Soccer isn’t rational. Soccer—others have said it already—is warlike. Or, sometimes, it’s the cause of war itself. It’s tribal and emotional and sweeping, and it owes as much to the fans shouting from the stands as it does to the men who face each other on the pitch.
Yesterday, when my beloved Beitar Jerusalem played in Belgium against the local team Charleroi, some of its supporters decided to unleash hell. Just one minute after kickoff, they lobbed a smoke grenade onto the pitch, the first of several. Later on, they threw an unidentified projectile and wounded Charleroi’s goalkeeper, Nicolas Penneteau.
The condemnations were quick to follow, with everyone from Israel’s minister of culture and sports to Beitar’s owner thundering about inappropriate behavior, and issuing profuse apologies all around. I join in their outrage. I wholeheartedly agree that there’s no excuse for violence. I fully support whatever epic punishment UEFA, the European soccer association, would soon likely mete out against the club. And yet, watching the game live on TV in a Tel Aviv bar, I felt something other than mere disgust.
I looked at the camera panning across the faces of Charleroi’s fans, and I could tell that they were all terrified by the handful of hooligans in black and yellow, the thugs from Jerusalem who had come to the lowlands to fight. And I know it’s wrong for an educated modern reasonable man to feel this way, and I know it feeds nothing but the lowest angels of my nature, but I couldn’t help but feel that there are worse things in life than seeing a packed European stadium—especially one thick with Belgian fans tossing off a few sieg heils here and there—cower in fear before a gaggle of hoodlums, all Jews.
It’s no longer so fashionable to recall, but Herzl’s Zionist dream, his original vision, reveled not only in a Jewish state toiling towards utopia but also in Jews free to behave badly, confident enough to leave their sovereign nation for a few days and fly to another and behave like absolute brutes. That’s what I saw last night on TV: savages, but ours; animals, but roaring in our ancient tongue. I wish they hadn’t hurt anyone. I wish Beitar hadn’t lost 5-1. But it’s soccer, and it’s tribal, and this tribe’s mine.