Analyze This: From Chelsea to Auschwitz

Grant's struggle and success is more than just a sports story.

grant 88 (photo credit: )
grant 88
(photo credit: )
There is no shortage of drama on or off the field in the world of professional football, neither in this country nor elsewhere in the world. But the saga of Chelsea coach Avraham Grant, especially as it has unfolded in the past few days, is the kind of sports story even a Hollywood screenwriter might deem a tad melodramatic. Elements of Grant's case, though, extend far beyond the field of athletics, encompassing the Holocaust, modern-day anti-Semitism, the British media and even geo-politics. When the ex-coach of Israel's national team was chosen last September to manage London's Chelsea squad, one of the top clubs in the prestigious English national league, it understandably generated widespread skepticism - even derision - in the British sporting press. Although several Israeli players have made it over the years to the English league, including Chelsea's own Tal Ben-Haim, no locally bred manager had ever coached at this level of the sport before, Grant included. His appointment was viewed more as the result of personal connections between him and the club's owner, Russian-Jewish billionaire Roman Abramovich, than any deserved merit. The media commentary and fan reaction toward Grant was so rough at times that it raised questions as to what degree anti-Israeli or anti-Semitic sentiments might be responsible for an occasionally vicious tone in the criticism that seemed way out of proportion. Grant appeared to suggest this might be the case without saying so outright, and as recently as a week or two ago it looked like Grant might be headed for an early exit after a few setbacks on and off the pitch. Yet now he has succeeded in turning Chelsea around, guiding it to a tie for first place at the top of the English league together with mighty Manchester United, which Chelsea defeated in a fiery game on Sunday. On Wednesday Grant attained a goal never achieved by his much more celebrated coaching predecessor, Jose Mourinho, by defeating archrival Liverpool in the semifinals of the European Champions League, thus leading Chelsea to a showdown against Manchester United in the finals in Moscow next month. Much of the British press is now giving Grant a fairer hearing - and not just for his work as coach. Grant's usual low-key, laconic, even dour public demeanor - a stark contrast to the high-wattage personality of his Israeli television-host wife Tzofit - has certainly not helped him win admirers among British fans and sports journalists. Another side of Grant, though, came to the fore this week before and after Chelsea's thrilling extra-time 3-2 victory over Liverpool. Although he is the son of a Holocaust survivor, Grant elected to do his job on the sidelines on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, although he did so wearing a black armband emblazoned with the Star of David as a sign of mourning. On Thursday, he cut short celebrating Chelsea's victory to fly to Poland and take part in the March of the Living with his family. "I owe a lot to my parents," Grant told the media after Wednesday's match. "I don't like to speak about it, but my mother comes from Iraq, my father is a survivor of the Holocaust. He's the most optimistic and strong man I've ever seen. He buried his father, his mother, his sisters with his own hands." Such comments earned the Israeli a new personal respect in some quarters of the British media. Wrote one commentator, noting that the press has lately focused far more on the personal difficulties of a Chelsea star player who recently lost his mother: "On a day when Frank Lampard's personal grief was much in focus, Grant was, with that armband, honoring Holocaust [Remembrance] Day in Israel; grieving for the six million Jewish people… Grant has been the focus of much unpleasant and undeserved criticism, some of it perhaps motivated by anti-Semitism, but his quiet commemoration was largely ignored by the television coverage that as ever prefers the easier-to-understand tragedy of an individual's loss to loss on a scale so massive and horrific it is scarcely imaginable." Not all of the British media have been quite so sympathetic to, or appreciative of, Grant's achievements. His being Israeli, it's perhaps no surprise that it was in the Guardian yesterday that commentator Barney Ronay grudgingly wrote: "As a narrative, Grant's Chelsea reaching the [Champion's league] final makes no kind of sense… Chelsea's resilience, their cussed refusal to lie down and die, has little to do with the current manager." Real foul play, though, has come from Grant's toughest critic in the British media, Evening Standard football pundit David Mellor. "Grant is at Chelsea for one reason and one reason only: He is an Israeli-Russian in a club owned by an Israeli-obsessed Russian," Mellor wrote earlier this year, in a comment dripping with anti-Semitic innuendo (and inaccurate to boot, as Grant is of Polish descent). As late as last week, despite Grant's recent successes, Mellor was still making such comments: "We would be home and dry without average Avraham... Napoleon's key requirement was for lucky generals, and maybe Avraham Grant is just that." But the real problem here isn't just Mellor's views, but whom they are coming from. In his prior professional life, Mellor was a rising young politician with the Conservative Party known for his stinging criticism of Israel, including a well-publicized 1988 confrontation while on a diplomatic visit here with IDF soldiers serving in Gaza. He was later forced to resign from his cabinet post as heritage minister, and from politics altogether, after it was revealed he was taking money and favors from Abu Dhabi's ruler and the daughter of a top PLO official, on top of his role in an embarrassing sex scandal. That any serious media outlet would consider this man an appropriate commentator on the struggles of an Israeli coach to make it in the football big-time says too much about some current attitudes in the British media world. Grant, though, has encountered even more serious resistance elsewhere. Chelsea is scheduled to play an exhibition match this July in Malaysia, a Muslim nation that normally does not allow Israelis to visit without special permission. This week, Malaysian Foreign Minister Rais Yatim said his nation would grant that permission to Grant and Ben-Haim. This has sparked objections from a coalition of 21 local Islamic groups threatening mass protests this summer if the Israelis are allowed to accompany Chelsea. Avraham Grant went to Auschwitz to honor the struggles of his father and the memories of other family members who did not survive the anti-Semitic hoors of the past century. It might seem trivial to relate that in any way to his own current triumphs and travails in the sporting world. But relatively mild in comparison as they might be, whether in London or Malaysia, they are still distant but disturbing echoes emanating from the bloodied burial ground on which he stood on Thursday in Poland. [email protected]