LONDON – The Chelsea Football Club training grounds were alive on Wednesday in preparation for the big game against Manchester United, but that was not the only thing occupying the minds of those present.
The team was recently introduced to Holocaust survivor Harry Spiro, who chillingly recollected his experiences in Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration and extermination camp located in present-day Poland where more than one million people were murdered, most of them Jews.
"These players are young, active men," said Chelsea Football Club Chairman Bruce Buck to The Jerusalem Post
. "They are not used to sitting still for 45 minutes, they are used to running on the field."
Buck was surprised, however, to find that the players “sat there and didn’t move a muscle.”
“They listened to every word and asked some very intelligent questions,” Buck stated. “Afterwards... a number of them indicated how eye-opening this was for them.”
Introducing the players of Chelsea to the history of antisemitism was just the first step the Chelsea Foundation – which is dedicated to using soccer as a platform to bring people together – used in their new initiative, “Say No to Antisemitism.”
“I can’t say we enjoyed it, because the things he was saying were very shocking,” Chelsea soccer player Cesc Fàbregas told the Post, speaking of his encounter with Spiro. “But I think everyone better understood why we are doing this campaign.”
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Fàbregas added that he would be open to going to see Auschwitz. “I was told that... if you are there, it is an experience that will make you upset, but... you should definitely go.”
The idea for such an initiative came from Roman Abramovich, the Russian-Israeli owner of Chelsea Football Club
, who suggested that a more intense approach to antisemitism in particular is a necessary move for the club. His idea “was the impetus” for the team to take “a comprehensive approach to tackling antisemitism,” according to Buck.
The club’s educational approach to antisemitism in and out of the stadium is still in the works. Those who cry out discriminatory chants in the stadium today are removed, but once the project takes effect, they will be able to shorten their ban by taking courses on discrimination provided by the soccer club.
“Once you ban them, you are never going to change their view,” said Buck. “First of all, they have to recognize that they made a mistake. If they don’t do that, we are not going to engage in education, because then it’ll be a waste of time.”
Buck explained that the ideal actions taken by the players of the team would be “for them to say, ‘racism and antisemitism is wrong and has got to be stopped.’”
Although this initiative may silence those with prejudices rather than ridding them of their discriminatory beliefs, it might stop others learning from them. Those who nevertheless continue the chants will be banned for life from the stadium.
As a new father, Fàbregas felt that education would be the best strategy to eradicate prejudice on the soccer field. “The parents that go [to games] with their sons” should not slur at people because “the children are listening and when they grow up, they sing what their parents sang.”
With the project having no deadline, the team plans to fight antisemitism for however long it takes. “Our hope, of course, is to reduce antisemitism,” said Buck. “I think we can move the needle, and I think we already have. Our fan groups... have come out supporting what we’re doing.”
When asked if he believes that there will be an end to racism and antisemitism in soccer, Fàbregas immediately knocked on wood and said, “I pray and hope that we will see it one day in our lifetimes. Unfortunately, I believe there will always be animals that behave badly.”
“People have been saying things that they have been thinking for many years, but never spoke out loud until now,” said Buck, who blamed the rise in antisemitism on populism.
The newest activity by the initiative was the campaign “Pitch for Hope,” which called for young adults in the United States, England and Israel to propose unique projects that can build bridges between all people. Chelsea and the World Jewish Congress, with which it is affiliated in the project, gave the winners in each country $10,000 to turn their ideas into reality.
The Israeli winning team was comprised of Eden Amos, Michael Shapira and Rave Saar Tirosh. Their innovation was to create clothing lines that support opposing soccer teams and are sold in opposing pairs, so that buyers will be encouraged to purchase them with someone they would traditionally be against.
“When you buy the products, the prices change,” said Amos. “If you buy with a supporter of the other team, the price is cheaper, which encourages them to buy them together.”
“It doesn’t matter where you’re from,” said Fàbregas. “We are all different and we have to respect each other, and that is the real truth.”
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