Fanning Fans' Flames

A newly elected board member of a European soccer supporters' organization, Shay Golub is trying to spur locals to take ownership of their sport - literally.

Haim Shadmi
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Haim Shadmi

BERLIN - Shay Golub was sucking on a huge lollipop that looked like a traffic light. It was, without a doubt, the biggest piece of candy he had ever tasted. "Do you want me to do a back flip with a 360-degree twist and land with straight legs?" he asked.

You couldn't say no to that, so Golub got up, put the candy on the table, took a deep breath and jumped. Without preparation or warming up, and even with a little potbelly, he did a flip almost like the ones that gold-medal Chinese athletes were engineered to do at last summer's Olympic Games.

In Israel the name Shay Golub may mean almost nothing, but a few weeks ago, in Hamburg, he won the recognition he needed so badly. It was the happiest moment in his life. His moment of glory. Elections were held that day for the executive board of the first independent and representative European soccer fans' organization: Football Supporters Europe (FSE). Members of its parent organization, Britain's Football Supporters' Federation (FSF), had gathered in Hamburg for their annual congress. Ten candidates were competing for eight seats on the new board. Golub's address before the participants was received with thunderous applause.

Mark Ogborne, aka "Og" - who is English, unmarried, and in his 40s (indeed, the percentage of single men who are 30 or older and are soccer fans exceeds their proportion within the general population) - went over to Golub and whispered that the Englishmen and the Scandinavians were with him. The Germans, who constituted the majority at the congress, nominated two candidates for the committee. But the Brits' influence, coupled with their characteristic diplomatic manipulations, was powerful, and the Scandinavians always unite.

Droplets of sweat emerged on Golub's forehead. Antonia Hagemann, the European association's director general and Daniela Wurbs, international development officer of the FSF and coordinator of the Hamburg event, competed for the right to wipe them off. A 25-year-old Slovak candidate, Michael Riecansky, who bore a resemblance to Che Guevara (including the hat), got on the stage and energized the event's participants. (All the other contestants were over age 30.) Just hours remained until the election was held and the results were publicized.

Golub is head of Hayetzia - the Israeli sports supporters' organization. Possibly because of the general disrespect for soccer fans, some of whom reflect certain unpopular Israeli traits, he and his organization are known only to a very few fans.

Generally, local soccer buffs are a passive (and sometimes extreme) bunch: They come to the field once a week, pay a disproportionate sum for a ticket, curse the rival team and the Arabs, observe declining standards with amazement, go home to watch other games on pay cable channels, and finish off by reading poorly written stories about their sport in the newspapers and on the Internet.

Capitalist influence

Golub and his organization want to change this. Like his colleagues in Europe, he understands that soccer is not just a sport. The games, or to be more accurate, the teams, provide a "home" for fans, a means of creating a community, of generating friendships and a sense of belonging. But in recent years things have changed: Soccer's popularity has attracted money, public relations, TV stations and wealthy people. All of them are looking for a way to capitalize on the sport. To cope with this phenomenon, an organization called Supporters Direct (SD) was established in London in 2000, under British government regulations and financing.

The initial aim of SD was to empower soccer fans to take initiative and to serve as a counterweight to the American billionaires, Russian oligarchs and Saudi princes who were gaining control over - and to some extent corrupting - English soccer. The idea was for fans to establish their own teams instead of throwing their lot in with the capitalists. Since then, some 200 soccer clubs of this sort have sprouted up in England, and similar organizations have been created on the Continent. In England, the FSF emerged and it founded numerous "embassies" around Europe - such as Koordinationsstelle Fanprojekte (KOS) in Germany and Progetto Ultra in Italy, which organizes a special Mondial against racism. At every such Mondial, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) underwrites certain advisory services and offers guidance to fans. All these organizations are supported by local governments or public organizations like sports lotteries, or by European bodies.

Thus, dozens of local fan clubs are now involved in organizing games for their teams in Europe. According to the model used in Germany, just over half of each team's shares belong to the fans.

Behind this phenomenon is the realization that the emphasis on and connection to money has drawn soccer away from its supporters. And it was not by coincidence that UEFA, with the encouragement of its president, Michel Platini, was involved in organizing the recent event in Hamburg. Under such circumstances, one can understand Golub's excitement.

"It's a revelation, I have no other words," he said, his eyes sparkling. Although back home, he tries - usually unsuccessfully - to convince representatives of the Israel Football Association (IFA) to meet with him, in Germany he hobnobbed with William Gaillard, Platini's personal advisor; Alex Phillips, who heads UEFA's professional soccer services; and Feran Velasquez, who is in charge of educational and cultural enterprises associated with the European Union.

Golub recalled how four years ago he traveled to Germany on business, representing the environmental group Green Course, and attended a match between Hertha Berlin and Werder Bremen. "I was really envious because of the attitude toward the fans," he said. "During that season my team, Hapoel Kfar Sava, was saved from being relegated to a lower league in the last round. I felt then that there was more for me to do, as a fan, than to stand and curse from the stands: It's important to be involved in the club's management. I went online and got to SD."

Two years ago he heard of a delegation of Werder Bremen fans who were visiting Israel and had failed to meet local soccer buffs. Seeing the potential for a breakthrough, Golub sought the Germans out just before they left Jerusalem. Since then, he has developed ties with soccer fans all over Europe.

He arrived prepared for the congress in Hamburg. "I started the campaign for my election a long time beforehand, when I was still in Israel," he recalled, explaining that in his speech, he talked about regional peace. "It's time that we think outside the box, work toward worldwide cooperation and ensure that tickets are allocated to fans at the sponsors' expense. Even if I am not elected, I will strive to establish a pool of data that will integrate information from fan groups all over the world so that we can learn from each other's experience."

Golub was elected to the sixth of eight slots with 236 votes. The Slovak Riecansky came in just ahead of him. The two German candidates - in a stunning surprise - remained outside the soccer fans' organization.

An hour and a half after the voting, Golub was on a plane back to Ben-Gurion Airport, in seventh heaven. En route he imagined how he would enlist UEFA and European soccer fans' groups to help foment a revolution in the IFA. Immediately upon landing, his cell phone rang. Avi Luzon, the association's chairman was on the line. "What were you looking for in Germany?" shouted Luzon, with his characteristic friendliness. "Leave them alone. Their congresses are just talk. Believe me."

"For me, being in Hamburg meant not feeling lonely, as I do the other 364 days of the year," enthused Golub. "At long last I feel connected to people, that I am part of something big and real. I feel at home."

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