A startlingly diverse group of men have sought over the past 20 years to take control of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer club, but not one has emerged from the experience unscathed.
Russian-born oligarch Arcadi Gaydamak. Brazilian-American energy tycoon Guma Aguiar. Israeli businessman Eli Tabib. Crypto mogul Moshe Hogeg. Emirati royal Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan.
Gaydamak went to prison for arms trafficking. Aguiar was involuntarily institutionalized, then later went missing while out sailing and was eventually declared dead. Tabib was shot outside his home. And in the team’s current twisted chapter, Hogeg was arrested late last year on close to two dozen charges of fraud and sex crimes.
Al Nahyan’s bid to purchase 50% of the team fell through when it was discovered that he had misrepresented the scale of his wealth as well as his ties to the UAE royal family.
Today, the fate of Israel’s most infamous soccer team hangs in the balance as the alleged financial misdeeds of Hogeg – the current owner – have pushed the club to the edge of bankruptcy, with no clear path forward. It remains undetermined if the team will survive the summer and live to begin the new season at the end of August.
Fans attempted to band together to buy the team themselves last month, but this week a court froze the deal since it is too tied up in Hogeg’s ongoing legal troubles. Now the team has until Sunday to present a new budget, with virtually nothing to show for itself except mountains of debt.
More than 85 years after its founding, it is possible the storied club has played its last season. How did the team end up here? A long, stranger-than-fiction string of events and revelations has turned the club into one that most sensible investors would avoid at all costs.
A political football
“The club is so toxic that any decent businessman should think twice” before investing in Beitar Jerusalem, Shaul Adar, the author of the new book “On the Border: The Rise and Decline of the Most Political Club in the World,” told The Times of Israel in a recent interview. “The club is on the brink yet again. We don’t know if they will survive this summer; they need someone to buy the club or somehow to get the money — the minimum amount to start the new season.”
The team, founded in 1936, is arguably the most popular soccer club in Israel and undoubtedly its most controversial: It makes headlines more frequently for the racism and violence of portions of its fan base than for the skills and accomplishments of its players. Beitar Jerusalem is the only club in Israel’s Premier League to have never signed an Arab player, and its most vocal and extremist fan club — known as La Familia — can often be heard chanting “Death to Arabs” from the eastern stand of Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem. In May, Defense Minister Benny Gantz suggested La Familia be labeled a terrorist group.
The club is also intrinsically linked to not just municipal politics, but to national politics. It was initially associated with Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s Revisionist movement and has a long history of links to today’s Likud party. Its most ardent fans have included former president Reuven Rivlin, former prime minister Ehud Olmert and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, while politicians looking to curry favor have regularly been spotted in the stands, including former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former minister Miri Regev and, more recently, far-right firebrand MK Itamar Ben Gvir.
“For many years, this club was almost a political tool for the right wing,” said Maya Zinshtein, director and producer of “Forever Pure,” an International Emmy award-winning 2016 documentary about the racism of Beitar’s fan base. But in more recent years, Zinshtein suggested, “when La Familia became the most vocal voice about Beitar, it kind of pushed out many of the politicians that would consider themselves as Likud and grew up in Beitar.”
Not so for Ben Gvir, who last month posted a photo on Instagram of himself at a Beitar game, with a message declaring that “Beitar is a great love of mine” and that “we cannot allow them to turn out the lights on us.”
“The thought that Beitar Jerusalem could stop existing is kind of crazy,” Zinshtein told The Times of Israel in a recent interview. “Just because it’s so rooted in the history of Israel… it’s much more than just a football club, it’s a big part of Israeli society.”
The team, she said, is inextricably linked to Israeli politics: “This club basically walked hand in hand with the history of the Likud party,” she noted, citing the many Likud politicians tied to the team and its many links to election campaigns.
It’s much more than just a football club, it’s a big part of Israeli society
Zinshtein’s film closely documents Beitar’s 2012-2013 season, when the club signed two Muslim players from Chechnya and the fans’ racist reaction shook the nation and propelled the story into international headlines.
In 2005, Gaydamak – a Russian-born Israeli-French billionaire – bought the floundering team from a group of fans and businessmen who had taken control after the club went bankrupt in 2001. Gaydamak, observers said, was hoping that pouring money into the popular team would help pave his way to becoming mayor of Jerusalem, and he sank millions into the club.
But in the 2008 mayoral election, Gaydamak won just 3.5% of the vote, coming in a distant third after winner Nir Barkat and runner-up Meir Porush. Coupled with the economic downturn at the time and his frustrations with the growing power of the racist La Familia, the oligarch decided to cut off funding to the team.
“You can’t count on fans to vote for you no matter how much money you’ve poured into the club,” wrote Adar in “On the Border” of the lesson Gaydamak learned the hard way. “The tap was closed shut. He still owned the team but didn’t support it anymore. The mood had changed, like a wedding with a dead groom.”
Beitar Jerusalem syndrome
Over the next few years, Gaydamak tried and failed several times to sell the club, leaving it largely ignored and struggling while he dealt with his own problems, including multiple court cases.
Enter Aguiar. Born in Brazil and raised in the US as a Christian, Aguiar rediscovered his mother’s Jewish roots as an adult and quickly sought to immerse himself in Jewish and Israeli causes. At 26, he hit it big with a huge natural gas find in Texas and became a multimillionaire overnight.
In 2009, Aguiar arrived in Jerusalem and invested $4 million in Beitar, hoping to take over the storied club. He was hailed as a messiah by fans who were frustrated by Gaydamak’s abandonment of the team. But within a few months, his erratic behavior was garnering him headlines for all the wrong reasons. Aguiar even claimed to reporters that he had successfully entered Gaza and met with captive IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, showing off purported photos of his visit.
The whole thing, wrote Adar, was a sham staged by his bodyguards. “They drove him to Ashkelon, near the Gaza border, and staged the whole heart-breaking farce for him.” Soon after, Aguiar was institutionalized by his family in Tel Aviv. Two years later, he went missing while aboard his yacht, Zion, off the coast of Florida, and has never been seen since. Speculation about his fate ran rampant, and Aguiar was officially declared dead in 2015, marking an end to one of the more tragic footnotes in the history of Beitar.
“The name Jerusalem does something to people,” said Adar. “Beitar – if you compare it to other clubs – everything is much more emotional,” he added.
“Once you get Jerusalem into the equation, with messianic hallucinations, the result is the same — people get deluded, thinking that they are much more important than [just] football club owners because it’s Jerusalem.”
Fast forward to 2012, with Gaydamak increasingly frustrated by his inability to offload the club and bogged down in his own affairs. Out of nowhere, he decided to bring the team for a visit to Chechnya, as he explored his some business interests. Weeks later, Gaydamak announced that the team had signed two young Muslim players from Chechnya – a first for the club.
Many fans were furious, booing when the players took the field, shouting racist slogans and walking out of the stadium when they scored. At one match fans unfurled a banner that read “Forever Pure,” inspiring the name of Zinshtein’s documentary. Extremists even set fire to the team’s administrative offices, destroying a trove of historic memorabilia. The dark chapter in Beitar’s history – which ended after the 2012-2013 season when the two players went straight from the last game to the airport – made the team infamous internationally for its intolerance.
Just what was Gaydamak’s real motivation?
In “Forever Pure,” the oligarch told Zinshtein that he signed the two players purely to show the true nature of the team’s fans.
“Of course that transfer was organized for this reason,” he said in the film. “Not because they are good footballers. I have no idea if they are any good. Of course I knew there would be a big reaction. I did it to show Israeli society as it really is, to expose its real face.”
The period left an indelible stain on an already tainted club. During that season, many sponsors dropped the team, and major figures distanced themselves from the toxic racism plaguing the fan base.
The aftermath, said Adar, only further cemented the team as one that serious investors would steer clear of.
“I spoke to [longtime Beitar goalkeeper-turned-general manager] Itzik Kornfein, and he said that he can’t get international companies to work with Beitar because the image is so tainted,” recalled Adar. “Nobody in his right mind will want to be associated with Beitar.”
To attract a stable future owner, Adar said, the team “would need to clean up their image and clean up the stands.”
The Tabib era
The club’s woes certainly did not end with Gaydamak. In the summer of 2013, he finally sold it to businessman Eli Tabib, who in the past owned Hapoel Kfar Saba and Hapoel Tel Aviv. But the tenure of the seasoned sports owner was far from smooth.
Months after he took ownership of the team, a grenade was discovered underneath his car, and neutralized before it could cause any harm. In February 2015, Tabib was shot and lightly injured outside his home by hired guns allegedly linked to a business dispute.
A few months later, Tabib declared that he no longer wanted to be the owner of Beitar after fans of the team rioted and threw smoke bombs at a match in Belgium against Sporting Charleroi. But it took him three years to finally unload the team – this time to flashy crypto mogul Moshe Hogeg.
Hogeg, who paid NIS 26.5 million for the team, was once again treated as a messiah-like figure by fans eager to once again have an owner willing to pour money into the club.
From the beginning, Hogeg was dogged by lawsuits over his many business dealings, his ties to the illegal binary options field and alleged fraud. Weighed down by his many lawsuits, Hogeg attempted to turn elsewhere for funding for the team. In the aftermath of the Abraham Accords, he sought to broker a deal with Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan of the UAE to purchase 50% of the team for a purported NIS 300 million.
But the deal, which garnered headlines around the world, quickly fell apart after it emerged that Al Nahyan didn’t have even close to the liquid assets he had claimed to possess.
Zinshtein suggested that the potential deal with an Emirati national served to show that perhaps Beitar Jerusalem’s fans had learned some hard lessons from the Chechen chapter.
“I think that in a way, the silent majority kind of maybe looked in the mirror and said ‘what I see there is very ugly’ – and I think a slow process started,” said the filmmaker.
Despite the club still not having signed an Arab player, “what happened with the potential buyer – and the fact that most Beitar fans supported it – it was unbelievable to me,” she added. “But I do think it represents a shift that really happened there.”
Hogeg’s problems were far from over. After years of battling lawsuit after lawsuit, he was arrested in November 2021 for a long list of crimes, including money laundering, theft, fraud, sexual assault, trafficking and underage prostitution.
The bombshell left Beitar Jerusalem essentially without an owner, but also largely without the ability to find one. Finding a new buyer in the current situation, said Adar, is more than just an uphill battle. Hogeg succeeded in linking his failed and allegedly criminal business endeavors directly with the team, tying things up legally and making the team even less desirable than before.
“Because the owner is Hogeg, everything is much more complicated because he’s under investigation and everything has to go through the economic department of the police… it’s not straightforward,” said Adar.
“I can’t rule out that an oligarch kicked out of Russia or of the West and wants to launder his image will buy the club – it is possible,” suggested Adar. “The economic situation is so clear that you’d have to be a really determined person to buy the club.”
Zinshtein suggested that because the club “represents something that is much bigger than the game itself, because it has so much context, I think many people who come to it are not coming from a pure sports reason.”
And with the kickoff of the 2022-23 season just six weeks away, the team’s fans are devastated and furious at the thought that their beloved club could disappear, even staging protests outside the homes of officials from both the team and the Israel Football Association.
Once again, Beitar Jerusalem fans are hoping and praying for another messiah to swoop in and save the day.