These Jewish stars changed football and the World Cup

As the tournament kicks off, Anthony Clavane looks back at our greatest players, coaches and teams


A couple of years ago, during a question and answer session at JW3, Howard Jacobson declared: “My attitude to sport is very simple: it’s something that Jews just don’t do.”

Before I had time to say Max Baer, Sandy Koufax, Harold Abrahams, Mark Spitz and, er, David Beckham (well, he had a Jewish grandfather), Howard continued: “I never met a Jew that wanted to play football.”

I remain a huge fan of the Man Booker Prize winner but he is wrong. Or maybe he needs to take a trip to White Hart Lane, the Emirates or Elland Road.

We all, deep down, want to be Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. Or, in my case, David Batty.

Not that we will ever become Messi, Ronaldo or Batty. In fact there are, it has to be admitted, few Jewish players taking part in this year’s World Cup. To be strictly accurate, there are none.

But we remain a football-mad tribe. We dream of mesmerising opponents like Messi, running defences ragged like Ronaldo and bending it like Batty and Beckham (did I mention he had a Jewish grandfather?). As I argued in Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here? — still available at all good bookshops — Jews have bodies as well as minds.

In my history of the Anglo-Jewish contribution to football — not, as Howard would probably quip, the world’s shortest book — I wrote about the strikers, defenders and midfielders who have been just as prominent in our culture as the rabbis, philosophers and Man Booker Prize winners.

There has even been the occasional goalkeeper. Like Alexander Fabian, who played for Austria in the 1920s.

One former midfielder, José Pekerman, is currently involved in the globe’s greatest sporting extravaganza. Born in Villa Dominguez, one of the main areas of Jewish immigration in Argentina — his grandparents emigrated from Ukraine — Pekerman is coaching Colombia. Four years ago he led the South Americans to the quarter-finals, the country’s best ever performance.

In 2006, Pekerman guided his home country to the last eight of the World Cup. That Argentina side were captained by Juan Pablo Sorin, who also hails from a Ukrainian Jewish family.

Pekerman’s achievements, however, pale into insignificance compared to the World Cup feats of Hugo Meisl.

He guided Austria to the 1934 semi-finals, his revolutionary “Wonder Team” wowing the world with a pioneering style which heavily influenced the great Dutch “total football” sides of the 1970s.

An integral part of that Netherlands story was Johan Neeskens, who scored against West Germany in the 1974 World Cup final.

Now, this is when it all becomes a tad tricky. Although he regularly features in greatest-ever-Jewish-soccer-stars lists, Neeskens is not actually of the faith.

And joining the Dutch maestro in a greatest-ever-Jewish-soccer-stars-who-aren’t-actually-Jewish list are George Cohen, Peter Lorimer and Lothar Matthaus.

It would be very satisfying to point out that England only win the World Cup when there’s a Cohen in the team, but the 1966 hero told me he was Church of England — although that didn’t stop him being nicknamed “the rabbi” during his playing career.

Lorimer, who played for Scotland in the 1974 World Cup, was rumoured to have converted to Judaism when he went to play in Israel. But, again, he denies the story. And we are really clutching at straws with the legendary German star Matthaus, who is, like Becks, one-quarter Jewish.

But before you say “I told you so”, Mr Jacobson, how do you explain Mordechai Spiegler, who scored for Israel against Sweden in the 1970 World Cup?

Or Márton Bukovi, Ernö Egri Erbstein, Béla Guttmann, Dori Kürschner — who helped lay the foundations of Brazil’s beautiful game — all part of a cadre of European revolutionaries who transformed the sport. Or Jewish sides like MTK Budapest and Hakoah Vienna?

As the author Dave Rich wrote: "Hakoah’s story is the greatest in Jewish sport, and part of the extraordinary Jewish culture that shone so brightly in Central Europe in the 1920s and 1930s.

"Jews transformed soccer just as they transformed so many aspects of European life, but unlike the Jewish rabbis, philosophers and writers of that period they are all but forgotten.

"The Holocaust swept away this Jewish soccer scene, but the governing body of world soccer, Fifa, and its European affiliate, Uefa, do not hold any events to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day. Anti-racist campaigns abound in soccer, but few recall the damage done by antisemitism to the world’s most popular sport."

"By neglecting this memory," he concluded. "Soccer betrays its own history."

Anthony Clavane is a sportswriter, and author of Promised Land and A Yorkshire Tragedy

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