Scream­ing abuse is a fix­ture on touch­lines

The Jewish Chronicle - - NEWS - FIRST PER­SON BY KEREN DAVID

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.

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