Players of Maccabi Tel Aviv soccer club involved in sex scandal

When two players of the Maccabi Tel Aviv soccer club were suspected of sexual relations with minors, club owner Mitchell Goldhar made it clear this was intolerable on all levels.

al-monitor Europa League - Villarreal vs Maccabi Tel Aviv - Estadio de la Ceramica, Villarreal, Spain, Dec. 7, 2017. Pictured players are not related to the events described in the article. Photo by REUTERS/Heino Kalis.

Jun 22, 2020

Can Canadian Jewish billionaire Mitchell Goldhar give a lesson on morality to Israeli soccer players and to Israeli soccer in general? Can he set the standard of behavior for them?

In an unusual step for the local sport, Maccabi Tel Aviv soccer club owner Goldhar suspended two members of his team (whose names cannot be released). The two players are suspected of engaging in sex with two 15-year-old girls.

The two players met the girls at a birthday party for another player. They claim the girls deceived them by claiming to be older, and even showed them evidence of their “age,” though they may have used fake indentification. The girls deny all of this. One of them even claims that the players took turns during sex with her, even though she did not give her consent.

WhatsApp messages found on the players’ cellphones indicate that this was not the only time something like this happened, and that other players from their team — and from other teams, too — were involved in exchanging information about young girls, some of them minors, for purposes of sex.

When the scandal first hit the news June 15, several groups helping female victims of sexual abuse approached Goldhar to demand that he punish the players. Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel CEO Orit Soliciano told the media that this appeared to be “an extreme case of the sexual exploitation of minors by well-known and highly regarded players, who are admired by countless fans.”

Goldhar responded just a few days later by announcing that the players would be suspended. They would not be participating in any training or games until the incident was investigated. One day later, it was announced that regardless of the findings, Goldhar was planning to kick them out for good, even though they are the team's two best players, and can rightfully take credit for the team’s success over the last few years.

Goldhar bought the Maccabi Tel Aviv soccer club some 11 years ago. The iconic team has won 18 national championships and is on its way to another — the fifth since Goldhar purchased the club. His approach from the moment he bought the team has been to support social involvement, including the creation of an entire network of subsidiary sports teams for children and youths all across the country, with an emphasis on the periphery. The best of these young players will eventually join the main team.

But Goldhar is not focused solely on training the next generation of players. He is also interested in the social advantages of having community sports in towns and villages identified with Israel’s periphery, where they are especially needed. Goldhar poured roughly 500 million to 700 million Israeli shekels ($145 million to $203 million) into Maccabi Tel Aviv since he first acquired it, with a large part of that going to its youth teams. He invested considerable human knowledge and technology in those teams, much of it brought in from overseas. The new codes of behavior were first established by the team’s former professional manager, Jordi Cruyff of the Netherlands, son of Johan Cruyff, who is considered one of the sport’s best players ever. The younger Cruyff determined that all players must comport themselves as public figures and serve as role models. He insisted that they dress properly, express themselves appropriately in the media and show exemplary personal behavior.

Goldhar is sticking to these codes of conduct to the strictest possible degree. In problematic cases such as the one he is now handling, the almost basic instinct of Israeli sports teams is to circle the wagons. Under normal circumstances, the team denies that the incident ever occurred, supports its players and casts blame on the other party. In this case, the two players who got into trouble are popular sports stars from good families. They are 26 and 28 years old, with one of them married and the other single. They also earn a fortune and are highly admired by a huge fan base.

What this means is that Goldhar is taking an important step by making an example out of them. As of now, there is almost zero chance that the two players will continue to play for the team, even if they are acquitted of any criminal charges. Furthermore, Goldhar has set such a high threshold that it will be very difficult for other Israeli soccer clubs to get their hands on them. If they choose to continue in the sport, their only option will be to find another team overseas.

Goldhar will probably come under sharp criticism from the team’s fans. If there is no conviction, most of them would be happy to see the players return to the team after they receive some symbolic punishment. There is, in fact, a real campaign to oppose his plans to drop them. Fan groups already gathered outside the stadium during this week’s game and held up signs supporting the players. The prevalent opinion among fans on social media is that whatever happened was the girls’ fault. Photos and video clips of the girls have been released as evidence of “lascivious behavior,” and the overwhelming opinion of fans is that they destroyed these players’ careers.

Nevertheless, a senior figure in Maccabi Tel Aviv told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that Goldhar is determined to carry through with his plans. “His statements about the players’ behavior have been unequivocal. He would act the same way, even if the police don’t charge them, or if they are acquitted. His goal is to rid the team of all this, because he is not focused exclusively on athletic achievements. He is also interested in education and providing a good example for young people. What will tens of thousands of young players and fans in Israel — who admire and look up to those players — say? When you are a soccer player, anything goes? All you have to do is play well for the basic rules of morality and behavior to be bent in your favor?” the source said.

Meirav Lapidot is a former police officer who dealt extensively with cases such as this. She told Al-Monitor that Goldhar acted wisely and morally. What he really said was, she noted, that it is unacceptable for his players to act like that, and that he is not waiting to find out whether it was a crime. Lapidot added that Goldhar has spoken his mind, and that he is not waiting for a police investigation. What this says to all other players is that if you behave inappropriately off the field, it doesn’t matter how good you are. Your career is finished with us, because we expect a certain minimum behavior from you.

In this sense, Goldhar represents seed change in the behavior of the owners and managers of Israeli soccer clubs. He is following in the footsteps of Moshe Hogeg, owner of Maccabi’s archrival, Beitar Jerusalem. Acting against the will of some racist fan groups of his team, Hogeg hired a Nigerian player named Ali Mohamed, in the hope that this would educate his fans. Hogeg took on his team’s fans and won. Since then, Mohamed has become one of the team’s brightest stars.

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