As the World Cup kicks off, a look back at our great­est play­ers, coaches and teams

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - NEWS FEA­TURE BY AN­THONY CLAVANE a Jewish grand­fa­ther?). As I ar­gued in

A COU­PLE of years ago, dur­ing a ques­tion and an­swer ses­sion at JW3, Howard Ja­cob­son de­clared: “My at­ti­tude to sport is very sim­ple: it’s some­thing that Jews just don’t do.”

Be­fore I had time to say Max Baer, Sandy Ko­ufax, Harold Abra­hams, Mark Spitz and, er, David Beck­ham (well, he had a Jewish grand­fa­ther), Howard con­tin­ued: “I never met a Jew that wanted to play foot­ball.”

I re­main a huge fan of the Man Booker Prize win­ner but he is wrong. Or maybe he needs to take a trip to White Hart Lane, the Emi­rates or El­land Road.

We all, deep down, want to be Li­onel Messi or Cris­tiano Ron­aldo. Or, in my case, David Batty.

Not that we will ever be­come Messi, Ron­aldo or Batty. In fact there are, it has to be ad­mit­ted, few Jewish play­ers tak­ing part in this year’s World Cup. To be strictly ac­cu­rate, there are none.

But we re­main a foot­ball-mad tribe. We dream of mes­meris­ing op­po­nents like Messi, run­ning de­fences ragged like Ron­aldo and bend­ing it like Batty and Beck­ham (did I men­tion he had

Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here? — still avail­able at all good book­shops — Jews have bod­ies as well as minds.

In my his­tory of the An­gloJewish con­tri­bu­tion to foot­ball — not, as Howard would prob­a­bly quip, the world’s short­est book — I wrote about the strik­ers, de­fend­ers and mid­field­ers who have been just as prom­i­nent in our cul­ture as the rab­bis, philoso­phers and Man Booker Prize win­ners.

There has even been the oc­ca­sional goal­keeper. Like Alexan­der Fabian, who played for Aus­tria in the 1920s.

One for­mer mid­fielder, José Pek­er­man, is cur­rently in­volved in the globe’s great­est sport­ing ex­trav­a­ganza. Born in Villa Dominguez, one of the main ar­eas of Jewish im­mi­gra­tion in Ar­gentina — his grand­par­ents em­i­grated from Ukraine — Pek­er­man is coach­ing Colom­bia. Four years ago he led the South Amer­i­cans to the quar­ter-fi­nals, the coun­try’s best ever per­for­mance.

In 2006, Pek­er­man guided his home coun­try to the last eight of the World Cup. That Ar­gentina side were cap­tained by Juan Pablo Sorin, who also hails from a Ukrainian Jewish fam­ily.

Pek­er­man’s achieve­ments, how­ever, pale into in­signif­i­cance com­pared to the World Cup feats of Hugo Meisl.

He guided Aus­tria to the 1934 semi­fi­nals, his rev­o­lu­tion­ary “Won­der Team” wow­ing the world with a pi­o­neer­ing style which heav­ily in­flu­enced the great Dutch “to­tal foot­ball” sides of the 1970s.

An in­te­gral part of that Nether­lands story was Jo­han Neeskens, who scored against West Ger­many in the 1974 World Cup fi­nal.

Now, this is when it all be­comes a tad tricky. Al­though he reg­u­larly fea­tures in great­est-ever-Jewish-soc­cer­stars lists, Neeskens is not ac­tu­ally of the faith.

(Main im­age) A pro­mo­tional poster made to mark Hakoah Vi­enna’s tour to the United States in 1926; (above) leg­endary Aus­tria coach Hugo Meisl; (below left) Béla Guttmann; and more re­cent stars (R to L) Juan Pablo Sorin, David Beck­ham, Jo­han Neeskens and Lothar Matthaus

And join­ing the Dutch mae­stro in a great­est-ever-Jewish-soc­cer-stars-whoaren’t-ac­tu­ally-Jewish list are Ge­orge Co­hen, Peter Lorimer and Lothar Matthaus.

It would be very sat­is­fy­ing to point out that Eng­land only win the World Cup when there’s a Co­hen in the team, but the 1966 hero told me he was Church of Eng­land — al­though that didn’t stop him be­ing nick­named “the rabbi” dur­ing his play­ing ca­reer.

Lorimer, who played for Scot­land in the 1974 World Cup, was ru­moured to have con­verted to Ju­daism when he went to play in Is­rael. But, again, he de­nies the story. And we are re­ally clutch­ing at straws with the leg­endary Ger­man star Matthaus, who is, like Becks, one-quar­ter Jewish.

But be­fore you say “I told you so”, Mr Ja­cob­son, how do you ex­plain Mordechai Spiegler, who scored for Is­rael against Swe­den in the 1970 World Cup?

Or Már­ton Bukovi, Ernö Egri Erb­stein, Béla Guttmann, Dori Kürschner — who helped lay the foun­da­tions of Brazil’s beau­ti­ful game — all part of a cadre of Eu­ro­pean rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies who trans­formed the sport. Or Jewish sides like MTK Bu­dapest and Hakoah Vi­enna?

Hakoah’s story is the great­est in Jewish sport, and part of the ex­tra­or­di­nary Jewish cul­ture that shone so brightly in Cen­tral Eu­rope in the 1920s and 1930s.

Jews trans­formed soc­cer just as they trans­formed so many as­pects of Eu­ro­pean life, but un­like the Jewish rab­bis, philoso­phers and writ­ers of that pe­riod they are all but for­got­ten.

The Holo­caust swept away this Jewish soc­cer scene, but the gov­ern­ing body of world soc­cer, Fifa, and its Eu­ro­pean af­fil­i­ate, Uefa, do not hold any events to com­mem­o­rate Holo­caust Memo­rial Day. Anti-racist cam­paigns abound in soc­cer, but few re­call the dam­age done by an­ti­semitism to the world’s most pop­u­lar sport.

By ne­glect­ing this mem­ory, soc­cer be­trays its own his­tory.


Colom­bia coach José Pek­er­man

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