Football and the Jews

In my youth in England, football was not considered an appropriate pastime for a good Jewish boy.

Soccer can unite (photo credit: shimon samuels)
Soccer can unite
(photo credit: shimon samuels)
EURO 2012, Poland – In my youth in England, football was not considered an appropriate pastime for a good Jewish boy.
Hence my passive appreciation of “the beautiful game” was platonic: “play” for the footballers, “tonic” for me.
The June 8 opening of the Euro 2012 championship in Warsaw was a personal epiphany.
Invited by FARE (Football Against Racism in Europe) together with “Never Again” of Poland in cooperation with UEFA, my visit was based on an unprecedented Wiesenthal Center victory last October, in Buenos Aires.
We had protested the anti-Semitic chants of the popular Chacarita Juniors Club. The Argentine Football Association’s response was to strip Chacarita of points, resulting in its downgrading in the national league.
By issuing this historic ruling, as a powerful penalty model for UEFA, the European branch of FIFA, resulted in my participation in the highly sophisticated campaign kickoff, with the slogan: “Respect-Diversity – Football Unites.”
UEFA President Michel Platini defined “diversity in football as a microcosm for diversity in society,” setting a “zero-tolerance policy against racism on the field.”
With the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent post-Communist vacuum, the old phantoms of nationalism and anti-Semitism were resurrected in the Central and Eastern European States where the Holocaust had succeeded. Like “phantom limb” syndrome, a limb had been amputated, but the missing member still itched to be scratched. The Jews were gone, but the prejudices died hard, as Jew-hatred moved from political discourse to the football terraces.
In the 1990s, we were already applauding FARE’s work, together with the British Council, in bringing English Club Stewards – who were confronting “monkey” chants and violence against African players in the UK – to mentor counterparts in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, where Roma were – and still are – the prime target.
Holding the EURO 2012 championship in Poland, and especially Ukraine, poses a major challenge, harrowingly portrayed in the BBC Panorama television documentary Stadiums of Hate, available on Youtube.
“Never Again” has trained monitors to identify such Nazi or White Power symbols, Hitler salutes of “Sieg Heil” and any incitement to violence at all the EURO matches.
FARE is organizing “Streetkick” impromptu games for local kids with anti-racist motifs and inclusion methods in every match locale. Referees have been instructed to suspend or stop any feat in which a player is targeted for ethnic slur.
Players participating in EURO 2012, shown the documentary Terezin: The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a City, were shocked to learn that the football team playing in the film for a Red Cross visit were, after the screening, sent to Treblinka and gassed on arrival.
It is more difficult to focus on the hard-core local and visiting extreme-right hooligans. It takes only a few to destroy a game for the majority, yet signposts were noticeably evident, from the largest Warsaw fan zone to the ominously named “Valhalla Viking Pub.”
At the Polish Foreign Ministry’s official launch, a group of Afro-European star players shared their pain as victims of football hate.
Gareth Crookes (UK): “The banana fell next to me. I picked it up, peeled it, ate it, and then threw the skin back into the crowd. There was a wave of applause as I played on, though I had terrible indigestion.”
Paul Elliott (UK): “I was having an awful game when the banana fell. I played much better in the second half and was asked by a journalist, ‘what happened?’ I stressed the nutritional value in a banana!” Ruud Gillet (Netherlands): “As the only Black player, I had to do better than the rest. So, I adjusted my feelings. If they monkey-grunted me, I said it was because I was good. Now there are many more Black players in the team, so they [the racists] should be more careful.”
These responses recall the late Simon Wiesenthal’s belief in the power of humor as a defense. Indeed, a good joke is like a grenade – it can blow up a conspiracy theory and show the absurdity of a stereotype.
In Warsaw’s reconstructed Old Town, there are street vendors selling numerous ugly clay hassidic effigies counting gold coins.
At 11 a.m. on the day of the opening EURO match between Poland as host, and Greece, one stand contained over a hundred figurines on show.
At 5 p.m., I returned and found only two unsold. The vendor explained that fans purchased them to bring good luck. Hassidic magic was clearly not working that day. The opening game ended in a one-to-one tie. The national celebration was muted.
Was the purchase of “money-grubbing Jew” statuettes due to fascination, anti-Semitism, superstition or a combination? Wilfried Lemke, Special Advisor to the United Nations Secretary-General on Sport for Development and Peace, injected a gleam of hope.
“Football has the power to change the world,” he said.
It can also inflame, as with the riots at a FIFA World Cup in 1969, leading to the four day “Football War” between Honduras and El Salvador.
Across Latin America, as in Europe, football can be viewed as a religion with its saints and clerics, mostly uninterested in the Middle East and its conflicts. A new constituency of friends for the Jewish people? Standing throughout the inaugural match in the “Fan Zone,” among over 100,000 exuberant Poles, in their red and white national colors, I felt conspicuous wearing the only blue and white shirt in the crowd.
Attracting curious glances, I was asked if was a fan of their Greek rival.
“Israel” I said. “Shalom” replied my neighbor.
So, what was that Warsaw epiphany? An appreciation that football is, indeed, a most appropriate pastime for a Jewish boy.
The writer is director for international relations of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.