HAVE just returned to California from London with the sad news that "The Beautiful Game"—as passionate followers of football (or soccer as it’s referred to in America) — is in serious danger of turning into a very ugly game.
A particularly nasty form of antisemitism has erupted during the games of one of the most glamorous and successful teams in London.
To me this is a particular tragedy because I grew up in London going to the home games of two of the major North London league teams—Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal. Both have very strong Jewish followings, even though they play most of their key games on Shabbat.
When I went to games as a young man in the fifties, it cost me 50 cents to stand behind the goal. Today standing is no longer permitted. While in London I went to see the Arsenal football club play in the extravagant multimillion pound Emirates Stadium, money provided by that Gulf nation. I was lucky to purchase a seat for 130 dollars!
Now the almost unthinkable has happened. Hate has become a feature of soccer games in England and France.
A new report, "Anti-Semitism in Football—A Scar on the Beautiful Game," was presented in Jerusalem by parliament member John Mann, citing more than 30 examples of anti-Semitism in European stadiums. Mann, who chairs an all party group investigating the problem, admitted that those polluting the sport were a small band of far right thugs and extremists. His report noted, "the oldest hatred, anti-Semitism, continues to rear its ugly head."
The 16-page report catalogues anti-Semitic incidents at football games in l8 European countries, noting it is most rampant in England and Poland.
Racism in soccer is not new. It flourished in the ‘70s, directed mainly at black athletes. Today it is flourishing.
I observed it seems to be worst among some supporters of what is probably the most glamorous team in England—the London club Chelsea which is owned by a Jewish billionaire and managed by an Israeli.
Wild about soccer
In the early days, owners of the major British football teams and indeed most of the players were 99 percent British. But Chelsea is now owned by the Russian oil billionaire Roman Abramovich (worth $18.2 billion and number eleven on Forbes’ Richest Men In the World).
Abramovich lives in London. According to a New York Times story in March he is building the largest private yacht in the world to add to his collection of personal vessels.
His troubles began six months ago when he fired the team’s popular Portuguese coach Jose Mourinho and hired Avram Grant, coach of Israel’s national team, and a legend in his own country, to take over Abramovich’s international army of grossly overpaid players.
Chelsea are currently in second place in England’s major league, and still in the hunt for the prestigious championship trophy. But after losing a couple of key games (three out of 31 games, a formidable win-lose record by any standards), those defeats triggered a deluge of anti-Avram hate mail.
Along with a death threat mailed to Grant at the club’s London headquarters came a package containing white powder. The powder turned out to be harmless. Grant’s wife Tzofit, a well known TV personality in Israel, was also threatened.
Because some Chelsea fans do not appreciate Grant’s team lineups, or his personal style, he has become a visible target for hate-mongers who are vitriolic in their dislike of him. Israelis are often criticized—in my opinion quite rightly at times—for lack of good manners and charm and an arrogant refusal to accommodate to the mores of the country in which they find themselves. Grant is no exception.
A friend, a fervent Chelsea fan, says Grant’s lack of popularity is not because he’s a Jew but because he’s just not up to the job of running a major league team of the class of Chelsea.
"They call him the toad," said my friend. "He never smiles and has no personal charm, unlike the sophisticated Jose (Mourinho), and is a deliberate bore at press conferences."
But while that view suggests a lack of charisma rather than religious bias, the press reports from Chelsea games are particularly depressing.
The London Jewish Chronicle catalogued some of the lyrics that these so called fans have been chanting:
One Man Went to Gas….went to gas a Yiddo.
He’s Only a Poor little Yiddo
Who sits at the back of the shelf.
He goes to the bar for a lager
But only buys one for himself.
Ironically, one of the most successful teams in the world, Manchester United, headquartered 100 miles north of London, is owned by Jewish businessman Malcolm Glazer, owner of the Tampa Bay Buchaneers (who is worth a mere $1.3 billion dollars and is 660th on Forbes richest list).
He bought the club in 2005 and has handed over the running of the business to his son Joel. Major shareholders in the Birmingham City team are Jewish businessmen David and Ralph Gold. Neither team appears to have had any of the problems of Chelsea.
I spoke to Clive Walters, a Jewish accountant and former member of the board of one of the London teams, with a lifelong passion for football. Walters has studied the social as well as the athletic skills of these young athletes, many of whom come from humble backgrounds around the world to earn $150,000 a week playing in Britain.
Despite the most recent report, he disputes the fact that the sport is becoming anti-Semitic. "The trouble I believe comes from the same illiterate thug element that has historically given black players a hard time and are now preoccupied with anti-Semitic chants. It is not representative at all of the fans as a whole."
So why are the worst hate rants echoing around the Chelsea stadium?
"The expectations are high from a Jewish billionaire and his Jewish manager," says Walters.
"In those thugs’ eyes he sacked (fired) a popular, largely successful and media efficient manager Mourinhio, and replaced him with a couple of Jewish men who have little interest in accommodating to British tastes."
Grant, he admits, is a dour fellow and does not take too kindly to the British media who began firing daily verbal arrows at him from the moment he stepped off the plane from Tel Aviv.
Walters, who has followed soccer in Britain for 45 years, declares, "Most of the real fans up and down the country are decent loyal people, preoccupied only with the fate of their favorite team."
That may well be. But what appalled me during my visit is that the anti-Semitism seems to receive very light coverage in the British media, except in the Jewish press. And while of course this thuggish behavior is not condoned, it sometimes seems to be considered par for the course: a deviant offshoot of the beer-swigging soccer fans who attend the games.
Part of the problem may be that the British public is barraged in the press by an almost daily deluge of anti-Israel rhetoric. And some of that may have penetrated into the predominantly working class sections of the soccer stadium.
In the U.S such outbursts, say for example at a baseball game, would be headline news, and the 6.1 million Jewish Americans would be campaigning vigorously for something to be done about it.
The almost 300,000 British Jews are inclined to stay quiet, behind the symbolic "gates" of their prosperous "ghettos," and react only when things become intolerable.
In an interesting twist, Liverpool, another team with a legendary history, was bought two years ago by two American businessmen, one of whom is currently deep in negotiations to sell his share of the club to Dubai International Capital. That certainly might result in something unique in British soccer history: Jewish owned teams playing Arab owned teams.
If that happens it will be interesting to see what effect that has on British soccer hooligans because if there are any people they despise more than the Jews, it’s the Moslems.