Brazilian-born American billionaire Guma Aguiar has big plans for Beitar Jerusalem

By James Montague in Jerusalem
In a city like Jerusalem, that sits at the spiritual intersection between the big three monotheistic religions, the line between saviour and false prophet has always been a controversial topic. But for the supporters of Beitar Jerusalem, Israel’s most popular club, it has been more of an issue of confusion, having declared the arrival of the Messiah twice in three years.

First it was the turn of Arkadi Gaydamak, the controversial Russian-born tycoon, who four years ago bought the team, bought success and bought the affections of the fans. Now, with that dream turning sour, Israeli football facing something of a financial crisis, Beitar on the verge of bankruptcy and Gaydamak in self-imposed exile an equally colourful character has emerged to save Beitar from oblivion.

No one had heard of Guma Aguiar two years ago, but since riding to the rescue this summer by guaranteeing Beitar’s survival he has become something of a celebrity. Having been born to a Jewish mother in Brazil, but raised a Christian in US, he rediscovered Judaism late. But the young, brash 31-year-old billionaire, who made his money when his company, Leor Energy, discovered America’s largest natural gas field in Texas before retiring, has been making up for lost time. He has given a string of hyperbolic appearances on TV, declaring his undying love for Jerusalem, and undertaken huge acts of philanthropy.

One organisation, Nefesh B’Nefesh, which promotes the resettling of Jews from around the world in Israel, reported that Aguiar strolled into the office and left a cheque for £3million before strolling out again. Politicians like president Shimon Peres are clamouring to be photographed next to him. So why invest in Israeli football next?

“I love Jerusalem, it’s special. You’re not in Kansas anymore, that’s for sure,” Aguiar explained. “I was approached. There are a lot of people here who feel strongly about their teams. It reminds me a lot of Brazil, going to the Maracana. A lot people here don’t care about anything other than football. I can relate to that.”

Those with longer memories, however, will have heard something similar before. When Gaydamak bought the club in 2005, he too was feted. “Arkadi is the Messiah!” sung the fans that thronged Beitar’s Teddy Stadium. Gaydamak lapped up the publicity and used his popularity at a club renowned for his connection to the right wing Likud Party, and who count former prime ministers Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and current leader Binyamin Netanyahu as fans, to raise his political profile.

Eventually he set up his own the political party, the Social Justice party, and with a gift for self-promotion planned to run for Mayor of Jerusalem. But Gaydamak brought a lot of baggage with him, in particular an arrest warrant in France for alleged arms smuggling during Angola’s brutal civil war. When he finally ran for mayor last November, he polled just over three per cent.

Gaydamak, who felt that Beitar’s fans owed him a shot at elected office, left for Russia soon after where he’s been ever since, leaving the club in a perilous financial state. Despite pouring £65million into the team, Beitar was on the verge of bankruptcy before Aguiar emerged last May.

Yet Gaydamak was just one of a host of rich, foreign businessmen who invested heavily in Israeli football only to be caught out by the credit crunch, Israel’s acerbic sports press, or both. Daniel Jammer, a German tycoon, bought Maccabi Netanya and tried to sign David Beckham before installing Lothar Matthaus as manager. Russian born Canadian billionaire Alex Shnaider bought Israel’s most revered team Maccabi Tel Aviv.

“In part I think it was an extension of Zionism,” explains Jeremy Last, sports editor for the Jerusalem Post. “Many Jews living outside of Israel want to feel connected to the Jewish state. There is an instant reputation and status which comes with investing in football as seen with Gaydamak and now Aguiar.”

Some brought fleeting success – Beitar won two titles and two cups, Netanya finished second in successive seasons – but it wasn’t enough. Gaydamak has now all but gone, Jammer sacked Matthaus and drastically cut Netanya’s budget and Shnaider sold Maccabi Tel Aviv to fellow Canadian Mitchell Goldhar for a pittance after winning nothing.

“The last year has seen a massive economic downturn and many of these people have been hit hard,” says Last. “It’s true, some may not understand the media focus that comes with being involved in football. They might think Israel is a small country which focuses on politics and defence, but the sports media here is significant.”

Aguiar, though, has consistently denied using Beitar as a stepping stone to political office, like Gaydamak. Instead, he has chosen a far harder path: to try and take the politics out of Beitar’s notoriously right wing terraces. “I don’t want to use the football as a political tool because that’s not fair, as an outsider, to come in and have a [political] agenda,” he said. “But the one thing I would like to see is more tolerance from the fans. In order for us to be competitive and to attract talent we want to play abroad and not be viewed as total hooligans. I certainly wouldn’t want to go to Barcelona and hear them singing ‘Death to the Jews’.”

Beitar have a sizable hardcore of support known for its violence and racism. Beitar have never had an Arab player turn out for them. When it was mooted that one was to sign the fans rioted and the move was dropped. Chants like “Death to the Arabs” have been commonplace in recent years.

Last season they suffered a points deduction as punishment for racist chanting. Beitar’s fans responded by attacking the Israeli FA’s offices and daubing death threats on their walls against the IFA’s president.

It’s a state of affairs that Aguiar thinks damages Jerusalem’s image abroad. “I want to see the flagship name of Jerusalem, bring some outsiders to Israel to visit [and] create awareness about this place,” Aguiar said. “Raising the profile of Jerusalem would be the most positive outcome. It’s torn apart by a lot of conflict. But there are Christians, Jews and Muslims here that love the land they live in. I want Christian and Muslim fans here too.”

Whether Beitar’s fans will accept that is another issue altogether, but Aguiar is nothing if not ambitious. He plans on making Jerusalem a football city on a par with Madrid or Milan, and hopes to win the Europa League within two seasons. “The man loves Jerusalem,” enthused Beitar legend and TV commentator Danny Neuman on the first day of the season, a crucial one that sees the Israeli league expand massively from 12 to 16 teams. “He has saved Beitar.”

He’s right. But the toughest job for Aguiar comes next: saving Beitar from itself.