Shabbat Goy: How about an Isra-Mondial?

Why I support Nigeria’s football team.

June 25, 2010 23:08
How about an Isra-Mondial?

isra mondial 311. (photo credit: Pepe Fainburg)

It’s World Cup time again. Which means that for the next month, all those tiresome questions about my personal identity can be fielded with ease: I’m Nigerian ‘til I die. Or we lose. Someone asked the other day why I support Nigeria’s football team. It’s a good question. On footballing grounds, supporting Nigeria is similar to a spoilt ballot in an election: An act of stubborn bloody-mindedness that yields no dividends whatsoever.

True, the team has improved from the days when they neglected to select a half-decent goalkeeper and defensive line; but as international football goes, the team is still rather poor, as matches so far have demonstrated in depressing detail.

(And on this point: Yes, I know that in Vincent Enyeama, Nigeria has one of the star goalkeepers of the tournament this time around. Yes, I know that he was nurtured in that cradle of quality football, Hapoel Tel Aviv. Whatever. We owe you nothing. When Israel qualifies for the World Cup, then we can talk as equals, ok?)

But the real issue about supporting Nigeria stems from more complicated questions of personal identity.

True, I did spend part of my childhood there; but I haven’t lived in the country for a decade and a half – in fact, I’ve lived more than half of my life elsewhere, mainly in England.

Untangling the underpinnings of national and personal identity can be tricky at times. Even when voiced vociferously – especially when voiced vociferously – I suspect that these constructs are often rooted in romantic notions of belonging rather than the hard facts of one’s life story. It’s not that I can’t support Nigeria; but given my life history, one could argue that I ought to be supporting England at the current Mondial.

Thinking about it, it might be an interesting thought experiment to run in these parts, testing fealty to Israel against residual loyalty to the countries with which many among Israel’s population still identify.

But then, Israel would need to qualify for the World Cup first, no? Don’t hold your breath...

(By the by, I should say that I follow the English cricket team as avidly as I follow the Nigerian Football team. But then – as anyone who understands cricket can explain – this says nothing about the country with which I identify. It just marks me out as a sucker for punishment.)

George Orwell once described competitive sport in scathing terms: “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence...”

One takes his point. Organized sporting events like the current World Cup do tend to bring out the worst in human nature – diving and play-acting, nasty fouls, jeering crowds, the “Vuvuzela”... but when all is said and done, it is all benign jingoistic stuff, isn’t it?

Fans shout and scream at each other about the merits of their respective teams/countries, get drunk, sleep off the hangover and then resume proper life again the next day, cheek-by-jowl, as if nothing had happened. It might be war minus the shooting; and there are far worse ways of asserting national identity.

But that’s all on the international level. The friend who asked about my allegiances sent another email the other day (between matches – as far as I can tell, he is on extended sick leave from work until mid-July) about something he’d read in the papers in the States concerning the ongoing hoo-hah between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi schoolkids in Emmanuel. “Aren’t they all Jewish?” he asked. Ah. Good question.

Let’s be candid. Until I met Mrs. Goy, I understood little of the distinction between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jewry. And, whilst I know quite a bit more now, I still understand very little.

What I do understand, however, is that beneath the carapace of a homogeneous and unified Jewish identity, there remains a wealth of nuance and difference, one that remains largely unacknowledged outside this country until events like this occur. And that’s just on the religious observance front. By the time one gets to secular vs religious, immigrant vs veteran, it does seem that the question of domestic identity is as complicated as anything else, no?

I have a humble suggestion to make. Rather than becoming entangled in impenetrable issues concerning the alleged superiority of Ashkenazi religious observance over Mizrahi – or whatever else might have led to the parents of the kids being kept out of school being sent to jail – why not convene an Isra-Mondial to burn off some of the excess passion?

A round-robin first round would be followed by a knockout competition until we got a winner. Television revenues are bound to be good. Everyone with a vested interest (and, unlike the current Mondial, everyone will have a horse to back) can shout themselves hoarse until their team is knocked out.

It’s bound to use up some identity angst. And, at the end of it all, perhaps everyone will simply go home, tired but happy.

For what it’s worth, I’d put my money on one of the North African communities winning. Lets face it, secular Ashkenazim don’t have a clue when it comes to football, do they? North American olim won’t have much of a chance, given that they don’t even call the game by its proper name. (It’s F-O-O-T-B-A-L-L, right? Not soccer.)

On the religious front, Natorei Karta – who appear to possess a natural obstinacy particularly suited to competitive sports – will probably refuse to play, not recognizing the State of Israel and all that. And as for the other haredi groups...well, you try playing 90 minutes of football in this weather while wearing a shtreimel and bekishe.

In any case, I’ve always had something of a soft spot for the underdog. But you knew that already, didn’t you?

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