English Jews and Soccer: An Unlikely Love Story

250 page book deals with the hardships of Jewish soccer pioneers in Britain, but concentrates on their contribution.

Shaul Adar
Shaul Adar
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Shaul Adar
Shaul Adar

LONDON - The Jewish Museum in Camden Town hosted a book launch a month ago to honor Anthony Clavane and his new volume "Does Your Rabbi Know You're Here?" Clavane presented his book as a "celebration of English Jewry's contribution to English soccer, listing players, coaches, Israeli players and the modern generation of Jewish executives who changed soccer forever."

The discussion focused on the anti-Semitism that greeted past pioneers, and was held before the London derby, where last weekend a huge group of West Ham supporters sang the praises of Adolf Hitler, with veiled references to the gas chambers and support of the Lazio fans who stabbed a Tottenham fan in Rome last week.

"I was rather disappointed by the emphasis on anti-Semitism, but the older generation was exposed to it," said Clavane. "Things have improved since the 1970s. When I grew up we had players such as Barry Silkman and Mark Lazarus. At the time it was difficult being Jewish in English soccer. Today, there's absolutely no contrast between being Jewish and being a soccer fan, but there are some fools, racists and anti-Semites in the stands, and every so often their voice is heard. I'm glad Yossi Benayoun protested the chants, and that the authorities are taking the event seriously, instead of ignoring it."

Clavane's book deals with the hardships of Jewish soccer pioneers in Britain, but concentrates on their contribution. The 250 pages include facts, stories, opinions and the debunking of a great myth. As he was writing the book, the author heard endless versions of a joke implying that a book on Jews and English soccer would be a very short one. Still, after reading "Rabbi," one reaches the conclusion that Jews made no meager contribution to the game; in fact, they had a leading role in transforming a dying sport into the prospering business it is today.

Clavane successfully adapted his previous book "Promised Land," which tells the story of Leeds United and its ties with the city's Jewish community, to the theater, but not everyone was pleased. "Part of my family thinks I'm weird and doesn't understand why I deal with this topic altogether," he said. "They're somewhat embarrassed to tell such stories in writing and onstage. The soccer part didn't bother them, but rather my dealing with my Judaism. They're afraid what the goyim will say, and all that. The new book was extremely well received by the press, but had mixed reviews in my family."

Taking from an unobjective, Israeli point of view - Clavane is a friend and I was interviewed for the book - it seems his family actually has many reasons to be proud. The book is intriguing and reveals the neurotic relations between English soccer and the Jewish community. At the Jewish high school in Leeds, Clavane and his friends weren't allowed to play soccer. The ball was confiscated because "this isn't something Jewish children should be doing."

Still, Clavane's love for the game was not to be lost. The tension between the self-image and public image of Jews, who were seen as weak intellectuals having nothing to do with sports but who actually tend to be long-standing soccer fans, still confuses many.

On the pitch, the Jewish contribution was indeed meager for many years. To this day, the national team has not included a single Jewish player. Still, the idea that there were no Jewish players over the years is misconceived. "I checked that myth, and I believe it is unfounded," said Clavane. "One must remember that the Jews were never more than one percent of the British population, and today they make up only half of a percent, at most. In the 20th century, leading up to World War II, when Jews and soccer players came from the working classes, the number of Jewish soccer players fitted their percentage of the population. There were dozens of players, and a Jewish presence in the stadiums. When the Jews rose to the middle class, they almost disappeared from the pitch, but found other positions in the world of British soccer."

Goldberg and Lazarus

Clavane is particularly fond of two players, one being Leslie Goldberg, who played for Leeds United from 1937 until the war, and who was even selected for the British national school team. "Someone told me that Goldberg was the first Jew to appear on a cigarette card, a card of soccer players that was found in cigarette boxes. It was a clear sign that he was a star, the equivalent of a Nike player today," said Clavane.

Goldberg was adored by Leeds' Jews, who began daydreaming of the time he would play for England. Unfortunately, the leagues were abandoned during WWII, and after the war Goldberg transferred to Redding. Far away from the embrace of the large Leeds Jewish community, he suffered from alienation and anti-Semitism - also due to the growing tension in Palestine and the clashes there between Jews and the British army. Eventually he changed his name to Les Gaunt. It was a different time, when membership in golfing clubs was closed to Jews, and many chose to hide their identities.

Thirty years later, English Jews had a symbolic victory when QPR, then a third league team, beat West Bromwich Albion in the FA Cup Final in Wembley 3-2, the winning goal being scored by Mark Lazarus, a Jewish East Ender. "Catholics have saints guarding them, Jews have ground-breaking sports heroes," Clavane wrote, meaning that for Jewish children, Lazarus was a blue-and-white-clad Samson.

English soccer had already become more tolerant, but Lazarus faced trouble in his back yard. One rabbi told him he was embarrassing his people by playing soccer. Lazarus responded: "Really. Why? Believe me, you won't find a better Jew than me. No one ever slanders Jews when I'm around."

Clavane recalled: "At the Jewish school we were very excited to find out that he was Jewish, and not ashamed of it. He was an exciting character who should have played for England, but was endlessly arguing with his coaches. He came from a tough East End family, and had two brothers who were boxers. He knew how to take care of himself on the pitch, and Rodney Marsh, the club's star, said he was the toughest player he ever met."

Jewish players can be mostly found today in the lower leagues. There is also a tiny Israeli presence - Benayoun in West Ham and Itay Shechter in Swansea. A chapter of the book tells of the contributions of Avi Cohen, Ronny Rosenthal, Eyal Berkovic and Benayoun. ("My favorite Israeli player", says Clavane of Benayoun, "a kid who grew up in difficult conditions and became an excellent Premier League player." )

Still, Clavane acknowledges that the most influential Israeli was not a player but rather a businessman, Pini Zahavi. The same division of labor was the rule among British Jewry. After Manny Cussins made the breakthrough by directing Leeds United, Jews moved from the pitch to the executive boxes and began directing soccer clubs. Long before the Roman Abramovich era at Chelsea, almost all London clubs had Jewish connections. Clavane reveals that the owners of Oldham Athletic, Watford and Brighton had previously all played for the same amateur Jewish club.

More English than the English

A significant part of the modernization that English soccer underwent after the 1989 Hillsborough disaster can be attributed to British Jews. Lord Justice Taylor, who investigated the tragedy and set guidelines leading the sport into the 21st century, was a Leeds Jew. David Dein, Alan Sugar and many Jewish businessmen and media personalities were instrumental in the establishment of the Premier League. A new breed of ambitious Jews who broke down the last barriers made their presence felt during the time of Margaret Thatcher. The goal - to be more English than the English - was finally attained.

"My parents and grandparents remained in the shadows, they preferred no one knew they were Jewish," Clavane said. "Listening to the stories of David Dein and David Bernstein, the current Football Association chairman, one can learn much about British Jewry and Britain's multicultural society. The Jews were the first immigrants to establish an England-oriented community. This is my story as well: I wrote two books dealing with the issue after years that I ignored my Judaism. But like many, as I age, I'm more interested in my roots, my background, my parents and grandparents. I wish to respect their tale. I wrote about them in 'Promised Land,' and in this book I expand the huge story of 19th century immigrants who became part of and contributed to the sport I love so much."

Does your rabbi know you're here?



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