Fifty years this year --- that is how long I have been playing Jewish football. Hard to believe. It feels longer. My first team was Bar Kochba FC, named after a Jewish revolutionary who not only was leader of a gloriously futile insurrection against the Emperor Hadrian 2,000 years ago, but was also rumoured to be the first biblical character to wear moulded studs.
We played in the Maccabi Football League, where every player has to be Jewish. The standard, aside from a handful of teams in the top division, many of whose players got their “real” football in the more rarified Saturday leagues, was not very good. It has got no better.
Matches are played against a wall of sound issuing from players’ frustration at their own ineptitude. Most yellow and red cards arise from second, third, fourth, even fifth opinions on every last refereeing decision. Let the ball do the talking? Not in Jewish football.
The demographics may seem to support an all-Jewish league — 1,000 or so Jewish footballers who want to play competitive football and are, for the most part, not good enough to play in non-Jewish football — but paradoxically this does little to foster an arena in which they might improve sufficiently to play at a higher level.
I have a singular perspective on this. I am involved, as player and coach, in FC Team, a club that has three teams, two in the Maccabi League and one in the Middlesex County League on the FA pyramid that leads (from my mouth to God’s ears) all the way to… the Football League.
Our formative years in the Maccabi League were pretty successful. Six promotions in three seasons for two of our teams attest to that. But the quantum leap in standard came only once we had pulled our first team out of the Maccabi League and into an altogether higher level, while at the same time augmenting our “county” squad with a few non-Jewish players. This improved not only the players in our first team, but also our remaining two Maccabi teams, whose players now have a higher level of football to aspire to within the same club .
Sadly, Jewish football is in danger of disappearing. Maybe not next season, nor the season after, but soon enough. The Maccabi League lost one whole division last season, while the entire AJY men’s league has long gone to the wall.
The only way Jewish players will flourish and improve, short of other clubs trying their hand at higher leagues (and there are plenty of Sunday leagues as well as Saturdays), is to admit non-Jewish players into the league.
Doubtless the Maccabi League will have reasons aplenty why this should not happen. I have the greatest respect for its dedicated chairman, but if he wishes the league to continue in its present format he must accept that both numbers and standards will continue to decline.
Ethnicity in sport is no longer the way forward; integration is, and football — a global language if ever there was one — should be the last place for insularity and exclusivity. Perhaps the league might one day agree. Only then will we avert the very real possibility of teams being sponsored by Aspirin, Disprin and Nurofen Plus.