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Jerusalem football club to change racist culture

    Well-supported: Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem is owned by fans, runs a girls’ team and has Arabs on its books
    Well-supported: Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem is owned by fans, runs a girls’ team and has Arabs on its books

    This afternoon, a Jerusalem football team will battle on the pitch for promotion to the professional league — and to change the culture of the game in Israel.

    Many fans are sick of clubs’ reliance on tycoon owners, who can send their fortunes up and down like yo-yos. So six years ago, a group of Jerusalemites established a football co-operative.

    Today, all 420 owners of Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem will be cheering them on for a victory which, given the required goal difference, will put it in the Israeli equivalent of the Football League Championship.

    “The whole base of the system is different with our club,” says chairman Omri Sheinfeld. “The team is the fans, which means they feel involved, not just like spectators, and they also have responsibility.” The owners pay NIS 1,000 (£180) a year, providing almost a quarter of the club’s annual budget of NIS 2 million.

    For general manager and founder Uri Sheradsky, the co-operative model is an antidote to the destabilising effect of big money in football. He says: “Few people want to invest in clubs, and many of those who do are strange people and you can’t rely on them. Now, you don’t rely on one person, you rely on hundreds.”

    Two fans of Hapoel Katamon
    Two fans of Hapoel Katamon

    The progressive ethos at the club is not limited to its ownership structure. It seeks to change the demographic attending football, from a predominantly adult male crowd. All under-13s attend games for free, and they have become family affairs with far more women and children than elsewhere in Israeli football. In a bid to be a team for all local residents in a city with such a large religious population, Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem has insisted in holding games on weekdays, not on Shabbat. As a result, it has a large religious following.

    The club is also running the only girls’ team in jerusalem.

    In terms of Arab involvement, the club is a stark contrast to the dominant Jerusalem team.

    Beitar Jerusalem has never had an Israeli Arab or Palestinian player. In fact, some Beitar fans were so outraged by the signing earlier this year of two foreign Muslims that there was an arson attack at the club and a mass walkout from the stadium when one of them scored his first goal.

    At Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem there are Arabs among the owners, and on the senior and youth teams.

    Mr Sheinfeld says: “There are all sorts of peace programmes, but that isn’t what this is — it’s just people from different sides who would never normally co-operate doing so for football.”

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