Sport: the new accountancy

By Robert Low, November 11, 2010

Professional footballer? What sort of a job is that for a nice Jewish boy? Quite a lucrative one, possibly, for at least one talented Israeli teenager. Omri Altman is only 16 and has been offered a week's trial by Liverpool after stellar performances for Israel's Under-17 side, which he captains.

Some Israelis have even compared him to Liverpool's captain and England star Steven Gerrard, doubtless with an eye to bidding up his transfer value if Liverpool, or another Premier League team, offer him a professional contract.

If this happy event occurs, young Omri will be accompanied to England by his doting parents - though, given the recent track record off the pitch of a string of high-profile but low-life English footballers, they probably won't let him out of their sight except when he's in the Anfield showers.

Not so long ago, the idea of a Jewish teenager opting for the life of a professional sports player would have been dismissed out of hand. As professional sport was largely played on Saturdays, a good proportion of the community ruled itself offside right away, but there was more to it than that: Jews just weren't very good at sport.

You could make a case for great Jewish boxers, from Daniel Mendoza to Ted "Kid" Lewis fighting their way out of poverty in their time but that was about it. Accountancy, the law, medicine, yes - but not tackling George Best. Doing his books, possibly.

Gyms today are filled with young Jews of both sexes pumping iron

How that has changed. You can't walk far in North London on a Sunday morning without coming across a football match between teams of young, fit and alarmingly muscled-up young Jews who look and behave like their Premier League contemporaries, even if their skills may not be quite on a par. Much the same applies if you go into a gym anywhere between Swiss Cottage and St Alban's: young Jews of both sexes pounding the treadmills and pumping iron. I feel tired just looking at them.

For this generation, a sporting career is probably a highly attractive prospect, and perhaps increasingly a realistic one.

But what about their parents? Do they still regard a sporting life with disdain? I suspect there might be something of a gender gap on this one. If the fathers I used to encounter on the touchline when I briefly managed (in the loosest sense) my son's under-14 team in a Jewish league are anything to go by, they would like nothing better than their boys to become professional footballers. This would enable them to carry on hurling abuse at referees and opponents and know that their offspring were being paid handsomely for it, too. Their wives might take a bit more convincing.

But even they may change their minds when the new university tuition fees arrive. What would you do faced, on the one hand, with paying £9,000 a year tuition fees (plus a hefty whack for maintenance) for a degree of doubtful utility in a world where there aren't many jobs anyway and, on the other, a professional contract at the age of 18 with a football or rugby union club at, say, £1,000-2,000 a week? And the prospect of earning much, much more if you're any good.

Or it might be tennis or golf, where the rewards for success can be astronomical, and for decent middle-of-the-road achievement pretty startling, too. A lot of parents might start to encourage their kids to stay outside and practise their ball control and never mind the homework.

My generation could dream about leading England to victory in the World Cup or the Ashes or finally being the first British man to win Wimbledon since Fred Perry (I know I did) but for young Jews today those are real possibilities. You dream it for your children, too, once you realise that group three in the ladder at your tennis club is as high as you're going to go.

Ah yes, the children: my older stepson was a talented fencer; he's now a Masorti rabbi. The second one was a good footballer but went to work for the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain. Our youngest boy was (and is) an excellent football and tennis player: he's now at an ultra-Orthodox yeshivah in Jerusalem. Where did we go wrong?

Robert Low is the author of 'W.G. Grace: An Intimate Biography', a new edition of which will be published by Metro Publishing in January.

Last updated: 4:14pm, November 11 2010