The new English Premier League season will kick off on Saturday without a single Israeli on any of the top league’s 20 teams.
It shouldn’t be seen as entirely out of the ordinary for a nation of Israel’s size and resources not to have any representatives in the Premier League. As Joshua Halickman, aka The Sports Rabbi, explained to the Forward over the past two decades of the League’s existence, only two Israeli players have really made an impact on the English game: Yossi Benayoun and Eyal Berkovic. In reality, “Israelis have never been major players in the Premier League.”
Yet last season, there was a relative glut of Israeli footballers in England’s top tier. Europa League winners Chelsea had ‘the Diamond from Dimona’ Benayoun in their ranks, though he was only a bit-part player, used mostly as a substitute and was unpopular with the fans. Striker Itay Schechter could have made more of an impact at Swansea City had he been given a fair run in the side, while workhorse defender Tal Ben Haim joined Queens Park Rangers for the second half of the season, playing only three games.
Now they’re all gone. Benayoun’s contract expired and he’s now a free agent, rumored to be on his way to Turkey or the MLS. Ben Haim, after having a loan move to Toronto FC nixed, signed a two-year contract with Belgian side Standard Liège. In search of first-team football, Schechter has gone back to Israel and Hapoel Tel Aviv, as has young Fulham forward Omri Altman — though he will play for crosstown rivals Maccabi.
Benayoun and Ben Haim were, in any case, moving to the latter stage of their careers. Both over the age of 30, they were no longer demonstrating that they had the pace, strength, or technical ability to compete in the Premier League. What is concerning, however, is that no players are coming up out of Israel to succeed them. “I don’t think English clubs are at all adverse to purchasing Israeli players,” CNN’s James Masters told The Forward. “It’s just at this moment in time, the majority aren’t at the standard required.”
The question of why countries produce good or bad generations of players is rarely answerable satisfactorily. In the case of Israel’s current paucity of talent able to play in the Premier League, it might have something to do with that as a small nation with fewer resources, the system for developing players at the club level is underdeveloped. “The youth academies need to be revamped top to bottom,” Halickman said. “Israel needs some serious football people and investment which, unfortunately, they don’t have to be able to produce top line footballers.”
It might also be the case, however, that Premier League clubs aren’t looking hard enough. “The problem is that Premier League teams always want proven players and high-profile names,” Raphael Gellar, founder of Gellar Sports Radio and host of Kicking it with Raphael on World Football Daily, told the Forward. “Israel doesn’t have that big name the fans or the clubs in England want. Even if they were very successful in Israel, it doesn’t mean much. If they let the youth play more often and gave more Israelis a chance, I think we would see a lot more Israelis try and play in England.”
The Drunken Ship pub in Rome was host to 30 Tottenham Hotspur fans, in town to watch their soccer team’s Europa League encounter with S.S. Lazio last Wednesday night. At approximately 1 a.m. Thursday, Lazio so-called ultras —extremist hooligan fans — turned up at the bar armed with stones, metal bars, and knuckle dusters and clad in motorcycle helmets and scarves to obscure their identities.
The ultras smashed up the place, breaking windows and turning over tables, and then proceeded to assault the Tottenham fans. Of those who attempted to escape, Ashley Mills, 25, was stabbed in the leg with a switch blade and received several wounds to the head. The whole incident was over in around ten to twenty minutes, but in all ten Spurs supporters were injured, one seriously. Two Lazio ultras, Francesco Ianari, 26, and Mauro Pinnelli, 27, have been charged with attempted murder for the attack on Mills.
Police are currently investigating the motive behind the assault, with a number of factors pointing towards anti-Semitism.
Lazio has had a long association with Italian fascism. It was as the club favoured by Benito Mussolini, and this connection has not dimmed amongst the ultras who continue to unveil pro-fascist banner at matches. Witnesses at the scene of the assault heard the assailants shouting “Jews!” as they entered the bar and carried out the battering, and at the game itself on Thursday evening home supporters chanted “Juden Tottenham” as the two teams played out a 0-0 draw.
Lazio fans also unfurled “Free Palestine” banners in the stands.
Fans of London’s Tottenham Hotspur soccer team have long referred to their club) as the “Yid Army”, seizing and transforming a nasty pejorative into a peculiar badge of honour, as a way of pushing back against their abusers and detractors.
Not the first time, however, this modern tradition is being called into question, with London’s Society of Black Lawyers threatening legal action against Tottenham if their supporters do not retire their chants. Chair Peter Herbert told The Daily Mail, “In discussions with members of the Jewish community, we were made aware that this practice is still continuing and it has to come to an end. If neither Tottenham FC nor the FA are willing to take a stand then we will report the matter to the Metropolitan Police for investigation and, if necessary, prosecution.”
A deadline of November 20 has been set.