JERUSALEM (AP) — The owner of Israel’s Beitar Jerusalem soccer club said Thursday that he called off a friendly match with international powerhouse Barcelona over its refusal to hold the event in contested Jerusalem.
Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 war, annexed it in a move not recognized internationally, and considers the entire city its capital. The Palestinians seek east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, and the city’s status is one of the thorniest issues in the decades-long conflict.
Beitar Jerusalem owner Moshe Hogeg said he was forced to cancel the planned Aug. 4 match “with great sadness” because he refused to give in to what he said was a “political” demand.
“After I received the contract to sign and discovered the unequivocal demand that the game not take place in the capital city, Jerusalem, and several other demands that I didn’t like, I slept with a heavy heart, thought a lot and decided that above all else I am a proud Jew and Israeli,” Hogeg wrote on Facebook. “I cannot betray Jerusalem.”
Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion expressed support for the decision, saying teams that intend to “boycott” Jerusalem should be barred from Israel altogether.
“Jerusalem is the capital of the state of Israel and the decision to boycott it is not a professional, sporting or educational decision,” he said in a statement.
Barcelona said it never officially announced the match would take place.
Beitar Jerusalem is the only major Israeli soccer club to have never signed an Arab player, and its hard-core fans have a history of racist chants.
During the team’s 2013 season, a move to bring in two Muslim players from Chechnya badly misfired. Beitar’s fan group known as La Familia led a boycott that famously left the stadium empty during a home match, and several fans were charged with torching the team’s offices while the club was nearly relegated to the second division as its season fell apart.
Hogeg, who purchased the team in 2018, has vowed to combat racism and sideline the club’s anti-Arab fans.
Earlier this month the Palestinian Football Association sent a letter of protest to Barcelona over the planned game in Jerusalem.
Sami Abou Shehadeh, a Balad party lawmaker in the Israeli parliament, had also petitioned Barcelona to cancel the game, saying Beitar “represents the most extremist, racist and fascist segments of Israeli society.” Palestinian soccer clubs had also written to Barcelona urging it not to play in Jerusalem.
Argentina canceled a World Cup warmup match with Israel in 2018 following pro-Palestinian protests. Some Israeli officials accused Lionel Messi and his teammates of caving to terrorism.
The international soccer federation later imposed a year-long ban on Jibril Rajoub, the head of Palestinian soccer, for allegedly inciting fans against Argentina. Rajoub called the ban biased and “absurd.”
FIFA said Rajoub had “incited hatred and violence” by calling on soccer fans to target the Argentinian Football Association and burn jerseys and pictures of Lionel Messi.
Argentina Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie said at the time players felt “totally attacked, violated” after images emerged of the team’s white and sky-blue striped jerseys stained with red paint resembling blood.