“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”

So said the legendary Bill Shankly, the manager of the phenomenally successful Liverpool soccer team of the 1960s and 1970s. Shankly was only half-joking when he said this, according to his biographer, because the Liverpool icon fully understood the importance of football to its die-hard fans.

And the influence of football also transcends the boundaries of the stadiums in which it’s played. One of the drivers behind the emergence of Britain as a successful multi-racial society has undoubtedly been the acceptance of black players in England’s Premier League.

Back in the 1970s when Shankly was a manager, black players were rare and inevitably the target of the opposing fans’ hostility whenever they touched the ball.

Monkey chants, bananas thrown on the pitch and so on were commonplace only a generation ago, as was overt racism against blacks in wider society. It took a concerted effort on the behalf of the football authorities – the Kick it Out campaign – to remove racism from Britain’s soccer grounds and pitches, using a mixture of inclusive education on the one hand and punishment on the other.

As a sign of how seriously the English authorities take racism, England’s soccer team captain John Terry was taken to court last year, stripped of the captaincy, banned for four games and fined £220,000 for calling an opposing player a f***ing black c***. The word “black” was the word which caused Terry the problem.

Obviously, as the Terry incident showed, racism has not been entirely eliminated from the British game and there are still some grounds where black players know they are likely to receive racist abuse. But what has changed is the sense that it’s perfectly acceptable for fans or opposing players to target specific footballers on the basis of their color. It no longer is.

Meanwhile in Italy, at the beginning of the year, AC Milan players walked off the pitch in protest at racist abuse of their Ghana midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng, and the friendly exhibition match they were playing against a lower-division team was called off. Just as Shankly noted the influence of football on people’s lives, so too did AC Milan’s coach Massimiliano Allegri, when he remarked that “Walking off was the right choice when faced with something like this. We need to stop these uncivil gestures. Italy needs to improve and become better educated and more intelligent.”

FOOTBALL, INDEED all sport and popular culture, can be a force for good, shaping a more tolerant, open society.

This summer Israel will be hosting UEFA’s European Under-21 Football Championship, a prestigious tournament that, if all goes well, has the potential for doing wonders for Israel’s image on the international stage.

Already, the sports pages of European papers are littered with mentions of Israel, where the only reference to conflict is within the context of 22 men running around a pitch chasing a leather ball. These championships give Israel the chance to portray a welcoming face to the world – just as it did when Israel hosted England in a qualifying game for the 2008 Euros.

But to do so, we have to ensure that the scourge of racism is fully removed from our stadiums. There will be plenty black and Muslim players appearing at this tournament and any sign of racist abuse directed at them will be prominently noticed, and condemnation of Israeli racism will, rightly, be quick to follow.

By bringing two Chechen Muslim players to Betar Jerusalem, the Israeli club with the most hard-core racist supporters, Arkady Gaydamak has made his greatest contribution to Israeli society. The Beitar owner, once a permanent fixture in the Israeli media before his humiliating defeat in the Jerusalem municipal elections and his return to Russia, has firmly showed those fans who unfurled a banner declaring “Beitar pure forever,” that such disgusting racism will no longer be tolerated.

Encouragingly, one of the fans behind the banner has already been arrested, banned from Beitar games for a year and is now on bail awaiting trial, while another Beitar supporter who attended a training session wearing a shirt with slogan “Mohammed is dead” has also been arrested. If Beitar and the police show they have zero tolerance for racism, decent people like former prime minister Ehud Olmert will no longer have to feel ashamed for being Beitar supporters.

As last week’s Master Chef final proved, when the contestants were an Orthodox Jewish woman, an Israeli- Arab Muslim woman and a German convert to Judaism, today’s Israel is a beautiful mix of ingredients – we just need to learn to share the recipe to create a better, more tolerant society.

The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.


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