Israel's Abramovich uses football to unite Jerusalem
Betar Jerusalem’s fans are notoriously racist, but billionaire Guma Aguiar is confident he can turn the club into a model of ethnic harmony and boost the city’s image in the process.
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Guma Aguiar follows the action at a Betar Jerusalem match.“I’d like to see more tolerance,” he says of the club’s supporters
For the past four seasons the terraces of Betar Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium have noisily exalted their saviour. When Arkadi Gaydamak, the controversial Russian-born tycoon, arrived from nowhere to buy the struggling team, he was heralded for restoring the club’s former glories. The fans ignored his colourful background, and lapped up the success. “Arkadi is the Messiah!” they would sing as he bought them back-to-back championships.
That dream turned sour earlier this year, with Betar on the verge of bankruptcy and Gaydamak leaving for self-imposed exile in Russia. But, out of nowhere, an equally colourful character has emerged to save Israel’s most popular football club from oblivion.
Not many people in Israel had heard of Guma Aguiar two years ago, but since riding to the rescue this summer by guaranteeing Betar’s survival, he has become something of a local celebrity.
Born to a Jewish mother in Brazil, but raised a Christian in the United States, he rediscovered Judaism late after meeting Rabbi Tovia Singer, the controversial leader of outreach Judaism, an organisation that tries to “win back” Jews who have become Christians.
I don't want to use football as a political tool
That was in 2004. Since then the young, brash 31-year-old billionaire — he made his money when his company, Leor Energy, discovered America’s largest natural gas field in Texas — has been making up for lost time. He has given a string of hyperbolic appearances on Israeli television declaring his undying love for Jerusalem while undertaking huge acts of philanthropy. The aliyah organisation, Nefesh b’Nefesh, reported that Aguiar strolled into its office and left a cheque for $5 million (over £3 million). “We just looked at each other and thought: ‘Let’s see if this cashes’,” one employee was quoted as saying in the Israeli media. Another $500,000 followed for the Holocaust education project, the March of the Living. Now politicians like President Shimon Peres are clamouring to be photographed next to him.
Aguiar claims the funding of Betar is as much about investing in Jerusalem as it is investing in the beautiful game. “I love Jerusalem, it’s special. You’re not in Kansas any more, that’s for sure,” Aguiar explains, a former high-school football star who dreamed of owning a team since injury ruled out a career in the game. “I was approached. There are a lot of people here who feel strongly about their teams. It reminds me a lot of Brazil, going to the Maracana stadium in Rio. A lot of people in Jerusalem don’t care about anything other than football. I can relate to that.”
Those with longer memories, however, will have heard something similar before. When Gaydamak bought Betar in 2005, he lapped up the publicity and used his popularity at a club renowned for its connection to the right-wing Likud Party, and which counts former prime ministers Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and current leader Binyamin Netanyahu as fans, to raise his political profile. Eventually Gaydamak set up his own political group, the Social Justice Party, and with a gift for self-promotion planned to run for mayor of Jerusalem.
But the Russian tycoon brought a lot of baggage with him, in particular an arrest warrant in France for alleged arms smuggling during Angola’s brutal civil war. When he finally ran for mayor last November, he came a distant third, polling just over three per cent of the vote. Gaydamak left for Russia soon after with the club in a perilous financial state. Despite putting around £64 million into the team, Betar was on the verge of bankruptcy before Aguiar emerged last May, agreeing to fund the team this season with an option to take full control at the end of it. In essence, a try-before-you-buy deal.
Aguiar, though, has consistently denied using Betar as a stepping-stone to political office like Gaydamak. “I never met him, but I’m not sure what he was doing,” he says. “People in Israel are smart enough. They might be die-hard Betar fans but they will vote for the best candidate rather than the owner of their team.”
Instead, he has chosen a far harder path — to try and take the politics out of Betar’s notoriously right-wing terraces. “I don’t want to use the football as a political tool because that’s not fair, as an outsider, to come in and have a political agenda,” he says. “But the one thing I would like to see is more tolerance from the fans. For us to be competitive and to attract talent we want to play abroad and not be viewed as total hooligans. I certainly wouldn’t want to go to Barcelona and hear their fans singing ‘Death to the Jews’.”
Taking the politics out of Betar will be a tough job. The team has a sizeable hardcore of support known for its violence and racism that has long been an embarrassment for the club. Betar has never had an Arab player turn out for them. When it was mooted that Abbas Suan, the Israeli Muslim international, was to sign, the fans rioted. Unsurprisingly, the move was dropped. Chants like ‘Death to the Arabs’ have been commonplace in recent years. In the past two seasons the team has had to play behind closed doors due to racist chanting and for booing during a minute’s silence for assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. Last season they were punished with a points deduction. Betar’s supporters daubed death threats on the walls of the Israeli FA’s offices aimed at the organisation’s president.
It is a state of affairs that Aguiar thinks damages Jerusalem’s image abroad. “I want to bring some outsiders to Israel to visit and create awareness about this place,” he says. “Raising the profile of Jerusalem would be the most positive outcome [of my involvement] with Betar. It has a name that you either love or a name that makes you cringe. It’s torn apart by a lot of conflict. But there are Christians, Jews and Muslims here that love the land they live in. I want Christian and Muslim fans here too.”
Whether Betar’s fans will accept that is another issue altogether, but Aguiar is nothing if not ambitious. He plans on making Jerusalem a football city on a par with Madrid or Milan, and hopes to win the Europa League tournament within two seasons. “The man loves Jerusalem,” enthused former Betar player-turned-commentator Danny Neuman on the first day of the season. “He has saved Betar.”
But the toughest job for Aguiar comes next — saving Betar from itself.
Aguiar in brief
1978 Born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to a Jewish family.
1981 Moves to the US where he is raised an evangelical Christian.
1999 Begins work, aged 21, as a clerk on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
2003 Co-founds Leor Energy LP, drilling for natural gas reserves in Texas. Leor eventually produces 240 million gross cubic feet of natural gas per day.
2004 Meets Rabbi Tovia Singer, the controversial leader of Outreach Judaism, an organisation that tries to “win back” Jews lost to the Christian faith. “I repented during that first conversation, and I returned immediately to my true heritage, the Jewish faith,” Aguair says.
2007 Sells Leor Energy to EnCana Corp for around £1.6 billion.
2009 Talks begin with Betar over buying the club, which is on the verge of bankruptcy. In July invests around £2.5 million. Last month invests just under £1 million as a sponsor of basketball team Hapoel Jerusalem