When a friend asked me if I would be interested in coming along to a “Kick racism out of football” conference, being held in Herzliya Pituach, and clarified that it was with the involvement of the English Football Association, I immediately replied in the affirmative; the issue of racism in football is never far from the headlines and the past week saw one of the ugliest incidents for a long time; the Spanish crowd making monkey noises at Ashley Cole and Shaun Wright-Phillips, two of England’s black players, reminiscent of scenes from the terraces which I had imagined to have been largely eradicated over 20 years ago.
Israeli football is no stranger to racism as anyone who has ever been in the crowd for a Beitar Yerushalayim home game will know. The constant barracking of (particularly) Arab players / teams, is something that has caused me immense discomfort and is one of the reason why I don’t visit Teddy Stadium more often. Other teams are also guilty but Beitar is the one that has been most obvious to me in my limited experience of watching Israeli football.
Last year, for the first time, a team from the Arab sector won the State Cup. Bnei Sakhnin, a small, Arab owned and supported team is made up of a mixture of both Arab and Jewish players and for many the victory was not just for football but for co-existence. For the first time this year, Israel has been represented in Europe by an Arab team – to my mind a triumph for Israeli democracy. That Newcastle United soundly beat them was besides the point (though warmly welcomed by my Geordie friends) – in this case, the competing itself was more than enough.
Jointly sponsored by the New Israel Fund, The Israeli Football Association, the English Football Association, the British Council and the British Embassy and in the presence (for the opening comments at least) of Limor Livnat, Minister of Education, Culture and Sport (now with a softer, more feminine look) and Ronit Tirosh, Director General of the Ministry of Education, the conference (see coverage from the JP, Haaretz, The Times) looked at the largely successful experience of tackling racism (as well as sexism, genderism etc) in the English game as a model for doing something similar in Israel.
After an opening panel, ably chaired by pundit Avi Meller and featuring former Police Chief Shlomo Aharonishki, Chair of the Knesset Inquiry Committee on Violence in Sports, MK Abu Vilan and Deputy to the Attorney General Malkiel Blass, had addressed the more technical issues such as coordination between the various authorities, changes in the education system and the possibility of suspending play due to racist taunts from the stand (as happened recently in Holland), we came to, what for me was the main attraction – the English FA panel.
The English delegation was headed by FA Executive Director David Davies and featured two former players, now working within the FA – Gary Mabbut who plied his trade for Spurs and Brenden Batson of WBA. Together with FA Ethics and Sports Equity Manager Lucy Faulkner, they explained how the concept of the “kicking racism out” project had been conceived and what its successes and failures had been since.
It struck me that whilst the approach might work for England it will have to be adapted drastically for Israel. One of the biggest ethnic rivalries in football is that which exists between the two Glasgow clubs, Catholic Celtic and Protestant Rangers. The roots of the rivalry are hundreds of years old. Violence, abuse and the singing of racist songs mar match days every year and in the latest bad tempered installment, played this weekend, Celtic finished the match with 9 men. Similar rivalries exist in many other leagues as well as in the international sphere (Simon Kuper’s book Football Against the Enemy is an excellent chronicle).
I would argue that these rivalries, whilst having historical roots are what would be called Sin’at Chinam – causeless hatred – imagined grievances that don’t have too much place in today’s society and can therefore be solved with a little thought and willing. Where such rivalries exist in modern, progress societies therefore, how much more difficult is it to eradicate rivalries where the friction between the rivals if very real and keenly felt? Where the Jewish supporter may have lost a friend of family member in a suicide bombing? Where a Border Policeman has frisked the Arab supporter on his way to the ground? These are very real grievances, which if they are to be eradicated, require a change not just in the footballing culture but in Israeli society itself.
I found it heartening that such a conference was taking place in Israel; that people involved in the sport are sitting up and taking notice. The fear voiced by MK Vilan, that it would take a Brussels style tragedy to sound the wake up call, should be assuaged but only if the clubs work together with the Football Assocation, Fans and Police in order to stop it. The message must be sounded loud and clear from the stands, but also in the schools and at home – racism and violence are not acceptable no matter the circumstance. Football is an extremely powerful and effective tool in implementing such a message.
As a side note, when I mentioned Batson’s presence to friends I received the same response each time – “does he still have the Afro?” Batsen was one of the earliest prominent black players in the English game – when I collared him at the end of proceedings and told him the story, he laughed and told me to tell my friends that he does still have hair (he’s bald). Batson struck me as a thoroughly good guy and I’m happy that people of his caliber are involved in the beautiful game.
I related to him that I remembered his picture, along with fellow WBA players Cyrille Regis and Kenny Cunningham from an early ‘80s sticker album; the fact that I remember these three and pretty much no-one else from the same album, goes to show how unusual it was to find black players back then. He spoke extremely frankly about the abuse to which he was subjected in the ‘70s and ‘80s and serves as a tremendous role model to a whole community, having paved the way for the fine crop of black players currently plying their trade at all levels.
Batson’s manager at WBA, Big Ron Atkinson has recently got himself into hot water over racist comments made when he thought the microphone had been switched off. Brendon told me that he thought that the context of what Big Ron had done for black footballers such as himself and his two WBA colleagues as well as others like Remi Moses was important but that Atkinson has done himself no favours by trying to excuse his actions rather than apologizing. A sorry note on which to (possibly) end a career.