A few weeks ago, the Sports Center on ESPN’s international channel began a soccer segment with a spot on Portland Timbers fans. Anytime I get a glimpse of Portland from halfway around the world, my local patriotism gets aroused. If it involves sports, the feeling is even more profound (the regular disappointments of the Blazers notwithstanding).
As someone who has lived more than 30 years in a country where soccer is king and worked in sports media for more than 20 years, I long ago gained an appreciation for the unbridled passion of soccer fans. In America, you follow, support and root for your team. In Europe, South America and the Middle East, soccer is your life, and your team is your religion.
A few years ago, the then owner of the Hapoel Tel Aviv soccer club Moshe Te’umim succinctly summed up this fact when he told me people convert to a different religion far more often than they change their allegiance to a soccer team.
The short clip from Portland’s Jeld-Wen Field was the first time that I had ever seen this kind of international soccer fever in the U.S. The nonstop singing, chanting, flag-waving and drum-beating by several thousand fans wearing Timbers Army shirts, hats and scarves is precisely the expression of support commonplace in stadiums around the world.
My joy was tempered because fan-related soccer violence in Israel hit a new low that same weekend. It occurred in the always hotly contested Tel Aviv rivalry between Hapoel and Maccabi. This latest incidence of violence is the ugly flipside of fan passion seen in stadiums around the world.
While fan-based violence is nothing new to football (as most of the world calls soccer), the recent frequency of these incidents is sad and shocking.
The famous English saying that “Rugby is a hooligans game played by gentlemen, while soccer is a gentlemen’s game played by hooligans” seems to be especially relevant as fans join the ranks of hooligans. Soccer-fan violence is a well-documented social phenomenon. It can stem from the unemployed or marginally employed, alienated youth or minorities seeking the only stage available to them. In Israel, these factors are intensified by tension from Israel’s ever-present security threat and the highly charged political atmosphere. For many supporters, their only source of happiness is when their team wins; a loss is tantamount to being slapped in the face. In either case, the resulting behavior is often violent.
As the image of Israeli soccer deteriorates, the peaceful majority of fans stay away from stadiums and the governing body of Israel soccer appears impotent. The problem needs to be dealt with by the police (who are not in the stadiums for budgetary reasons) and the courts; but the government has not displayed the necessary resolve. Unlike England, where government action put an end to violence, the issue here has not been a priority.
But despite this grim picture, in Israel, where there is despair, there are always reasons for hope. It is one of our most important assets.
Three points offer hope for Israeli soccer.
First, Ironi Kiryat Shmona won the Premier League Championship. Since the 1980s, thousands of Katyusha rockets have bombarded the primarily North African and Russian immigrants of this northern town nestled between Lebanon and the Golan Heights. A low socio-economic structure and insufficient infrastructure made this town the least likely candidate to assemble a championship team. Yet for the past 20 years, a visionary businessman has donated huge sums of money and resources to the town and helped bring this dream to life. This is the first time the Israeli championship has been won by a team outside the four major cities. This wonderful achievement has given happiness and hope to an entire segment of the population who are all too often forgotten and marginalized.
Second, proposed legislation would allow the minister of internal security to invoke administrative detention for soccer hooligans. This somewhat controversial tool in Israel’s fight against terrorism allows Internal Security to immediately remove from circulation those thought to be “ticking time bombs,” to interrogate them and file charges after detention.
The proposed soccer legislation would be a much lighter form of administrative detention, but almost certain arrest and incarceration would effectively deter offenders who currently believe they can act with impunity.
Finally, Israeli soccer is the one place where Jews and Palestinians truly coexist. This year, the Premier League has 55 Palestinian players, around 20% of the league total. The National Team almost always has at least one, and often two or three, Palestinian players representing Israel in the most important and prestigious international matches.
The largest concentration of Palestinian players (11) is at Bnei Sachnin, an Arab Israeli city. Six Palestinians play for last year’s champion, Maccabi Haifa, and four each for Hapoel, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Kiryat Shmona, the new champion. Many are star players for their teams. The current league-leading scorer is Ahmad Sabah, a Palestinian who plays for Maccabi Netanya.
The prominent role of Palestinian Arabs in Israeli soccer is remarkable considering the ongoing conflict. Terrorist attacks, retaliatory operations, security measures and other manifestations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have not damaged the bond between Israeli players of Jewish and Palestinian backgrounds.
Does this mean that Israeli Palestinians see themselves as Israeli first and Palestinian second? I doubt it. It has more to do with Palestinian youth who see soccer as a way to escape the cycle of rural poverty. But once Jews and Palestinians become teammates, backgrounds and political opinions play little, if any part. These players truly become teammates and work harmoniously. The trash talk that can spill over into unnecessary roughness, shoving, even fighting, never occurs for racial reasons, but rather between opposing players in the heat of competition.
Does this successful coexistence transfer into Israeli society? Not really. But as long as it continues, Jewish-Palestinian soccer coexistence will remain a beacon that can provide badly needed guidance and inspiration.
As bad as the current situation is in Israeli soccer, it still provides hope and joy. I sincerely hope the government will show the necessary resolve so I will be able to take my kids to games and know that we will have fun like I did when my father took me to games in Portland.
Mylan Tanzer is a Portland native who moved to Israel in 1981. He was the founding CEO of the first Israeli cable and satellite sports channel. Since 2005, he has launched, managed and consulted for channels and companies in Israel and Europe. Tanzer lives in Tel Aviv with his wife and five children. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.