Football's wandering tribe
Following England in Euro 2012 promises to be a very Jewish experience. England, who play France in their opening match on Monday, will be based in Krakow, a town that is resonant with Jewish memories, but it goes much deeper than that. Images on a recent Panorama programme of racist Ukrainian fans beating up Asian followers of the same team have made a lot of people nervous about the reception they can expect from the natives in Poland and Ukraine, something of which we Jews have vivid memories.
There is also the fact that the England squad will be peripatetic, in a constant limbo between Poland, where they are based, and Ukraine, where their matches will be played. Due to injuries and suspensions, they will be travelling from country to country in a state of low expectation, hoping against hope that things will not turn out quite as badly as experience tells them it probably will do. Ring any bells?
Add to this that the England camp will probably divide into several factions each of which is broiges with the other while simultaneously adopting a ghetto mentality against the outside world, and there you have it. (Oh, and, of course, everyone is a little nervous of the Germans.)
Obviously, there are some subtle differences between England's footballers and the Jews of Eastern Europe. The Jews were not, with a few exceptions, pampered, hedonistic multi-millionaires living in secluded mansions. However, what the players do share with the shtetl dwellers is the fact they have been made to feel inferior to their neighbours. England players do not have the tactical nous of the Dutch and lack the technique of the Spanish. Rather like Chelsea in the Champions League they know that they will have to park the bus in front of the goal to stand any chance of success. And, given the state of the roads in Ukraine, they are likely to find even this difficult.
Of course, we all earnestly hope that the new boss, Roy Hodgson, will confound the critics. But here again, England face obstacles. Many in the media have been pointing out that everyone has low expectations this time around. However, this has been turned around. According to a new theory, the fact that no one anticipates that England will perform well, will liberate the players from the weight of expectation and enable them to ping the ball around the park like Messi.
In other words, the fact that no one expects anything of the players is ironically leading to a renewed sense of expectancy.
Anyone who retains some optimism this time, more than any other time, should bear the following in mind. This is a team that has throughout history been slaughtered by the opposition, persecuted by the press. This is a group that is not liked or admired across the continent and which has become insular and paranoid as a result.
So what do I think will happen over the next three weeks or so? Well, to tell the truth, I'll be quite happy if there are no pogroms.