Soccer lessons

If the chairman acts in a cavalier fashion, why should players behave any differently?

Soccer fight 370 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Soccer fight 370
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Brawls on Israel’s soccer fields have become so ugly that even Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was compelled to blow the whistle on Sunday. Addressing the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu warned, “We want to see soccer. If there is violence, there will be no soccer.”
Precisely how Netanyahu proposed to stop soccer matches being played was unclear. But it was unusual to hear a prime minister issue such a harsh statement condemning violence in sport.
He was joined by Union of Local Authorities chairman Shlomo Buhbut, who called for the closure of soccer stadiums in all major cities until police significantly increase their presence. The mayors of Haifa, Beersheba, Rishon Lezion, Herzliya, Acre, Ramat Hasharon and Kiryat Ono have already responded favorably to the idea.
Meanwhile, Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat told Army Radio that if the Israel Football Association did not take more stringent measures to stop the violence, she would consider passing “legislation” – although she did not elaborate.
This collective hand-wringing came in response to the latest in a series of violent soccer-related incidents. This time, the teams slugging it out in the post-game free-forall were Hapoel Ramat Gan and Bnei Lod. Some ribs were bruised, a face was punched but all injuries were light. Unlike last month’s Betar Jerusalem incident, in which rowdy fans, shouting racist epithets, confronted Arab workers at the Malha mall’s food court, the latest clash had nothing to do with Jewish-Arab relations.
Rather, it was more like the fight that erupted earlier this month between Maccabi Petah Tikva and Hapoel Haifa, which involved players and trainers – but not fans.
As after previous incidents, a ritual was repeated in which sports pundits, media figures, politicians and Israel Football Association officials lamented the sorry state of Israeli soccer and demanded that steps be taken to halt the violence. Some attempted to argue that the unruly behavior witnessed of late was actually a reflection of the essentially violent nature of an Israeli society responsible for the “occupation” of the Palestinian people.
But Prof. Oz Almog, a sociologist at the University of Haifa, rejected such explanations as “nonsense” and estimated that sports-related violence both in Israel and in other Western countries was actually on the decline.
What we have been seeing is a steady deterioration of social solidarity, Almog said. Israeli society has become more atomized. The rise of capitalism has made Israelis more competitive, egoistic and driven by greed. We speak on cellphones and ignore those around us. We drive in cars and are oblivious to our surroundings.
Unlike in the US, where individual freedoms are respected but the law is strictly enforced, here in Israel the line between what is permitted and what is forbidden is blurred and we have no tradition of accountability for our actions. This combination of lax law enforcement and capitalist-inspired egotism has created a situation in which we lack clearly defined social norms and limits.
Attempts by the prime minister, the culture and sport minister and others to combat aberrant conduct on the soccer field by making bombastic declarations will not work so long as social norms are weak and not internalized.
If these declarations are repeated without being backed up by deeds, they will be meaningless. In the context of a soccer match, highly competitive players with high testosterone levels behave deplorably on the field and appear to feel no embarrassment although they know they are being filmed. After the fact, they appear to feel no remorse whatsoever, probably because they don’t.
Further complicating the situation is the image projected by Israel Football Association chairman Avi Luzon. Regardless of his actions (he canceled all games scheduled for Saturday after Friday’s brawl), Luzon gives the impression that he flouts public opinion and is impervious to criticism.
Just last week he bragged that when he eventually stepped down, he would be missed. And if the chairman acts in a cavalier fashion, why should players behave any differently?
Unfortunately, haughty disregard for normative behavior is not limited to the soccer field. It is a symptom of a society that has become increasingly egotistical. The best way to combat this trend is to regain the values of sportsmanship and solidarity. Violent behavior must not be tolerated – on or off the sportsfield.