Screaming abuse is a fixture on touchlines
A FEW weeks ago my 17-year-old son told me we needed to have a chat. “Mum,” he said, “I know this will upset you, but I need to do more studying.”
Why so apologetic? Because the gap in his busy schedule that he had identified was Sunday morning. And that meant resigning from his football team and a premature end to my days as a MAG (mothers and girlfriends).
It wasn’t so much the football that I would miss, or even the social side. That could, and has, continued.
No, what I would miss was the drama of youth football, the interplay of emotion and ethics among players and parents, which makes it one of the best places for professional people-watchers like myself. In fact much of the action of my latest book for teenagers, The Liar’s Handbook, takes place on the sidelines of an under-16 team’s matches.
My son’s football career started in Amsterdam, where we lived until he was seven. The team, RKAVIC, wasn’t a Jewish one — it had started out as a Catholic team, and the club emblem, two wolves drinking from a cauldron, was derived from the family crest of Ignatious Loyola, founder of the Jesuits.
It was as international as many professional sides, with two managers shouting instructions in Dutch and Japanese.
They invest a lot of thought into youth football in Holland — the facilities and pitches were great, the training excellent and every match ended with a penalty shoot-out to hone the skills needed to help a future national team avoid humiliation. The emphasis was on teaching our sons to have a sporting attitude, supporting teammates and playing fair.
The following year we came back to London and I found him a Jewish team. This was a very different experience. The pitches were boggy and often sloped alarmingly. There were no clubhouses with loos and bars. And, while the parents were com- pletely charming, some took winning slightly too seriously.
One very passionate manager charged onto the pitch to shout abuse at the referee. Another dad, pressed into service as ref, deliberately extended full-time to give his son’s team time to equalise. I’ve stood next to a mother exhorting her son to “bite the legs off” his opponents. And another screamed abuse at her precious child when he failed to score a goal.
The tensest matches came when our team played another from a more strictly Orthodox community. Some of their supporters whipped out prayer books and started shockelling on the sidelines. “They’re praying for our kids to lose,” we whispered, horrified.
My son’s team spent one year playing at the Maccabi league’s headquarters at The Hive in Edgware. The facilities were excellent — loos! coffee! — and parents were banned from the pitchside, instead made to stand behind a mesh fence, known as “the cage”.
The aim was to minimise unhelpful interjections from unofficial coaches, but it didn’t totally prevent parental bad behaviour. Two of us MAGs once witnessed a mum from another team spit racist abuse at a Polish barista. We reported her to the Maccabi officials.
But these negative experiences were rare. What stands out are the chats with my son after the matches. A chance to talk about important subjects like collective responsibility for failure as well as success, the benefits of teamwork and the importance of accepting the referee’s rulings.
Probably the pinnacle of his footballing career was a trip taken by his team back to his birthplace, Amsterdam, for the annual Yom ha Voetbal, a tournament for Jewish youth teams all over Europe. The venue? His very first club, the one with the Jesuit wolves on their badge.