Soccer-Police braced for climax of Israeli relegation battle

JERUSALEM Fri May 3, 2013 1:00pm BST

JERUSALEM May 3 (Reuters) - Israeli police will be out in force on Saturday for a tense relegation clash between Arab club Bnei Sakhnin and Beitar Jerusalem, bastion of the political far right, as the fiercest battle to avoid the drop reaches its climax.

Over 600 officers, including riot police, with surveillance balloons and a helicopter - unusual in the Jewish state where soccer violence is uncommon - will control proceedings around Sakhnin's Doha Stadium where both teams face the threat of going down.

An additional 150 club stewards means there will be one enforcer for roughly every 10 spectators at the club's small ground in northern Israel.

Fixtures between Sakhnin and Beitar, the only club in the top flight never to have employed an Arab player because of fan pressure, are always highly-charged.

They signed two Chechen Muslim players earlier this year which prompted protests, racist behaviour and violence from an extreme element among the club's supporters, including the torching of Beitar's club house.

Supporters in both camps ratcheted tensions this week by describing the fixture as "a matter of life and death" and taunts were posted on the internet.

"We will ensure that the match is held in a sporting manner, but we will need plenty of officers to do so," said Roni Atia, the senior police commander in northern Israel.

Beitar have the worst disciplinary record in Israel's Premier League. Since 2005, they have faced more than 20 hearings and have received various punishments, including points deductions, fines and matches behind closed doors.

Sakhnin are currently the only Arab top-flight club and are followed throughout Israel by the country's Arab minority that makes up 20 percent of the population of eight million.

Arab players feature at all other clubs and for decades have represented the Israel national team.

There will be huge tension among fans on Saturday as any one of six teams meeting in three relegation clashes could join Hapoel Ramat Gan in the second division next season.

Ramat Gan are bottom with 30 points and already down but only three points separate the six anxious clubs above them in the Premier League's relegation group.

Maccabi Neyanya (35) are one off the bottom with Sakhnin (36), Hapoel Akko (36), Hapoel Beersheba(38), Beitar (38) and Hapoel Haifa (38) all also under threat.

The winners of the matches between Sakhnin and Beitar, Hapoel Haifa and Hapoel Akko, and Maccabi Netanya and Hapoel Beersheba will all breath a sigh of relief for another season.

The losers will face an anxious wait to know their fate. (Editing by Alan Baldwin)

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