ERUSALEM (AP) — At the age of 39, Moshe Hogeg has made millions of dollars trading in cryptocurrency, bought one of Israel’s most prominent soccer teams and brought in a wealthy Emirati sheikh as his new co-owner.

Now comes what may be his biggest challenge.

As owner of Beitar Jerusalem, the only major Israeli soccer club never to have signed an Arab player, Hogeg says he is determined to remove the stain of racism from the team and sideline its most rabid anti-Arab fans, all while transforming Beitar into a soccer powerhouse with a diverse lineup. 

“The racist image that the club had was one of the key elements that brought me to buy this club,” Hogeg told The Associated Press in an interview at the team’s Jerusalem training facility.“I saw this problem that reflects bad not only on the club, but also on Israel,” he said. “I love football, and I thought it was the opportunity to buy this club and to fix this racist problem. And then I could do something that is bigger than football.”

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

But in recent years, it has drawn negative attention for its refusal to integrate. Israel’s Arab minority makes up roughly 20% of the country’s population, and Arab players star on rival teams and the national squad.

Club officials have in the past said their hands were tied by a hardcore base of fans who wield significant clout over personnel decisions. A small group of fans, known as “La Familia,” have chanted “death to Arabs” and other profanities toward opposing Arab players. 

During the team’s 2013 season, a move to bring in two Muslim players from Chechnya badly misfired. La Familia led a boycott that famously left the stadium empty during a home match, several fans were charged with torching the team’s offices, and the club was nearly relegated to the second division as its season fell apart.

Hogeg, a high-tech entrepreneur and cryptocurrency trader, bought Beitar two years ago and said he set out to change its culture from the “very beginning.”

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

 

 

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