Monday, June 26, 2006

Abraham's Other Sons

I see I have been remiss in favouring one people of the Book over the others recently, so let's turn to the strange case of defender John Paintsil, of Ghana and Hapoel Tel Aviv (pictured). Paintsil is not actully Jewish, but he does have a following there due to his club form. After Saturday's win against the Czech Republic , he pulled out a Star of David to thank his fans.

This, needless to say, caused a brouhaha. Gahanian officials rushed to deny any implication that the Gahanian FA had taken a position with respect to Israeli-Palestinian affairs. Quite why the Gahanian FA thought anyone would care if it had something to say about, say, housing conditions in Jenin, I'm not sure, but there we are.

Israel, needless to say, is not at the 2006 World Cup. It has only ever made it to the tournament once, in 1970, as a representative of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). Shortly therafter, as "anti-Zionism" swept various international bodies, the Arab nations orchestrated Israel's expulsion. The team briefly competed in the African, South American and even Oceanian confederations as it struggled to find a home (history in fact records Israel as Oceanian champion in 1989, but missed out on the World Cup after losing 1-0 to Colombia in the OFC/CONMEBOL playoff). It is now a full member of UEFA.

Despite their current absence at the top of the international game, Jews have historically had an important role in the development of the sport. Jewish players and coaches were, for instance, at the heart of the major tactical and organizational changes that transformed football in the 1930s. At that time, Austrian and Hungarian squads were considered the world's best, and they pioneered the short passing game. One Hungarian Jewish coach - Ernesto Egri Erbstein - was coach at Torino just before and just after the Second World War (Mussolini's anti-semitic laws forced him out of the country for a time despite a conversion to catholicism) and it was he who turned Torino into arguably the continent's finest time before he and his players died in the Superag crash in 1949.

Most importantly of all, it was the Jewish Hugo Meisel, head of the Austrian FA and coach of the Austrian national team, who created the Mitropa Cup, which was the first major international club competition and the direct forerunner of today's Champions' League.

Historically, a number of clubs across Europe have been known as "Jewish" clubs. Most obviously there were the Jewish-only clubs (usually named Maccabi or Hakoah), of which the best was Vienna Hakoah who were possibly the nest team in the world in the late 1920s. However, there were also mainstream clubs that were deemed to have a "Jewish character", notably Hungary's MTK, England's Tottenham Hotspur, and Holland's Ajax, (which also produced the most successful Jewish player of the modern age, Johan Neeskens, who is currently moonlighting for the summer as technical director of Guus Hiddink's Australian team). More on these another time.

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