Fans’ anti-Israel hostility in Glasgow forces Israeli star soccer player to leave for Charlotte

Liel Abada, an Israeli footballer who has been sitting out games for his Scottish club amid fan protests of the war in Gaza, is joining Major League Soccer’s team in Charlotte.

The team said on its website on March 7 that it had paid $8 million to acquire Abada’s contract from Glasgow’s Celtic FC. He will be Major League Soccer’s second active Israeli player, joining Tai Baribo of Philadelphia Union.

Abada, 22, tallied 29 goals and 22 assists over 112 matches in his two seasons with Celtic; the team won its Scottish League this year and last. Abada is from Petach Tikva, a city east of Tel Aviv, and had 20 goals and 10 assists in 76 matches during his breakout at Maccabi Petach Tikva. He had signed a four-year contract last summer.

But the team’s home stadium became inhospitable this fall.

Celtic fans have long been vocal supporters of Palestinian rights, which they associate with their own historic struggles against dispossession, famine and racism. Since Oct. 7, that has become the central aesthetic in the home stands, where thousands wave Palestinian flags and — in the first game following the Hamas attacks — unfurled giant banners that read “Free Palestine” and “Victory To The Resistance.”

Abada has voiced his displeasure over the displays to the team’s leadership. The club distanced itself from the slogans, but Brendan Rodgers, Celtic’s manager, recently acknowledged that it would be hard for the Israeli to perform in such an environment, and implied a change of scenery might be inevitable.

“This is a young guy, 22 years of age, far, far away from home,” Rodgers said last month before a Celtic match. “People can talk about what’s going on there and then they can forget about it. This is the reality for him, this is his life. Every single day, every night, families in a war. So it’s a really, really tough situation for him. On a human level, I have real, real empathy for him.”

Abada sat out the team’s past five games, without saying why beyond “personal reasons.”

“Leaving Celtic wasn’t in my plans, yet life’s unpredictable turns remind us that we’re not always in control,” Abada wrote on Instagram on March 7. “The past six months have been a personal challenge, yet the overwhelming support from the gaffer (manager), coaches, and board has been my rock. Their unwavering faith during these times won’t be forgotten, but cherished forever.”

He also paid tribute to the “incredible Israeli community in Glasgow” and thanked the Celtic fans “that stood by me.”

Avi Luzon, chief of Maccabi Petah Tikvah, told London’s Jewish Chronicle that Abada had no choice but to leave because of the indignation of fans “on the street towards him… Liel felt unwelcome where he was — there were hostile looks and it’s not nice to feel that.”

Abada, a 5-foot-6 forward, will make $200,000 a year in Charlotte, which is 1-0-1 this season. He is expected to eventually join the starting lineup.

“Liel has been one of the most exciting young wingers in Europe and we’re delighted to welcome him to Charlotte,” Zoran Krneta, the team’s general manager, said in a news release. “He’s an elite goal scorer and chance creator who is a proven winner who is determined to bring trophies home to the club and our supporters.”

Abada could form a first-choice front three in Charlotte alongside Copetti and winger Kerwin Vargas. He joins midfielder Djibril Diani and winger Iuri Tavares, among others, as key additions for 2024.

“To bring a player of his caliber to Major League Soccer speaks to the strength of the league, but also that Charlotte FC is an attractive destination for top foreign talent,” Krneta said.

“He’s a player that I know well coming from the UK,” Charlotte Head Coach Dean Smith said in a media availability. “I know he’s been playing in Scotland, but there’s not many English people who don’t know about Celtics and Rangers players because they’re always in the news and they’re on the TV a lot.

“They’re both two big clubs and to get a player of his caliber and the consistency he’s had in the last couple of seasons with Celtic is a big coup for ourselves, I believe.”

Charlotte, now in their third season, made the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs last year as the Eastern Conference’s No. 9 seed.

Abada is under contract through the 2026 MLS season, with an option for 2027. Charlotte FC is owned by David Tepper, who is Jewish and also owns the Carolina Panthers of the National Football League.

By Louis Keene of The Forward and SJL reports. Louis Keene is a staff reporter at the Forward covering religion, sports and the West Coast. He can be followed on Twitter @thislouis.