AP – At the age of 39, Moshe Hogeg made millions of dollars trading cryptocurrency, bought one of Israel’s most famous football teams and hired a wealthy sheikh from the Emirates as its new co-owner.

Now comes perhaps his greatest challenge.

As the owner of Beitar Jerusalem, the only major Israeli football club that has never signed an Arab player, Hogeg is determined to remove racism from the team and get rid of its most rabid anti-Arab fans while plunging into Beitar transforms soccer powerhouse with a varied line-up.

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“The club’s racist image was one of the key elements that led me to buy this club,” Hogeg told The Associated Press in an interview at the team’s training facility in Jerusalem.

“I saw this problem, which affects not only the club, but also Israel,” he said. “I love football and thought it was an opportunity to buy this club and solve this racist problem. And then I could do something bigger than soccer. ”

Members of the La Familia group protest against the intention of the Beitar owner Moshe Hogeg to sell a percentage of the group to a member of the royal family of the United Arab Emirates on December 4, 2020 at the training ground of Beitar Jerusalem in Jerusalem. (Flash90)

Rooted in the same pre-state Zionist movement that inspired the ruling Likud party, Beitar is one of the most famous sports franchises in the country and has fans of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin. It is seen as a powerful symbol of the Israeli working class at the heart of Netanyahu’s nationalist base.

However, in recent years it has drawn negative attention for refusing to integrate. Israel’s Arab minority makes up approximately 20% of the country’s population, and Arab players play in rivals and the national team.

Club officials have said in the past that their hands have been tied by a hardcore base of fans who have a significant impact on hiring decisions. A small group of fans known as “La Familia” have sung “Death to the Arabs” and other swearwords against opposing Arab players.

During the team’s 2013 season, an attempt to bring two Muslim players out of Chechnya failed badly. La Familia led a boycott that was known to leave the stadium empty during a home game. Several fans have been accused of setting the team’s offices on fire and the club nearly relegated to the second division during its season.

Hogeg, a high-tech entrepreneur and cryptocurrency trader, bought Beitar two years ago and said he set out to change his culture from the start.

A sign showing support for Beitar Jerusalem’s Ali Mohamed can be seen in the stands during the football club’s game against Hapoel Beersheba at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem on December 7, 2020. (Flash90)

He said he spoke out against racism and even filed lawsuits accusing fans of damaging the team’s reputation. Last year, Beitar Ali Mohamed, a Muslim player from Niger, Africa signed.

His biggest move by far, however, was this month’s blockbuster announcement that he had sold a 50% stake in the club to Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, a member of the Abu Dhabi ruling family. Al Nahyan has pledged to pump $ 90 million into the team over the next decade.

Hogeg said he was inspired to seek a partner from the Emirates following the US-brokered diplomatic relationship between Israel and the United Arab Emirates in September. He spoke to several potential investors before mutual acquaintances introduced him to Al Nahyan.

Jewish Israelis have warmly welcomed the establishment of relations with Gulf Arabs despite ongoing discrimination against Israel’s Arab minority in areas such as housing, work and the state budget. Hogeg believes that sport can be a role model for others.

“I was looking for a partner who had the same vision of showing the world, showing children and showing everyone that Muslims and Jews can work together and build beautiful things together,” he said. “And I think football is the best platform for that.”

Beithe Jerusalem owner Moshe Hogeg (C) with member of the United Arab Emirates royal family, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan (R), who bought half of the team (Beitar Jerusalem)

The bearded Hogeg, who wore a sharp suit and black dress shoes, stood on a soccer field in the practice facility for the interview. He happily trickled a soccer ball and kicked it in the gate as he talked about his love for the game he still plays in his spare time.

Hogeg said he and his partner are planning a “carrot-stick” approach in which they use their expertise and deep pockets to reward fans with a multi-year football powerhouse while letting everyone know that they understand their message of coexistence opposes, is undesirable.

“Either you’re for the club or it’s about something else. When it comes to hate and racism, you are not part of us, ”he said.

The team is at the bottom of the league this year and has little chance of success. But Hogeg predicts a quick turnaround next year and expects to fight for the Israeli championship through aggressive player acquisitions. In the long term, he and his partner are planning to invest heavily in young talents from their own country and to assert themselves on the European stage.

With Al Nahyan as a co-owner, Hogeg said adding Arab players to the squad was not a “problem”. He said the team is already trying to recruit an Arab player to compete in Europe, although it is unclear whether his current team will release him.

“We are actively looking for A-class players who can improve the level of our team,” he said. “Religion is by no means a factor.”

Avigail Sharabi, a die-hard Beitar supporter currently on a reality TV show, accused Hogeg of giving up the team’s traditions for money.

Sharabi, 54, insisted that she was not a racist, but that she found it unfathomable when an Arab player wore the team’s Jewish candelabra logo and sang the Israeli national anthem, longing for a Jewish homeland.

“He sold everything. He sold our name, our principles, our life, our heart, ”she said of Hogeg.

Fans of the Beitar Jerusalem football team will hold up a sign reading

Fans of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team held up a sign on January 26, 2013 that reads “Beitar forever pure”. (Flash90)

Maya Zinshtein, a filmmaker who made an Emmy Award-winning documentary “Forever Pure” about the turbulent 2013 season, called herself a “crazy optimist” and believes Hogeg will be able to change the team’s culture.

Zinshtein described La Familia as a small but vocal minority that has historically been allowed to harass the wider fan base. She said a lot has changed since her documentary was released in 2016, also because of the embarrassing scenes of racist behavior. These changes have only gained momentum since Hogeg arrived, she said:

“La Familia will not change. It’s just a matter of the space they get, ”she said. “Most fans are not radical.”

Since Hogeg brought their Emirati partner on board, La Familia members have been making some noise on social media. But when they recently attempted to protest the deal at a team training session, they outnumbered the supporters.

“It won’t be easy,” said Hogeg. “There is a group of radical fans out there who will do everything in their power to harm (us). But I am sure we will win. “