Avram Grant, manager and metaphor

ByDAVID HOROVITZ
April 16, 2010 16:07

The vindication of Portsmouth’s Israeli boss resonates for our country.




Avram Grant (AP).

avram grant good 311. (photo credit:AP)

He’s only a soccer coach, of course. But there’s something in the improbable vindication of Portsmouth’s Israeli boss that resonates for our much-maligned country as we turn 62.

With his hangdog features and bags beneath the eyes, Avram Grant can cut an uninspiring figure.

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Even in victory, he sometimes manages to look solitary. After his cobbled-together team had defied all soccer logic to defeat Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday and secure a place in England’s FA Cup Final, for instance, Portsmouth manager Grant raised his hands to the sky in a heartfelt display of relief and delight at one of the most extraordinary achievements of his career. He embraced the opposing manager, Harry Redknapp, and several of his delirious players. But he then, somehow, quickly contrived to find himself alone on the Wembley turf.

His players had rushed to celebrate with the tens of thousands of jubilant Portsmouth supporters on the terraces. Shaking hands with one or two characters who happened to cross his path, Grant ambled a little uncertainly this way and that on the pitch – the man who should have been the center of attention looking a touch lost as the pandemonium played out nearby – before belatedly making his way over to the fans to enjoy their applause.

In defeat, and he has known plenty of it, Grant looks far worse. Two years ago, he led one of England’s elite teams, Chelsea, to the brink of success in three competitions, only to fail at the final hurdle in each. In the last, and most mortifying of these failures, his club captain John Terry slipped as he was taking the game’s critical penalty kick, miscued and so cost Chelsea the most prestigious of European club soccer titles, the Champions League.

As the rain poured down in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on that dark night in May 2008, Grant did his best to comfort his demoralized players, providing an avuncular shoulder for the miserable Terry in particular, and got himself soaked in the process. The forlorn Grant was a study in despair, strands of hair plastered to his pate, clothes dripping and wet through.

After four years in various coaching and managerial positions in England, Grant’s command of the language is still far from perfect. He almost visibly searches for words during press conferences, and none of his players has sought to describe him as an electrifying rhetorician, a manager whose articulacy and knack for the perfect motivational phrase has transformed the dressing-room.

That England career has also been bedeviled by media criticism. The near-constant assertion was that Grant was a foreign import incapable of doing the work he was being given, and that his very appointments, indeed, were a function of his behind-the-scenes friendships with powerful club owners, including Chelsea’s Russian billionaire backer Roman Abramovich. There was a whiff of anti-Semitism to some of the critiques, hints that some kind of Jewish conspiracy lay behind Grant’s otherwise ostensibly inexplicable capacity to obtain jobs for which his detractors argued he was unqualified. This misrepresentation became conventional wisdom even though Grant had been an extremely successful manager in Israel, taking the national team to the brink of the World Cup in 2006, when it was undefeated in a qualifying group led by France and Switzerland.

Making matters still worse for Grant in England was his embroilment in a minor scandal earlier this season, concerning his presence at an establishment of somewhat ill-repute.

And yet the purportedly inadequate Avram Grant has this week become one of the most popular soccer figures in England – indeed, one of the most popular figures in England, period, after that Sunday victory over Tottenham. Because, through it all, Grant retained his poise, his self-respect and his self-confidence. Because he battled on and never gave up, in the most unpromising of circumstances. But most of all because, ultimately, he won.

TO PORTSMOUTH’S fans, “Uncle Avram” is now veritably beloved as the manager who made the very best of the limited resources at his disposal, and prevailed – steering his team, against all odds, into next month’s cup final.

To Portsmouth’s financial administrator, trying to extricate the club from tens of millions of pounds of debts racked up by previous incompetent owners and management, Grant is central to the south coast club’s prospects of finding a new buyer.

To observers across soccer and beyond, he has suddenly been revealed as a figure of resilience – having stayed with the club even as its financial plight led to its inevitable relegation from English soccer’s Premier League. He is suddenly acknowledged as a reservoir of tenacity, wisdom and even inspiration – having given a much-depleted team, patently outmatched on paper by Tottenham’s superstars, both the self-belief and the practical strategy to outmaneuver its rival. He is recognized as a manager misjudged – the hitherto underestimated boss who, were it not for Terry’s penalty miss, would have led that Chelsea team two years ago to the European title it has still never captured.

Most touchingly, he is newly respected as a beacon of decency and quiet dignity. All of a sudden, Grant is a role model – the family man and the bereaved, respectful dignitary who in 2008 spoke at the March of the Living in memory of his Polish father Meir’s murdered parents, sisters and brothers; the good son who flew home to be with his father when he died here last October; the man with the Jewish soul who wore a black Holocaust Remembrance Day armband for Sunday’s game and flew promptly away from Portsmouth’s celebrations this week to again participate in the March of the Living. An honorable individual with a sense of perspective, a sense of what really matters in life.

In short, Avram Grant, the hapless import whom English soccer sneered at and despised, is now vindicated. Working at bankrupt Portsmouth, he became that most supported of English characters, the underdog. Sticking with pitiable Portsmouth, through months when wages weren’t paid and players were sold to keep the creditors at bay, he boosted his standing further. Winning with battered, unfancied Portsmouth, he has transformed himself into a veritable hero.

Even the fact that he’s an Israeli – in an England where, let’s simply say, that’s far from advantageous – hasn’t dented the new halo.

ISRAEL TURNS 62 this week. Its crises relate in large part to those very factors, that personal family background of suffering, that helped shape Avram Grant into the man of decency and perspective he is now more widely recognized to be. And though he’s only a soccer coach, of course, and his fortunes can quickly be reversed, there’s something in the improbable vindication of Portsmouth’s Israeli boss that resonates for our much-maligned country on its birthday.

As the former chief of staff and now Minister of Strategic Affairs Moshe Ya’alon sadly asserts in a Yom Ha’atzmaut interview that will appear with Monday’s Jerusalem Post, the nation that was belatedly relegitimized in the wake of the Holocaust is still, more than six decades later, fighting its war of independence – battling for acceptance in a region abidingly and overwhelmingly unreconciled to the fact and legitimacy of our Jewish sovereign presence here.

The Israel turning 62 is widely disliked, underappreciated, unfairly criticized, misrepresented.

We have been trying to offer the hand of peace to our neighbors. We have attempted concessions and unilateralism and, though spurned, may do so again.

We have sought to act morally when facing ruthless enemy forces that cynically put their own civilians in harm’s way. When compelled to fight, we go to extraordinary lengths to fight fair, and engage in serious self-examination when the fighting is over.

Asked to explain our actions, we have often been ineffectual and inarticulate. Even our closest ally, the United States, no longer understands us as well as it did: It thinks it is pushing us to do what is best for both of us, where the Palestinians are concerned; we think it is undermining some of its own interests and ours, where both the Palestinians and Iran are concerned.

We have, certainly since 1982, been denied our justified underdog status – the status that, in many parts of the free world, would garner greater understanding and sympathy. From independence and through the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War, we were regarded as brave, outnumbered, insistently democratic Israel, struggling valiantly to survive in a sea of Arab hostility. Israel as David. Since our invasion of Lebanon, our first truly self-initiated conflict, we have come to be viewed as a regional bully, the mighty Goliath pounding and suppressing our enemies. Insufficient account is taken of our enemies’ fundamental intolerance of our very presence, and of the malevolent skill with which those enemies have rendered our military strength less relevant through the adoption of terrorism and missile warfare against civilians. And next-to-no account is taken of the fact that, by any geographical and territorial assessment, we are indeed the David to the Arab Goliath.

Sneered and literally sniped at, unloved, our peccadilloes exaggerated and our admirable features minimized, we nonetheless continue to do our best to act decently and to make the most of our assets. We survive economically by maximizing the prime resources we have at our disposal – our own ingenuity and determination. We help others where we can, with Haiti only the most recent dramatic example. We strive for internal equality and insist on a free press, determinedly shouldering all the handicaps this presents in a region like ours.

Like Grant, we are not always lovely and we are not perfect. But our heart is emphatically in the right place. And we battle on. We have no alternative.

IN OUR 63rd year, we deserve to have our qualities more widely appreciated. And we don’t just deserve, but rather require, more practical support. The unfairly maligned, belatedly appreciated Avram Grant has been leading an embattled soccer club, seeking success on the field of play. We are an embattled nation, seeking survival.

But as the Grant saga exemplifies, the capacity to act honorably is not enough to reverse misperceptions. The ability to show resilience is not sufficient to woo new friends and regain old ones. In a world that is superficial, unfair, quick to oversimplify, misjudge, distort and misassign blame, what you have to do, ultimately, is to act honorably, to show resilience... and to win.  

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