab fans. "I walked not too far from the stadium with few friends who came from the north to support Sakhnin," said Said T, a Jerusalemite Arab fan from Beit Hanina. "Suddenly we were surrounded by almost 30 guys. All my friends made an escape, but I couldn't," he told The New Arab.

"I am an Arab resident of Jerusalem and for years I used to support Beitar Jerusalem, despite all the difficulties," he continued. "In the past years mainly due to the rise in the racism I started to support Beitar Nordia, a fan-owned club of Beitar fans in the Israeli third division that is against the racist fans. Luckily I am all right and it was only a torn shirt and a few hits, but it shouldn't be a part of our football."

I am an Arab resident of Jerusalem and for years I used to support Beitar Jerusalem despite all the difficulties

The new owners of Beitar might not have yet succeeded in ending all the racist gestures on the club's stands, but the match set a serious precedent in terms of general atmosphere.

While violence and racism among football fans takes a long time to eradicate completely, especially among those who feel threatened, and incidents like the attack of Said and others will also not disappear so fast - the main event was generally free from outrage.

Is there a wind of change in Jerusalem? Saturday was a positive chapter in Beitar-Sakhnin relations, and maybe will be used as a stepping-stone for the future.

Turki decides: The party's over

Around midnight on Monday, the owner of Pyramids FC, Turki al-Sheikh, released an explosive statement through its social media accounts.

"I am seriously considering withdrawing from investing in sports in Egypt... a strange attack from another side and every day a new story... I have a headache!", Al-Sheikh wrote on Facebook.

The message was transmitted also on the Pyramids TV station, which he owns.

Prince Turki al-SHeikh
Turki al-Sheikh announced he was pulling
out of Pyramids FC on Tuesday [AFP]

Al-Sheikh, the Saudi sports minister who has used his position close to de facto Saudi ruler Mohammed Bin Salman to become the most powerful man in Middle East football, had ostensibly aimed to create a top-flight African club in Egypt, signing players from Brazil with a budget of around $40 million dollars.

The team was targeted to fight for the Egyptian title this season and to win the African Champions League next season.

But after his extravagant project with the Pyramids in Cairo failed to take off as hoped, it was only a matter of time before the Arab Donald Trump of football provided some kind of online outburst.

Insiders in Saudi Arabia report that Al-Sheikh is obliged to personally take on all the contracts and commitments he signed with people while setting up Pyramids FC.

But as with everything related to the Saudi supremo, nothing is sure and anything can happen at any moment. The next few days will be crucial. Be sure to keep an eye on Turki al-Sheikh.

Uri Levy runs the popular football blog BabaGol, which covers football and politics focusing on the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter, and read his blog here

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