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Beitar fans make stand against racism

Chechen Muslim player Gabriel Kadiev was given a standing ovation when he made his debut for Israeli club Beitar Jerusalem on Sunday despite fears he would be targeted by racist fans.

Sections of the Beitar support are known for extreme hostility to Muslims and Arabs, and police in Jerusalem recently announced plans to use undercover officers at games in an attempt to track down those involved in racist chanting.

Chants at a recent match targeted the club's two newly-signed Chechen Muslim players, and hundreds of police were deployed around Beitar's Teddy Stadium for the match against Bnei Sakhnin - an Arab team whose fans have been involved in previous clashes with Beitar's.

But when Kadiev, 19, who joined Beitar from FC Terek Grozny, came on after 80 minutes, the majority of the crowd's cheers drowned out the minority's abuse. His Chechen team-mate Zaur Sadayev, 23, missed the game through injury.

Supportive banners with slogans including: "Violence and racism? Not on our field" were also in evidence.

And Beitar fan Yair Sina, 49, told the Associated Press: "I came today to show that not all Beitar fans are punks and racists. I won't let them take away my love for the team."

Jerusalem's mayor Nir Barkat, who attended the match, said: "It is now clear to any reasonable person in the country where racism can lead. I came here to strengthen Beitar in their battle against racism.

"This is a historic process, and it is clear that what was once cannot be again.''

The match came days after offices belonging to Beitar were badly damaged in what police said was an arson attack.

The blaze at an administrative building near the training ground, which destroyed historic trophies, happened a day after four fans were charged with chanting anti-Muslim slogans at a match.

Reuters reported Jerusalem police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld as saying that nobody had been injured and that officers were looking for suspects in connection with the incident.

Speaking after the weekend's match, Rosenfeld said more than 500 policemen had been on duty both inside and outside the stadium to prevent disturbances.

Most of the confrontations have centred around the La Familia group of supporters, whose racist behaviour has previously seen Beitar docked points and made to play games behind closed doors.

The club's general manager Itzik Kornfein, who has spoken out strongly against racism, has been targeted by the group and said after last week's fire that he feared his life could be in danger.

The virulent racism led Israeli president Binyamin Netanyahu, a Beitar supporter, to issue a call for change.

"Lately, we have seen displays of extremism that we find unacceptable," he said. "These must be uprooted from the public sphere and, of course, from the world of sports."