Avram Grant, You’re A Mensch

This is a guest post by Ben Cohen of the Z-Word blog

To the readers of this blog who are not soccer [Ed: surely “football”?] fans, bear with me. My hope is that you will get as much out of this post as those who are. Because on one level this is about soccer (henceforth, if you’ll indulge me one more time, called football). On another, it’s about the prejudice and bigotry among the crowds which has blighted football for decades and continues to do so today.

Stories about fascist salutes and bananas being thrown at black players are legion. But the subject of this post is a Jew and an Israeli: Avram Grant, the coach of London club Chelsea.

Back in the 1970s, many Chelsea fans were notorious for their thuggery. In these days of Premier League glamor and billionaire owners like Roman Abramovitch (incidentally, a Russian and a Jew, which is why some wags dub Chelsea “Chelski”), there is an assumption that the influx of money and the game’s international profile is not compatible with racist chants from the terraces, and that football is safe again. At Chelsea, that assumption has proved wrong.

Avram Grant took over Chelsea early on in the 2007-08 season, replacing the popular and talented Portuguese coach, Jose Mourinho. Mourinho had fallen out with Abramovitch and the fans, by and large, took the side of the ex-manager, not the owner. Everything that Grant, Mourinho’s Abramovitch-picked successor, did was under the spotlight, every missed opportunity was his fault.

Despite all that, by the end of the season, Chelsea were in reach of two titles, the English Premier League and the European Champion’s League. In the end, they achieved neither, beaten to both by the ferocious brilliance of Manchester United. But Chelsea came very close; indeed, the score at the end of yesterday’s Champion’s League final in Moscow was 1-1. After half an hour of extra time, Chelsea were defeated 6-5 in an agonizing, riveting penalty shoot-out.

What went wrong for Chelsea? There are two views. One is the rational explanation, albeit intelligible only to those who follow football. You could argue that Chelsea were simply unlucky, having hit the woodwork twice during a second half in which they were clearly dominant. You could put some of the blame on striker Didier Drogba, who was shown the red card for his infantile behavior in the dying minutes of the match. You could complain about the poor quality of the pitch, made even worse by the driving rain.

The other is what I call the Avram Grant explanation, fundamentally irrational and positively efferverscent with bigoted, slanderous rhetoric.

There are many Israelis playing professional football in Europe – one of Israel’s many remarkable achievements is the number of extraordinarily talented players it has exported – and most of them have experienced antisemitism at some point. Dudu Awat, goalkeeper of Spanish side Deportivo La Coruna, has had to endure antisemitic chanting. When Israel’s national team thrashed Andorra 4-1, the Andorran coach screamed at Israeli captain Yossi Benayoun, “you are a country of murderers.” And there are similar examples, involving players, coaching staff and fans.

Avram Grant went through all this and more; the harassment targeted him as both a Jew and an Israeli – academic boycotters might want to take note that this is one example of criticism of Israel which manifestly is antisemitic. He received death threats which included insults like, “you backstabbing Jewish bastard.” Another email lambasted “nasty terrorist Jews.” At some games, antisemitic chanting by Chelsea’s own fans echoed around the ground.

For such people, rational explanations for defeat on the field will not suffice. Instead, they prefer the classic antisemitic explanatory device which casts the Jew as scapegoat, as the source – in the words of the EUMC definition of antisemitism – of “why things go wrong.” Ultimately, what engages them is not a passion for football, but the use of the game as an instrument to promote hatred.

The British media, meanwhile, regarded Grant as both an incompetent and an enigma; his hang-dog expression as he sat watching his team each Saturday irritated them. But Grant was not cowed. And where the antisemites were concerned, he stood up to them clearly and defiantly.

In part, he was informed by his family’s experiences; his father survived the Holocaust. When Chelsea defeated Liverpool to get to the Champion’s League final, Grant dedicated to the victory to those, like his father, who “built a new generation in Israel.” The very next day, he headed to Poland to join the March of the Living at Auschwitz.

There was one supremely human image during yesterday’s match in which Grant (the fighter against antisemitism) and Grant (the coach) came together. As the Manchester United players leapt for joy around the pitch, Grant, standing bolt upright, clasped a sobbing John Terry, the Chelsea captain, to his shoulder, like a tender father with his son. In that moment, Grant seemed impervious to the foul abuse heaped on him. “Avram, you’re a mensch,” I said to myself.

And I say that again here.