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World Cup, Jewish Style

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How can I justify to you or to myself wasting hours in front of a television set watching two teams of bipeds struggle for possession of a lump of leather and no sooner do they get it then they try to get rid of it. They battle like tigers, pull bodies and shirts, kick each other’s groins, feign agony, jostle and protest. Are they athletes or in show biz? Most of them appear to worship a deity and believe that if they cross themselves or kiss the ground, they will be given favourable treatment. Pity God, who is expected to decide between two teams of competing Catholics or Muslims. So much effort to such little effect.

A few weeks ago a journalist called to ask me if I would, in my community, be praying for the success of the English soccer team. I said that it was against my religious belief to pray for the impossible. Besides, every time I start off full of hope that “my side” will win and I end up disappointed and frustrated, I wouldn’t want to hold the Almighty responsible.

This time the English papers have been full for weeks of news about Wayne Rooney’s broken metatarsal bone. A friend even emailed me to say that as the Haftarah of Rooney’s recovery began “Ro(o)ney VeSimchi” (Rejoice and Be Happy) this was a sign that England would win. As if one man can win a World Cup. Besides it says, “Rejoice and be happy, O Daughter of Zion”!

Supporting English football is like teenage love. It promises so much. It lifts one’s spirits. It opens the gates of Heaven an inch, only to have them slammed shut in one’s face. Disappointment shatters the illusions. So I decide not to waste my time or allow my stupid desire to see England win get the better of me. Why? Why? Why do I care? What do I have in common with these yobs? What difference will it make to my life or the betterment of the world?

But I am weak. I give in. And as I watch I start wondering about all the conflicting emotions. Is this war by proxy? Nations who used to hate each other and fight each other (and some still do) battle it out again on the pitch. Am I so in need of an outlet for my suppressed aggression that I need the life-or-death struggle of football players to release all the pent-up frustration that my religion and society normally expect me to control? Is this why soccer attracts so much racial abuse and violence? Not in the USA perhaps but certainly in most other places.

Yet surely this is just a game. It is about skill. I enjoy the magnificent networks of passes, the magical goals, the tactics of two balanced teams testing each other, probing, trying to prize open a solid defence. I am impressed by the way clever managers establish a pattern of play for the opposition to respond to, and then switch or substitute so that they create confusion and imbalance that allows for a breakthrough. Yes, it is about skill and beauty and intelligence and athleticism, and I only watch to see the best sides, the most beautiful sporting machines and talented players, triumph.

So then why do I allow my petty nationalist emotions to emerge? I do not want the Croats to win because they were pro-German during the war, or the Saudis because they are Wahhabis and import African slaves to play for them, or Iranians because they want to eliminate Israel, or the Ivory Coast because I don’t like their politics, or Japan because of Pearl Harbour, or the Spanish because of Franco, or the Argentineans because they sheltered Nazis. And my hero this week is John Pantsil of Ghana who usually plays for Hapoel Tel Aviv. He produced an Israeli flag every time they scored against the Czechs. He did it for his Israeli fans. The raging chorus of anti Israel fanatics came down on him like a ton of bricks. I hope he gets a free week in Eilat! Lovely man!

As a youth I was soccer mad. I confess I really frittered away my youth on the soccer field. I daydreamed through my lessons and only looked forward to the two afternoons a week of school sport. I abandoned extracurricular disciplines such as music. I opted out of extra Talmud. I would sneak off to the gardener’s cottage on Shabbat to watch the Cup Final on his ancient television set. Just think. I might, instead, have become a really great rabbi!

Yet when I got to yeshiva I discovered that they played on Friday afternoons, and there were as many tough-playing, cursing, dirty players there as on the playing fields of English Public Schools. Perhaps the only difference was that afterwards we’d spend time studying what really mattered and would feel bad about behaving so badly, at least for a week.

Certainly physical exercise for the sake of healthy bodies (to better serve the Lord, of course) was not frowned upon, and many a contemporary of mine took up weights. After all, the extreme religious world is full of healthy young men who can hold their own with police batons in Jerusalem or New York!

Indeed, the Talmud records how the aggressive young priests in Temple times would barge each other off the ramps and break limbs in the competition to get the best jobs first. Others would go round in teams beating up priests who misbehaved, and yet others used fruit as handy missiles to pelt anyone they disapproved of, even kings! And these “Pirchei Kehuna”, young bloods of the priesthood, are referred to quite affectionately on occasion. They also were known to be red-headed and have very, very short fuses. So what’s the difference between them and soccer players?

Perhaps if they had been allowed to play soccer they could have channelled their aggression more creatively. Who knows, with a team of aggressive red-headed young priests, Israel might have gotten to the finals!!!

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