I’ve been blogging about the UEFA Champions League since August, when HaPoel Tel Aviv battled through the qualifying rounds to make it to the group stage of the competition. While HaPoel has stumbled out of the block, losing 2:0 to Benefica and 3:1 to Lyon, Tottenham Hotspur is tied for the lead in Group A, having won once and tied once in its first two matches.
Tottenham travels to the San Siro, the hallowed ground of Italian football, next week to face off against powerhouse Inter Milan. Inter is a star-studded team, featuring, among others, Brazilian keeper Julio Cesar, Dutch midfielder Wesley Sneijder (whose masterful play at the World Cup was electrifying), and Samuel Eto’o from Cameroon. Tottenham will bring to the San Siro its own bevy of elite footballers, including rising Dutch star Rafael van der Vaart, and the English giant, 6’7” Peter Crouch, but Inter will enter the match as a heavy favorite.
Why is this of interest to Jewish football fans? Tottenham, you may recall, is the North London club whose supporters are fervent philo-Semites and have embraced the imagery and symbols of the State of Israel as a part of their team identity. At White Hart Lane, the Spurs’ home stadium, fans chant “Yid army” again and again to the beat of drums, and unfurl huge Israeli flags during pre-game celebrations. Some of this has to do the concentration of Jews in North London, others attribute it to the prior ownership of Spurs by a Jewish businessman, Alan Sugar, in the 1990s. Another convincing reason is that the Spurs’ are a team that have always been second fiddle to the elite teams (Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea), so the fans identify with the historical experience of the Jewish people as being underdogs.
Whatever the reason, it’s a phenomenon that has interesting, and, at times, frightening consequences. Recent years have seen Chelsea’s fans making Auschwitz jokes and hissing noises to mock Spurs’ Jewish association, and others questioning whether the Jewish associations have a place at all in the world of football.
Wherever that conversation may lead, Tottenham’s Jewish identity is front and center again in the lead-up to next week’s showdown in Milan. Thousands of Tottenham fans will travel to the San Siro for the match, but they’d better leave their Israeli flags back in North London. According to the team’s website, “Flags and banners with appropriate wording would be welcome at the stadium, but the (Italian) police authorities have advised that those flags showing the Star of David will not be allowed access and may be confiscated. Please respect this request.”
(Thanks to my man in Italy, Sean Sedacca, for the heads-up on this piece of news)