English Jews love football. So why aren’t there any in the Premier League?

LONDON (JTA) — In 1992, a group of Jewish businessmen profoundly changed British football.

By the mid-1980s, England’s stadiums were collapsing, the quality of play was declining and fan violence was rampant.

Businessmen like David Dein, Alan Sugar, Alex Fynn and Irving Scholar have made it their mission to resurrect the sport in their native countries. They spearheaded the creation of the Premier League, the elite tier of English football that would soon become the most lucrative sporting product ever created – a global cultural phenomenon broadcast in more countries than there are. a of British embassies- by restructuring staff, adopting modern marketing techniques and selling subscriptions to aficionados.

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Since then, Jews have bought and sold clubs all over England, turning some into highly lucrative multi-billion pound revenue machines. They have changed the mindset of football and helped the biggest talents perform on grounds ranging from Burnley to Brighton.

“There was a very strong Jewish presence off the pitch,” said Anthony Clavane, a historian at the University of Essex and author of a summation on the history of British Jewish football, Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?.

“The doors of football had opened. »

Jews have been involved at almost every level of English football: from owners to top agents, commentators to managers. Two Jews have succeeded each other at the head of the Football Association, the governing body of English football. Seven Premier League clubs – including top performers such as Chelsea (recently sold by Roman Abramovich), Tottenham and Manchester United – are now Jewish-owned.

Even historically footballing Jewish audiences, such as those at Tottenham, Arsenal and Watford, seemed to gain visibility. In the mid-1990s, Jews were twice as fond of football as other Britons, according to a poll by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research. And in 1996, the unofficial English national team anthem – “Three Lions” – was co-written by Jewish comedian David Baddliel.

« The community felt not only accepted, but invested in the football, » Clavane said. “It was an emotional as well as a financial investment. It’s almost as if part of your Jewish identity is expressed through football. »

The growing presence of Jews behind the scenes was matched by their almost total absence on the ground.

Harry Kane of Tottenham kicks the ball past Scott Kashket of Wycombe during the English FA Cup Round 4 soccer match between Wycombe Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur at Adams Park Stadium in High Wycombe, England on 25 January 2021. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Since 1992 only one British Jew has played in the Premier League and even today only three Jews play in one of the top four English professional leagues: Joe Jacobson of Wycombe Wanderers, Dean Furman of Accrington Stanley and Scott Kashket of Crewe Alexandra.

“I’ve been asked the question so many times,” said Jacobson, the 35-year-old Welsh captain of Wycombe, who plays in League One, two levels below the Premier League. “Players came to see me and asked me: why are there so few of you on the pitch? »

When Jacobson entered the pitch – somewhat nervously – on the pitch in July 2006 on his debut as a player for Cardiff City, then in the Championship League, a tier below the Premier League, he was the first-ever British Jew to playing professionally for over twenty years.

« I remember thinking ‘wow’, but also how amazing it was that there wasn’t anyone else in between, » he said.

the Jewish Chroniclebased in London, was quick to explain that Jacobson’s breakthrough was « proof that this community is not just about buying clubs or trading players ».

The problem had actually been brewing for years. The scarcity of Jewish players had led to believe that Jews “were not made for football”. In 1982, Howard Jacobson – now one of Britain’s best-known Jewish writers – said in his first novel Coming from Behind that playing football was probably « most anti-Jewish ».

But this has not always been the case.

A golden age

Jews had been among the most creative and tactically astute players in football, and their presence was so common in British professional circles that they were no longer noticed.

“Jews were very well represented on the ground during the first fifty years of the 20th century,” Clavane said. “They were probably even overrepresented. They just weren’t known. Their own community, or people outside it, didn’t care much about it. »

Great names of Jewish players such as Louis Bookman, Leslie Goldberg, Frank Okim and David Levene, have long since been relegated to the archives of English football. Only Harry Morris, often photographed frowning and arms folded, is remembered.

Manchester City’s Joao Cancelo, right, controls the ball during the FA Cup Third Round match between Swindon Town and Manchester City at the County Ground in Swindon, Wiltshire, England on January 7, 2022. (AP Photo /Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Morris, who later served as a diplomat in Sweden and helped Allied POWs return to Britain before emigrating to the United States, was voted Swindon Town’s best player by fans in 2013.

He still holds the club records for most goals scored in a game, season and club career, 89 years after leaving Swindon, a small town outside London.

The presence of Jews in football – matches which are traditionally played on Saturdays – was a sensitive subject within Orthodox communities. Clavane speculated that this actually gave some Jewish players extra motivation.

“They wanted to prove that their identity was not just that of their parents – Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe – but was indeed that of English Jews, playing the English game,” he said. .

In the mid-1930s, Jews made up one-third of the audience at Tottenham Hotspur matches.

In English football culture, Tottenham was identified as a « Jewish club », which may have led rival supporters to provoke Tottenham fans with anti-Semitic language. For decades, Tottenham fans have called themselves ‘Yid Army’, and it was only this month that the club asked their fans to ‘move on’ and stop using those terms.

A matter of class

Since the mid-1960s, only a handful of British Jews have broken into the ranks of the elite players.

This trend coincided with the economic rise of gentrifying British Jews. Jewish parents encouraged children to pursue careers in white-collar fields, which narrowed the pool from which Jewish footballers had once emerged.

Winger Mark Lazarus, who scored the winning goal in the 1967 FA Cup Final for West London club Queens Park Rangers; wandering midfielder-turned-agent Barry Silkman and player-turned-coach-turned-commentator David Pleat are among those who have.

Tellingly, the Jews who have played in England in recent years have been mostly working-class Israelis, such as Ronny Rosenthal, Yossi Benayoun and Tomer Hemed.

Arsenal’s Yossi Benayoun celebrates after scoring against Norwich City during the English Premier League soccer match at the Emirates Stadium in London, May 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Bogdan Maran)

« It’s just a class thing for me, » Clavane said. “If you go to any country where football is working class and where the Jewish community is predominantly working class, which it was in Britain until the middle of the 20th century, then you will see Jewish footballers. »

Jacob Steinberg, sports journalist for the Guardianagrees.

“If you come from a middle-class background, then maybe you’re pushed more towards the academic side of things,” he said. “If you’re in that kind of context, then maybe you’re not as focused on trying to get into professional sports. It’s basically a working class sport. »

For many, this dynamic has translated into a perception that young Jewish players are not motivated enough to succeed in professional football.

Joe Jacobson has experienced this dynamic firsthand. He said as he worked his way through Cardiff’s youth system as a teenager, he played against peers « for whom all that mattered was football ».

« They didn’t come from the best backgrounds, and it was about trying to play all the time, » he said. “Their parents were pushing them and they were desperate for their children to succeed – many of these families see their child as a lottery ticket if they can push them as far as they can. In the Jewish community, it’s not seen as a career that’s lasting or that you can count on, and I think that’s why there aren’t as many kids being pushed in that direction. »

The decline of the Sunday Leagues

Danny Caro, former sports editor of the Jewish Chroniclespent years playing and covering the lowest echelon of English amateur football: the Sunday Leagues.

Every week, along with thousands of other Britons, Jews show up to play and watch local teams compete. The oldest Sunday league, founded in 1899, consisted entirely of Jewish teams.

These days, amateur play across Britain is suffering as local teams compete for fans with professional sides and face poor facilities and poor administration.

The Jewish presence is also diminished.

“Ten years ago in London you had 65 Jewish teams,” Caro said. “That number is now around 27. It’s been a big drop. »

Tottenham Hotspur fans hold up a Yid poster at a soccer match. (Credit: YouTube Screenshot)

Professional scouts used to scour Sunday League teams, including Jewish teams, in search of future stars; nowadays, they tend to look elsewhere.

“The only way to get into an academy is to be recommended or scouted – and for that to happen a scout has to see you or your team play,” Jacobson said. “If they’re not at the games, then it’s impossible to do. »

There remains, however, an all-Jewish amateur team participating in English football’s main pyramid – technically separate from the Sunday leagues in the same set of tiers as the Premier League – Barnet’s Maccabi Lions.

The Lions, who play on Saturdays, battle in England’s ninth tier and play with a Star of David as their club emblem.

Within the Jewish community, however, few seem to be particularly bothered by the fact that only a small number of Jews have made it to the Premier League.

“It would be nice to have a great Jewish sporting hero,” said Yigal Chazan, 59, a longtime Jewish Sunderland fan. “But it’s not a big problem. »

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