TEL AVIV, Israel – A wave of violence has jolted soccer in Israel, resulting in police investigations, stiff punishments and the postponement of more than a dozen matches.
The violence, highlighted by a brawl caught live on national TV last weekend, has involved players, fans and coaches. It even drew the attention of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has ordered his sports minister to end the fighting.
"We must defeat violence on football pitches. We cannot see such kicking and fisticuffs," Netanyahu told his Cabinet this week. "We want to see football. If there is violence, there will not be football. Therefore, this violence must be uprooted in order to return the game that Israelis, myself included, love very much."
The escalation started at the March 5 derby between Hapoel Tel Aviv and Maccabi Tel Aviv, which ended with Hapoel fans pelting players with flag poles and garbage in the final minutes after two players were sent off. The players, Salim Toama and Avihai Yadin, added to the heated atmosphere by arguing with the referee as they left the field. Hapoel lost the match for the first time since 2008.
Two weeks later, supporters of Beitar Jerusalem, a team known for anti-Arab fans, were filmed participating in a rampage at a nearby mall following a team victory. More than a dozen fans were arrested and subsequently banned from stadiums.
Early this month, a brawl broke out between players and coaches of Maccabi Petah Tikva and Hapoel Haifa at the end of their Premier League relegation match. One Haifa player was briefly hospitalized after being headbutted by an opposing coach, and Petah Tikva was docked three points for the fight.
So when a free-for-all broke out after a crucial second-division game last Friday, in which dozens of players and coaches from Hapoel Ramat Gan and Bnei Lod punched and kicked each other on live television, the Israel Football Association decided it had had enough.
The association's chairman, Avi Luzon, called off the entire schedule of weekend games in the top two divisions as footage of the fighting was repeatedly broadcast and analyzed on Israeli news shows. All eight Premier League games and the five remaining second division games were postponed to next week.
At a hastily organized news conference on Sunday, Luzon announced plans to form a committee to recommend ways of improving soccer and the struggle against violence.
His organization subsequently suspended five Bnei Lod players and seven Ramat Gan players for two to seven matches. Both teams were docked three points in the standings. It also handed an eight-month ban to Bnei Lod coach Saliman Azerbarga, who was seen attacking opposition players during the brawl Friday.
Israeli police have recommended that 13 players involved in the brawl be charged with assault and public disorder. A decision on whether to indict is expected in the coming weeks.
After meeting with the national police chief, Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat said this week that changes will be made to punish anyone who riots or fights on soccer fields.
"The violence at stadiums has reached levels that require a different approach than has previously been employed," Livnat said. "The field has become a battleground, involving not only fans but also players, coaches, officials ... it is impossible to stay silent."
One option considered is returning police to soccer stadiums. Two years ago, the league allowed private security guards to handle the games.
Maccabi Haifa Chairman Jacob Shahar on Monday turned down Luzon's offer to chair the committee but said he would be willing to assist.
Although Shahar agreed the escalation of violence has been problematic, he insisted there have only been a few isolated incidents. He said the situation is not as bad as in other countries such as Greece and Turkey, where stadiums have been closed because of fan violence on a number of occasions in recent years. He added even Israel experienced far worse violence in the 1980s.
"The first thing to do is significantly increase the punishments," Shahar said. "I have been talking about this for more than 20 years, and that was a time football was much more violent."