The extraordinary events leading up to last Saturday's match between Israel and Austria not only increased interest, excitement and anger among local sports fans, but also revived recollections of racist and anti-Semitic incidents in world sports, especially in soccer.
The controversial decisions by Portuguese referee Vitor Melo Fereira in the dying minutes of the match, which allowed Austria to earn the draw it required to keep Israel out of the World Cup, appeared as if they were carried out by express order of FIFA bosses, who wanted to prevent Israel from making it to the finals at any cost.
True, Austria has a well documented past in disliking Jews, but it would be silly to concentrate on last week's match, and the events preceding it, to conclude that they occurred mainly due to disfavor of the "Chosen People."
The Italian soccer league is unrivaled in its fomenting racism and anti-Semitism. The "small group" of racist Lazio fans has long lost the label "small" and has become openly vocal in airing its views. It has no qualms in raising banners and chanting slogans against Jews and blacks at every given opportunity.
The local derby against city rival Roma is always a good place for Lazio fans to openly display their hatred of anybody who is different: The "stars" are Roma's black players and the opposing team's supporters whom they call the "filthy Jews". Recently, Lazio fans shouted to their counterparts "Auschwitz is your home and the furnaces are your beds."
Roma fans did not stay silent either and, as expected, retorted with equally anti-Semitic chants of their own. Interestingly, Roma has the lion's share of support among the Jewish community in the "Eternal City."
There is no doubt that the transfer of former Israeli star Roni Rosenthal to Udinese in the summer of 1987 was prevented by racist factions.
The team's management had already agreed a deal to bring the striker, who was then at top form, to the club, and make him the first Israeli to play in the Serie A (the Italian first division). But the club surrendered to the forces of evil - the anti-Semitic element among its supporters - as it reneged on its original agreement.
Anti-Semitic graffiti was sprayed on the team's stadium walls and fans demonstrated against the Jewish/Israeli player. Rosenthal, who was then playing in Belgium, stayed put.
Today it is also clear that another top Israeli player, Eli Ohana, was denied the chance to play for the Italian squad Atalanta for similar reasons.
Soccer fans in Bergamo are notorious for their xenophobic tendencies, and were recently described by Carlo Mazzona, the coach of another northern Italian club, Brescia, as a "100 percent racist." Italian ultra right-wing groups base themselves on the support of soccer
fans, where their foothold is particularly strong. Attempts by club bosses to fight racism, such as the Shalom Cup (which for the past three seasons has included an Israeli club, an Italian club and either an Arab or African outfit), have led to ridiculous results. So much so that Lazio, a main promoter of the event, has seen its fans stay away in droves and openly boycott the club's chairman, Sergio Cragniotti.
The Italian FA has implemented a major crackdown on racism in the past two seasons, and the government has threatened to close down stadia of clubs where fans openly display racism.
But the campaign is not succeeding. Heavy fines and a public appeal by some of the world's top players to put an end to the practice have failed. Anti-Semitism and racism is flourishing in Italian soccer and has created fertile ground for ultra right-wing elements to turn the disgraceful phenomenon into a national one.
"It's either us or them," an Italian journalist said recently. "Either we clamp down on them and manage to enjoy quality soccer without hindrance, or it will be the end of soccer and we will be left to cover street skirmishes between armed gangs," he said.
Only a minority in Spain
There is a fascist base among soccer supporters in Spain as well, particularly among fans of Real Madrid, which was the sporting symbol of the Franco regime. The minority (yes, they are only a small number), rears its head from time-to-time and lets off racist rhetoric, but in general, it is hard to ascribe racist tendencies to Spanish fans.
Soccer is still a family sport in the country, and the Spanish FA has managed very effectively to clamp down on racist outbreaks. Punishment can be very severe.
Germany's east-west divide
In Germany, law enforcement agencies together with the DFB (the German FA) have long implemented preemptive measures to fight racism. Using intelligence gathering on problematic (neo-Nazi) elements, the authorities have distributed anti-racist publications and instilled correct values among young supporters starting at school age.
Intensive action has also been taken at soccer grounds to isolate and stamp out incitement. German soccer, however, can still largely be divided between the former east and west. Among the former western teams, the situation is far, far better than among teams from the former east. Among western teams, fans of Borussia Dortmund are considered to be slightly problematic, but they are dealt with effectively by the authorities.
Neo-Nazi elements are far more prevalent and daring in the east, but cooperation between the DFB and the police has had an effect in recent years.
It might be surprising to hear of anti-Semitism among Dutch fans, but even in a country renowned for tolerance toward foreigners as well as one of the friendliest to Jews and Israel, fans express much racist hostility toward opposing teams. Major club Ajax Amsterdam is viewed as the "unifying symbol" of the Netherlands. The most successful soccer club in the country is to a large extent associated with Jews. Many Israeli flags can be seen flying in the stadium, and the Star of David has long become the squad's unofficial symbol.
But in Holland, just like everywhere else, success breeds hatred among the opposition, and the fact that Jewish symbols are associated so closely with the team have also led to frequent anti-Semitic responses. At the center of the opposition and of the racism are fans of arch-rival club Feyenoord Rotterdam.
The mutual hatred between supporters of both clubs has already resulted in injuries and death from well-orchestrated street fights. When Feyenoord hosts Ajax or when the former plays in European competition, violence and anti-Semitic chanting are the norm. The club probably has the largest number of neo-Nazi supporters among Dutch outfits, and its skinhead followers are always a serious problem in both home and away games.
In France, the fans of Paris St. Germain (PSG) are among the country's most racist, and they openly denigrate Marseille supporters, whom one fan, a follower of ultra-right-winger Jean Marie Le Pen, described as "Afro-Arab supporters who reek of a Jewish scent."
When Maccabi Haifa played against PSG in Paris in 1998 in a European Cup Winners' Cup match, some home team fans shouted racist chants against the Israeli and Jewish spectators during the match and then threw stones and broken bottles at them afterward.
Not surprisingly, when Haifa won the return leg two weeks later to knock the Parisian side out of the competition, Marseille's supporters (Jews and Arabs alike) took to the streets in a victory parade as they gloated at their hated French league counterparts.
Greek soccer has also been plagued by racism in the last decade, but it has not been of an anti-Semitic nature, mainly due to the fact that there are so few Jews in Greece.
While hatred primarily is directed toward the Turks, fans in both Athens and Thessaloniki are quick to turn against black players on rival teams. Faithful support of one's team is foremost among Greek fans, and the rivalries between Olympiakos and Panathinaikos and Aris and PAOK are well known: The fans never miss an opportunity to have a go at each other.
Trouble in the east
After overcoming the trauma of years behind the Iron Curtain, many far-right-wing parties have sprouted in eastern Europe. Not only do the authorities have little control over them, but also they even offer unwitting support through funding. The parties espouse white-supremacist ideology, and it is clear that local Jewish citizens are not part of those "white" races. Not surprisingly, soccer stadia are a hotbed for racism. Two months ago, two Israeli teams were exposed to naked anti-Semitism at the same venue; first, when Maccabi Tel Aviv played against Zalgiris Vilnius
in the UEFA Cup, and a few days later when the national team met the Lithuanian squad. The chants were the same on both occasions: "Juden raus," "Jews to Auschwitz" and "may you burn alive here and in Palestine."
The Lithuanian FA apologized to their Israeli visitors and to the local Jewish community, but this has had no effect on local supporters, many of them skinheads. UEFA took note of the events and fined the Lithuanians over $6,000. Israel's national team was involved in another shameful event in Sarajevo last month when the home fans booed so loudly during the playing of Hatikva that the national anthem could not even be heard. The booing was almost as loud when Israeli fans booed during the playing of Austria's national anthem in last week's match in Ramat Gan Stadium.
A strange incident in Hungary occurred this summer when the fans of Ferencvaros, who are among the most violent and vehement anti-Semitic in Europe, were stunned and deeply hurt to discover that a Jewish businessman had stepped in to save the club from bankruptcy. The matter even reached the Hungarian parliament where an ultra-right-wing party asked questions.
The fact that the club is now under Jewish ownership did nothing to douse the fans' anti-Semitic chants during the city derby against MTK, a club with Jewish roots.
In Ukraine, a country notorious for its attitude toward Jews, Jewish millionaire businessman Grigoriy Surkis, president of Dynamo Kiev and a member of parliament, heads the FA. Although several attempts have been made by rivals who use anti-Semitic innuendo in attempts to oust Surkis, the country's "Mr. Soccer" still maintains his positions of influence. Surkis, however, is fully aware that he has to watch his back constantly.
There are also a large number of racist fans from all age groups in Russia. Authorities have had to call in special anti-riot forces on many occasions to intervene and disperse rival supporters who have no compunction in "going to war" against each other.
Deaths are not uncommon, but in the meantime, Russian soccer supporters are more interested in fighting against each other. In the stands it is not difficult to provoke fans to chant against black players, but the "Jewish question" has yet to become a major factor, although the potential for trouble is clearly in the air. In 1997, when Israel's national teams played in Moscow, some supporters watching a match between the under-21 teams at Lokomotiv Stadium chanted: "Poison the Jew boys." When the full sides met at Dinamo Stadium, the home supporters shouted: "Jews go home."
While the potential for trouble is there, the question is whether the Russian fans have the will to realize their intentions. We may get some sort of answer very soon, when Hapoel Tel Aviv will face Lokomotiv Moscow in the UEFA Cup third round next month.
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