article by Christopher Etchingham
In looking at footballs biggest fixture, we look at some of the biggest rivalries within the sport and the reasons we have them. There are social rivals (Boca Juniors vs River Plate), religious rivals (Rangers vs Celtic), political rivals (Glentoran vs Lindfield) and also regional pride (Barcelona vs Real Madrid). But imagine a fixture which encompasses all of those factors, taking place in one of the most unstable places on the planet. I give you Beitar Jerusalem vs Bnei Sakhnin within the Israeli league.
Beitar are set within the relatively upmarket neighbourhood of Malha, which saw conflict within the 1948 Arab–Israeli war. Its fans are right wing and Jewish (if you can imagine such a thing) and have a reputation for violence and have earnt the club financial penalties off the pitch and points penalties on it. Fan offenses
have included heckling during a moment of silence for slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and chanting slogans derogatory to Muslims and Arabs. After Sakhnin won the state cup, Beitar fans paid for an
obituary within the local newspaper claiming that Israeli football was dead. In June 2011, Beitar were the only top flight Israeli club never to have registered an Arab as a player for them.
Sakhnin fans for their part also have a reputation for violence. In 2005 fans rioted during a game with Hapoel Tel Aviv, after an incident between a club official and the referee due to the latter earlier sending off two Sakhnin players. Their next two games had to be played behind closed doors.
Etgar Keret, a Jewish New York Time journalist, once attended a match between the two teams. He suggested to a Sakhnin fan that the match was merely a game and received the vitriolic reply “For you, maybe, because you’re a Jew. But for us, soccer is the only place we’re equal in this stinking country.” Throughout the match Keret observed fans testing the sticks and stones adage as they exchanged racial insults as well as rocks. At a game between the two teams in 2011, a Sakhnin fan lost an eye. Police claimed it was due to a firework, but fans said it was due to a plastic bullet. The fan from his hospital bed vowed to be at the fixture the following season.
In a bid to ease tensions between the clubs, Beitar owner Arcadi Gaydamak donated $400,000 to Sakhnin. The move angered Beitar fans across the board whether moderate or hardcore.
Its easy to look at this fixture and think that as Israel is a small league, games like this don’t matter as much as some of the bigger
European ones. However, owing to the instability of the region as a whole, this fixture polarises the tensions of a country and has the potential to be a starting point for trouble to flair on a grander, globally destructive scale. We’ve seen military conflict start before from a football match in both Central America and the former
Yugoslavia, it has the potential to happen here in the future too.