Hundreds of rabid supporters of popular Israeli soccer club Beitar Jerusalem walked out of a soccer stadium this weekend to protest the team's new Muslim player.
A group of Beitar Jerusalem fans known as "La Familia" staged the walk out Sunday after Beitar striker Zaur Sadayev scored his first goal of the season against opposing team Maccabi Netanya early in the second half. The game ended in a 1-1 tie.
Sadayev, a 23-year-old Chechen Muslim, was hired along with Muslim teammate Gabriel Kadiev at the end of January. The move greatly displeased a core group of Beitar Jerusalem fans who are known for being nationalistic and anti-Muslim, according to The New York Times.
The Jewish Journal reports that fans have been thrown out of recent Beitar Jerusalem games for chanting anti-Arab and racist slogans.
The soccer club's controversial hiring decision prompted a retaliatory arson attack against Beitar Jerusalem's management offices in early February, according to the Jerusalem Post, and both Sadayev and Kadiev have been greeted with abuse by the fans.
The atmosphere of the Beitar Jerusalem-Maccabi Netanya match was tense from the start, according to The Independent, and Sadayev was booed every time he touched the ball in the first half.
Fans who spoke with the Independent insisted the protest was not about prejudice, however.
“The reaction to the Muslim players being here is not racist,” 19-year-old Akeeva, a Beitar fan, told the news site. “But the club’s existence is under threat. Beitar is a symbol for the whole country.”
“It’s just a matter of being Arab," another fan, identified as Jacob, said. "It’s not racism, they just shouldn’t be here. Beitar Jerusalem has always been a clean club, but now it’s being destroyed – many of the other players are thinking of leaving because of the Muslim players being here.”
The Times notes that La Familia members followed through on a threat to rid the team of a Nigerian Muslim player, Ibrahim Nadalla, in 2005.