Jews and Soccer: A Complicated Relationship

Jews and soccer have a long interconnected history as club owners, players, agents, analysts, fans, and directors.

Nathan Abrams
Nathan Abrams
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Nathan Abrams
Nathan Abrams

Jews in general don’t do sports, but when it comes to soccer, the relationship is much more complicated.

On the one hand, British novelist Howard Jacobson wrote in his novel “Coming from Behind”: “In the highly improbable event of his being asked to nominate the one most un-Jewish thing he could think of, Sefton Goldberg would have been hard pressed to decide between Nature […] and football.”

On the other hand, the history of British Jews and soccer has been the subject of a recent book, “Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?” by British-Jewish sports journalist Anthony Clavane. Other British Jews have written about soccer, including David Winner (“Brilliant Orange”) and David Goldblatt (“The Ball is Round”).

It will also be the focus of a forthcoming special exhibition at the Jewish Museum in London entitled “Four Four Jew.” The title of the exhibition is a play on the popular tactical formation, 4-4-2 (4 defenders, 4 midfielders, 2 attackers). It stands in contrast to the 4-3-2-1 setup, which Jews presumably reject, because it’s also known as the “Christmas tree” formation.

Jews and soccer have a long interconnected history as club owners, players, agents, analysts, fans, and directors. Among the big Jewish names are Football Association chairman David Bernstein; David Dein, the former vice-chairman of Arsenal Football Club and former vice-chairman of the Football Association; Daniel Levy, the current chairman of Spurs; and Alan Sugar, who also owned Spurs.

Jewish players and former players include Joe Jacobson, Mark Lazarus and Dean Furman; as well as David Pleat, who played and then became a manager. There's super-agent Pini Zahavi, and Irving Scholar, who was a director of Spurs.

Unlike many sports, Jews embraced soccer and soccer embraced the Jews in return. It was the sport of the working class and immigrants. Unlike tennis, golf, rugby, running, fencing, cricket and so on, it was not posh. It did not require special equipment or clothing. It could be played anywhere and with almost anything. Not even a ball was needed.

As soccer spread around the world, Jews joined in. Jewish soccer leagues and soccer clubs were set up. Many took the name Hakoah, including those in Vienna, Bergen County, New York and Brooklyn in the United States, Berlin, Argentina, Switzerland, Melbourne, Sydney, and Riga. When the Hakoah soccer team from Vienna arrived in New York in 1926, local Jews turned up in their thousands, all filled with a sense of pride and self-esteem at watching their athletic co-religionists.

Possibly because it was not associated with English colonialism in the same way as cricket, soccer was enthusiastically embraced in Israel, too. A Hakoah club was set up in Ramat Gan. Some 43,000 spectators at New York’s Yankee stadium watched visit Israeli team Hapoel in 1947.

Certain other clubs around the world have attracted Jewish support, earning the tag of being labeled as “Jewish” clubs. These include Ajax Amsterdam (the Netherlands), Bayern Munich (Germany), and Roma (Italy). At Glasgow Rangers (Scotland), supporters wave Israeli flags (although this is not done necessarily out of any sense of identification but perhaps as a counter-statement to their rivals, Celtic, whose fans sport Palestinian flags).

In Britain, the English Premier League, as one of the richest leagues in the world, has attracted Jews of numerous nationalities, including several high-profile Israelis such as Avram Grant, Ronnie “the Rocket” Rosenthal, and Yossi Benayoun. Rich Jews from abroad have invested in English clubs. The most famous are Russian Roman Abramovich, and the Americans Randy Lerner and the Glazer family. English clubs that have attracted a significant Jewish following include Tottenham Hotspur (Spurs), Arsenal, Leeds, Manchester United and Manchester City. In the 1980s, Jewish loyalties were almost evenly split between Arsenal – my team - and Spurs. Strangely, though, despite its North London rival (Arsenal) having more Jewish followers, only Spurs sports the distinctive description of being a “Jewish club” within English soccer, referring to themselves – somewhat controversially it must be added – as “the Yids” or “Yid army.” While some Jews argue this is racist, others suggest it is a sign of ethnic confidence, of taking back a racial slur and turning on its enemies. At the same time, it is curious that as the team that is labeled the most “Jewish” in England, Spurs is also known as the “Lily-whites.” This is because of its adoption of a home kit of white shirt and blue shorts at the end of the nineteenth century which they have been wearing, with slight variation but little deviation, ever since.

This could be read as invoking the notion of the Jewish desire to become the same, to become “white.” But it also demonstrates the excess of mimicry in that my computer dictionary defines lily-white as “pure or ideally white” and “without fault or corruption; totally innocent or immaculate.” The nickname “the Lily-whites” perhaps demonstrates just how English the Jews of Spurs strive to be. They struggle to become white like everyone else, but as a mark of their excess, only more so, whiter than white.

Probably because it is such an “English” sport, and because it never became a national game in the United States unlike almost everywhere else in the world, Hollywood has made few good films about soccer. One of the worst has got to be “Escape to Victory” (John Huston, 1981) in which a team of allied POWs prepare for a soccer game against the German national team to be played in Nazi-occupied Paris. As they train, the French Resistance and British officers are making plans for the team’s escape. It starred Pele and Sylvester Stallone.

In terms of Jews and soccer, probably the only such film is “Sixty-Six.” The 2006 movie portrays a thirteen-year-old English boy whose bar mitzvah falls on the same day as England’s 1966 World Cup final match against West Germany. Imminently depressed about no one turning up to his party, this semi-autobiographical film about the director Paul Weiland’s own bar mitzvah, is also about a rite-of-passage and father-son relationships. Without revealing too much, our protagonist ends up watching the final, using his tallit as a scarf. It’s an attempt to use soccer to reconcile what may be viewed as the contrasting identities of Englishness and Jewishness. It’s also significant that film has to use the peg of the England team’s greatest – and only – soccer triumph in order to sell a film about being Jewish in Britain today.

Ajax Amsterdam fans waving an Israeli flag during a Champions League match against Maccabi Tel Aviv in Amsterdam in 2004.Credit: Archive

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