Anti-Semitism in global soccer

Racism and anti-Semitism remain problems in global soccer. At the 2018 World Cup in Russia supporters of the Moroccan national soccer team fought with fans holding Israeli flags at the end of Morocco’s loss to Portugal. David Whelan, the former owner of Wigan Athletic, was also accused of making anti-Semitic statements (He repeated a common anti-Semitic stereotype that “Jewish people chase money more than everybody else”).  He later resigned. Earlier this year the Israeli international Almog Cohen, who is the captain for German club Ingolstadt, was the recipient of an anti-Semitic tweet from a supposed fan of Union Berlin. The tweet suggested that Cohen should disappear to “the chamber,” an allusion to the gas chambers used by the Nazi regime to systematically murder over six million Jews during the Holocaust.

In recent years, anti-Semitism has reared its ugly head in several diverse locations around the world. In Argentina, Atlanta Athletic Club, which plays in the “Jewish” Crespo district in Buenos Aires, regularly faces the abuse of anti-Semitic chants by rival teams. In 2011, the radical and anti-Semitic Islamist group Hamas was foiled in its attempt to fire rockets into Jerusalem’s Teddy Kollek stadium during a soccer match. Some Islamist clerics have condemned global soccer with its nationalistic overtones as an “infidel” and “Zionist” invention, as well as an “opiate” designed to distract the Muslim masses from a sense of pan-Islamic belonging. In Egypt, the Jewish community consists of about 100 people, yet Egyptian soccer fans have recently chanted “One nation for a new Holocaust.”  In short, the “Arab Spring” has not necessarily changed anti-Semitic attitudes in Egypt. In 2015, hundreds of Bosnian soccer fans rioted outside a hotel in Zenica, where Israel’s national soccer team was staying, and they defiled an Israeli flag and chanted “Palestine” and “Kill, Kill, Kill the Jews.”

One year later Croatian soccer fans chanted pro-Ustasha or pro-Nazi collaborationist slogans (e.g., “Za dom spremni” – Ready for the homeland and “Mi Hrvati! Ustasha, Ustasha!” – We Croatians! Ustasha, Ustasha!) during a “friendly” against Israel. The Simon Wiesenthal Center condemned both incidents and even called for sanctions against Croatian soccer and its governing authorities. The Croatian international Josip Šimunić repeated the “Ready for the homeland” chant with a microphone after Croatia defeated Iceland 2-0 in Zagreb in 2013 and thus qualified for the 2014 World Cup. He claimed that his gesture was “normal,” a mere expression of “patriotism,” and was not intended to harm anyone.

In a well-publicized incident, the former French international Nicolas Anelka and West Bromwich Albion forward used a quenelle salute, or reverse Nazi salute made famous by the anti-Semitic French comic Dieudonné. Anelka disingenuously claimed that his gesture was “anti-establishment” rather than anti-Semitic, although quenelle gestures have been performed by anti-Semites in front of synagogues, Jewish shops, and even at Auschwitz. Anelka has also suggested that he was not racist, but that does not preclude his  undoubtedly anti-Semitic actions.

Israeli soccer players in Europe have also faced anti-Semitic abuse, including former Liverpool and Chelsea forward Yossi Benayoun. In a soccer match played in Germany in 2015, a police officer ordered a fan of former Israeli international Almog Cohen to remove an Israeli flag because it might disturb Palestinian or Muslim sensibilities. Din Mori, an Israeli defender playing with Dutch outfit Vitesse Arnhem, was forced to stay behind as his team went to a training camp in the United Arab Emirates.

In reality, as the 2015 Report on the international conference on anti-Semitism in professional football noted, “For decades now, we have been witness to the phenomenon of football-related anti-Semitism in football stadiums all over Europe.”  The report insisted that the problem of anti-Semitism in soccer “crosses national boundaries,” although its “historical origins and manifestations differ from one country to the next.”  Moreover, it argues that “the educational tools developed to fight anti-Semitic and other discriminatory manifestations” in soccer “are currently not used often enough.”  Finally, the report suggests that we often pay little attention to the way players like Benayoun, Mori, or Cohen feel about anti-Semitism, or “the way Jews experience anti-Semitic incidents.”

In the shadows of Auschwitz and Treblinka, many believed that such grotesque displays of anti-Semitism would disappear into the dustbin of history. In the next blog, I suggest reasons for why anti-Semitism persists as a problem amongst soccer fans, administrators, clubs, and stadiums around the world.

Professor Tamir Bar-On is a Senior Career Fellow at CARR and Professor-Researcher at School of Social Sciences and Government, Tecnologico de Monterrey. His profile can be found here:

© Tamir Bar-On. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives)