Football, Fascism and Me

Well this is not a situation in which I had envisaged finding myself. My two worlds have collided. I, like most in my generation, have never found any real tear between our allegiances to the UK and our love and loyalty for Israel and Judaism.

True, the odd Foreign Office statement has left me frustrated at some UK policy towards Israel. True, I have more than often been offended by and even victim of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel activity in the UK. But there has never been any real doubt that modern Britain is not only a place of shared values with the State of Israel, but a place in which Jewish life has been allowed, indeed encouraged, to flourish and prosper.

Now. Here comes the tricky bit. When I think of Britain, my strongest emotional attachment and even loyalty is to my home town, Sunderland – and more specifically the football (soccer) club, Sunderland AFC. Allow me to set out my credentials. Born and bred on the North East coast of England, from the age of seven till we moved to London at the age of seventeen, I missed fewer than three midweek home matches, and spent my Shabbat (Saturday) afternoons sitting on the steps of the Synagogue listening to the crowd drifting on the wind, before rushing inside to the caretaker to get the latest score. I traveled the length and breadth of the country to see the team play and even attended the reserve team’s fixtures.

However, I now find myself in a pickle. On Saturday, after yet another league defeat, and teetering on the brink of yet another relegation from England’s top flight, the club dismissed the team’s Manager, Martin O’Neil. I was certainly sad for him, but I think the situation called for such drastic moves. We need a fresh outlook and approach. The names began to circle. There was a former England national team boss, an old player from Sunderland and several other out of work football bosses. However the club announced that the next manager of my beloved team is former West Ham and Celtic player, Italian Paulo Di Canio.

My initial reaction was positive. A good player in his time, and a successful manager in his previous endeavours. Yet, shortly after his appointment came another announcement that a member of the club’s executive board, former British Foreign Minister, David Miliband had severed his connection with the club due to Di Canio’s rather controversial political history. He has, you see, made comments in the past in support of fascism, and in celebrating a goal during his time at Italian club Lazio, made a Nazi salute to supporters.

Now for my other credentials. I am a Jew and an Israeli. I am a supporter of peace and equality between peoples and creeds, and educate my children to be tolerant of that which is different, accepting of those who are not the same as them, and welcoming to all.

Now when I dress my two young boys in the red and white Sunderland shirts I bought them just last week, am I contradicting this message? Many have asked me if this is a problem. So here is my initial answer.

First, it does not seem to be the case that Paulo is in fact racist, or indeed a fascist. In fact, there is much indicating the contrary – he has played and managed alongside black and even Jewish players, and considers them among his closest friends. And while he will always be judged against his past mistakes, he has not done anything in recent years to attest to his holding extreme or racist views.

Moreover, the Sunderland sponsor this year is not a company, nor a global corporation. It is an organization called ‘Invest In Africa’, whose name sits alongside the club’s emblem in adorning the players’ shirts and training kits. We also have a diverse team made up of players from around the world (much good it’s done us), and as manager, Paulo is responsible for the well-being of each of them individually – as players, young professionals, and as people.

So, I take a deep breath and along with the tens of thousands of fellow supporters hand over my beloved club to Paulo Di Canio’s leadership. He has a club, community and city praying for his success – he must prove himself and keep us in the Premier League. But he also must prove himself and show that he can be our manager; for each player, fan and supporter, be they black or white, Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Muslim or Jew. We are all equal on the pitch, in the changing room, and in the stand. If he has a problem with that then, he has no place at our football club.

As we say where I come from, “Ha’way The Lads!”

About the Author
Jason Pearlman is a strategic consultant and media advisor specializing in communications and campaigns.