LONDON - If there is one thing that stirs the famous British reserve, it's football. God knows why the Brits call it "the beautiful game," when it seems to bring out the baser side of a nation usually a stickler for propriety. Paradoxically, along with the deeply entrenched British sense of fair play remains a lingering trace of xenophobia, and the soccer stadium is where it often emerges. How much more so when the unfortunate who replaced the handsome and mercurial (if admittedly Portuguese) Jose Mourinho as Chelsea manager six months ago is a grumpy Israeli.
Anyone who came after "the Special One," as the British media dubbed him, would have been fodder for the gutter press threshing machine, but Avram Grant is a dream of a tabloid hate figure, with his celebrity, urine-drinking wife, his kabbala connections - he attended a Rosh Hashanah event in London alongside Madonna, no less - and the dark references to the tribal connection between him and club owner Roman Abramovich. It appears that the Israeli media have been frantically picking up every word said over here about Grant and interpreting each negative story as something no less menacing than the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion."
Perhaps the antipathy toward Grant is motivated more by the fact that he is Israeli, than by his being Jewish. His demeanor is textbook sabra - obnoxious, impolite and aggressive. These attributes aren't necessarily a bad thing in a football coach, but only if accompanied by two conditions. One, that they are combined with a modicum of style and a certain sense of panache. And second, that your team is slapping every other premier league team in sight. A distinct lack of personal charm - not helped by his frothing tirade at reporters last week - is not going to leave Grant with very much slack, even if he has lost only three games since taking up the post.
It is true that racism and prejudice exist in British football. Chelsea itself has a rather unsavory history when it comes to accusations of racism, and its chairman, Bruce Buck, was at pains just after Grant's appointment to make it clear that "there have been a few [comments] which could be viewed as racist and anti-Semitic and that must stop immediately."
One of the most queasily distasteful episodes in the media were comments by former Tory MP David Mellor (whose political career was cut short by a sex scandal, which deliciously if probably apocryphally involved a young lady and Mellor dressed in Chelsea gear) in his sports column last September, who wrote: "With Abramovich as owner, Grant as manager, and [Pini] Zahavi a trusted confidant, Chelsea are not so much Russian these days as kosher." And then there was the package containing white powder and death threats to Grant and his wife sent to Chelsea's training ground last month from an unknown assailant. But the Grants themselves have brushed off the anti- Semitism brouhaha and it's hard to find many in the Jewish community who take it very seriously.
Ironically, it is Tottenham Hotspur, not Chelsea, which is nicknamed the "Yid Army" for its traditional status as London's Jewish team, although confusingly, its many Jewish fans are also quite happy to join in the refrain of "Yiddos." Arsenal supporters have also been wont to chant, "I've never felt more like gassing Jews when Arsenal win and Tottenham lose," or the other perennial favorite, "Spurs are on their way to Auschwitz." Then again, Arsenal probably has as many Jewish supporters as Tottenham these days, not to mention a Jewish managing director. Chelsea also draws its fair share of supporters from the community. While Jews may not join in some of the more yobbish chants, this kind of boorish behavior does not appear to have significantly put them off from going to footie.
The oldest hatred is far from the most common prejudice on the pitch. Black players have been greeted with bananas and monkey noises, and the Catholic-Protestant enmity between the two Glasgow teams is legendary. The levels of jingoism the tabloids reach every time England's national team faces off against Germany makes one wonder if World War II ever really ended.
It could be argued that the only time the average British male can safely exorcise his baser instincts is through football or participating in another national sport, binge drinking. Maybe this provides the safety valve that allows men here to be, otherwise, generally all-round decent chaps.
And perhaps the outbursts of anti-Grantism can be put down to some other, much more mundane reason - that the boy from Petah Tikva is weighed down by the giant chip on his shoulder, a lack of managerial imagination and, as already noted, an absence of personal charm. Maybe that's the worst crime of all, and what it will take for an outburst of philo-Semitism to invade the British pitch is simply a few more startling successes at Stamford Bridge.
Daniella Peled is the foreign editor of The Jewish Chronicle.
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