The offices of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team were set ablaze last night, apparently in ongoing fight over the team's two new Muslim players. No one was injured in the 5 a.m. blaze, but the offices and the building were heavily damaged and the fire department immediately suspected arson. The club has suffered a wave of disturbing actions its from its fans since signing two Chechen Muslim players just last week.
Racism has long been a problem in the highly tribal world of international soccer, but the Israeli Premier League, and Beitar Jerusalem in particular faces its own unique complications when it comes to integration. Even though Arab Israelis are allowed to play in the league and are included among the some its the best players, many of the teams and their fan bases are still heavily divided among political and cultural lines.
Beitar Jerusalem is the most segregated of them all. Originally founded as an athletic offshoot of a Zionist youth movement and recently sponsored by the conservative Likud party, the squad has never hired an Arab player and its fans are notorious for singing racist chants at games and for occasionally violent outbursts. Players have been involved in numerous post-game brawls with other teams and coaches, and last April, a mob of about 100 Beitar fans stormed a mall after a game, beating workers there and shouting "Death to the Arabs." This 2012 ESPN report chronicled some of their worst offenses.
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The signing of Muslim players Zaur Sadayev and Gabriel Kadiev last Wednesday was meant to counter the belief that Beitar is the league's biggest troublemaker, but fans responded with anti-Muslim chants at their first practice—directed at their favorite team's own players, remember—and by carrying banners with slogans like, “Beitar Forever Pure.” Just one day before the arson attack, four of the team's fans were indicted in court for their role in that incident and even the President and Prime Minister have called for the squad to clean up its act.
If you've seen any recent World Cup matches in the last several years, you'll notice that fighting back against racism has become a major them of international soccer, even as fans and players, even the best in the world, continue to encounter it wherever they go. Some soccer fans still have a lot of work to do.