Could foot­ball unite Jerusalem?

Be­tar Jerusalem’s fans are no­to­ri­ously racist, but bil­lion­aire Gu­maAguiar is con­fi­dent he can turn the club into a model of eth­nic har­mony and boost the city’s im­age in the process, says JamesMon­tague

The Jewish Chronicle - - Front Page -

FOR THE past four sea­sons the ter­races of Be­tar Jerusalem’s Teddy Sta­dium have nois­ily ex­alted their saviour. When Arkadi Gay­damak, the con­tro­ver­sial Rus­sian-born ty­coon, ar­rived from nowhere to buy the strug­gling team, he was her­alded for restor­ing the club’s for­mer glo­ries. The fans ig­nored his colour­ful back­ground, and lapped up the suc­cess. “Arkadi is the Mes­siah!” they would sing as he bought them back-to-back cham­pi­onships.

That dream turned sour ear­lier this year, with Be­tar on the verge of bank­ruptcy and Gay­damak leav­ing for self-im­posed ex­ile in Rus­sia. But, out of nowhere, an equally colour­ful char­ac­ter has emerged to save Is­rael’s most pop­u­lar foot­ball club from obliv­ion.

Not many peo­ple in Is­rael had heard of Guma Aguiar two years ago, but since rid­ing to the res­cue this sum­mer by guar­an­tee­ing Be­tar’s sur­vival, he has be­come some­thing of a lo­cal celebrity.

Born to a Jewish mother in Brazil, but raised a Chris­tian in the United States, he re­dis­cov­ered Ju­daism late af­ter meet­ing Rabbi Tovia Singer, the con­tro­ver­sial leader of out­reach Ju­daism, an or­gan­i­sa­tion that tries to “win back” Jews who have be­come Chris­tians.

That was in 2004. Since then the young, brash 31-year-old bil­lion­aire — he made his money when his com­pany, Leor En­ergy, dis­cov­ered Amer­ica’s largest nat­u­ral gas field in Texas — has been mak­ing up for lost time. He has given a string of hy­per­bolic ap­pear­ances on Is­raeli tele­vi­sion declar­ing his undy­ing love for Jerusalem while un­der­tak­ing huge acts of phi­lan­thropy. The aliyah or­gan­i­sa­tion, Ne­fesh b’Ne­fesh, re­ported that Aguiar strolled into its of­fice and left a cheque for $5 mil­lion (over £3 mil­lion). “We just looked at each other and thought: ‘Let’s see if this cashes’,” one em­ployee was quoted as say­ing in the Is­raeli me­dia. An­other $500,000 fol­lowed for the Holo­caust ed­u­ca­tion project, the March of the Liv­ing. Now politi­cians like Pres­i­dent Shi­mon Peres are clam­our­ing to be pho­tographed next to him.

Aguiar claims the fund­ing of Be­tar is as much about in­vest­ing in Jerusalem as it is in­vest­ing in the beau­ti­ful game. “I love Jerusalem, it’s spe­cial. You’re not in Kansas any more, that’s for sure,” Aguiar ex­plains, a for­mer high-school foot­ball star who dreamed of own­ing a team since in­jury ruled out a ca­reer in the game. “I was ap­proached. There are a lot of peo­ple here who feel strongly about their teams. It re­minds me a lot of Brazil, go­ing to the Mara­cana sta­dium in Rio. A lot of peo­ple in Jerusalem don’t care about any­thing other than foot­ball. I can re­late to that.”

Those with longer mem­o­ries, how­ever, will have heard some­thing sim­i­lar be­fore. When Gay­damak bought Be­tar in 2005, he lapped up the pub­lic­ity and used his pop­u­lar­ity at a club renowned for its con­nec- tion to the right-wing Likud Party, and which counts for­mer prime min­is­ters Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and cur­rent leader Binyamin Ne­tanyahu as fans, to raise his po­lit­i­cal pro­file. Even­tu­ally Gay­damak set up his own po­lit­i­cal group, the So­cial Jus­tice Party, and with a gift for self-pro­mo­tion planned to run for mayor of Jerusalem.

But the Rus­sian ty­coon brought a lot of bag­gage with him, in par­tic­u­lar an ar­rest war­rant in France for al­leged arms smug­gling dur­ing An­gola’s bru­tal civil war. When he fi­nally ran for mayor last Novem­ber, he came a dis­tant third, polling just over three per cent of the vote. Gay­damak left for Rus­sia soon af­ter with the club in a per­ilous fi­nan­cial state. De­spite putting around £64 mil­lion into the team, Be­tar was on the verge of bank­ruptcy be­fore Aguiar emerged last May, agree­ing to fund the team this sea­son with an op­tion to take full con­trol at the end of it. In essence, a try-be­fore-you-buy deal.

Aguiar, though, has con­sis­tently de­nied us­ing Be­tar as a step­ping-stone to po­lit­i­cal of­fice like Gay­damak. “I never met him, but I’m not sure what he was do­ing,” he says. “Peo­ple in Is­rael are smart enough. They might be die-hard Be­tar fans but they will vote for the best can­di­date rather than the owner of their team.”

In­stead, he has cho­sen a far harder path — to try and take the pol­i­tics out of Be­tar’s no­to­ri­ously right-wing ter­races. “I don’t want to use the foot­ball as a po­lit­i­cal tool be­cause that’s not fair, as an out­sider, to come in and have a po­lit­i­cal agenda,” he says. “But the one thing I would like to see is more tol­er­ance from the fans. For us to be com­pet­i­tive and to at­tract tal­ent we want to play abroad and not be viewed as to­tal hooli­gans. I cer­tainly wouldn’t want to go to Barcelona and hear their fans singing ‘Death to the Jews’.”

Tak­ing the pol­i­tics out of Be­tar will be a tough job. The team has a size­able hard­core of sup­port known for its vi­o­lence and racism that has long been an em­bar­rass­ment for the club. Be­tar has never had an Arab player turn out for them. When it was mooted that Ab­bas Suan, the Is­raeli Mus­lim in­ter­na­tional, was to sign, the fans ri­oted. Un­sur­pris­ingly, the move was dropped. Chants like ‘Death to the Arabs’ have been com­mon­place in re­cent years. In the past two sea­sons the team has had to play be­hind closed doors due to racist chant­ing and for boo­ing dur­ing a minute’s si­lence for as­sas­si­nated prime min­is­ter Yitzhak Rabin. Last sea­son they were pun­ished with a points de­duc­tion. Be­tar’s sup­port­ers daubed death threats on the walls of the Is­raeli FA’s offices aimed at the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s pres­i­dent.

It is a state of af­fairs that Aguiar thinks dam­ages Jerusalem’s im­age abroad. “I want to bring some out­siders to Is­rael to visit and cre­ate aware­ness about this place,” he says. “Rais­ing the pro­file of Jerusalem would be the most pos­i­tive out­come [of my in­volve­ment] with Be­tar. It has a name that you ei­ther love or a name that makes you cringe. It’s torn apart by a lot of con­flict. But there are Chris­tians, Jews and Mus­lims here that love the land they live in. I want Chris­tian and Mus­lim fans here too.”

Whether Be­tar’s fans will ac­cept that is an­other is­sue al­to­gether, but Aguiar is noth­ing if not am­bi­tious. He plans on mak­ing Jerusalem a foot­ball city on a par with Madrid or Mi­lan, and hopes to win the Europa League tour­na­ment within two sea­sons. “The man loves Jerusalem,” en­thused for­mer Be­tar player-turned-com­men­ta­tor Danny Neu­man on the first day of the sea­son. “He has saved Be­tar.”

But the tough­est job for Aguiar comes next — sav­ing Be­tar from it­self.

Guma Aguiar fol­lows the action at a Be­tar Jerusalem match.“I’d like to see more tol­er­ance,” he says of the club’s sup­port­ers

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