Foreskins and Total Football

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Blogs aren’t supposed to be confessions of ignorance. But this time, instead of trying to answer a question, I’m asking one in the hope that someone can enlighten me.

The question is this: is there a Jewish style of football?

The question arose when I was researching Bela Guttman for the next Champions. As a coach, Guttman won the European Cup twice with Benfica and invented/perfected the 4-2-4 formation with which Brazil dominated football from the late 1950s to 1970. As a player, Guttman shone for Hakoah Vienna, a Jewish sporting club which famously beat West Ham 5-0 in 1923.

Bela Guttman: Architect of the gung-ho 4-2-4 formation

Hakoah means 'the strength' and the club was founded, in 1909, because Jews were banned from other sporting clubs in Austria and because the founders - the librettist Fritz Löhmer and dentist Ignaz Herman Körner - were influenced by a doctrine called Muscular Judaism devised by a chap called Max Nordau.

In a speech in 1898, Nordau called for the creation of a “new Jew” and a renewed emphasis on Jewish physical culture. Jewish sports clubs quickly sprang up across Europe serving as a focal point for political aspirations and, in some cases, a defence against anti-Semitic attacks.

Nordau’s ideas had something in common with the English Victorian emphasis on sport as a morally improving force that would, in adolescence, protect boys against the sin of Onan. In football, the greatest manifestation of Nordau’s beliefs was the Hakoah Vienna team of the 1920s which won the Austrian league in 1924/25 and toured the world like a Jewish footballing Harlem Globetrotters.

Hakoah Vienna had a particularly profound impact in America where, on a 10 game tour in 1926, they were watched by 200,000 fans and, in one game in New York, by a crowd of 46,000 - a record attendance for a US club ‘soccer’ match which stood until 1977. 

Guttman, like many of his teammates, stayed in America after the tour, starring at half-back for the New York Giants and, then, for the expat team Hakoah All-Stars. Other Hakoah players, emigrating to what was then Palestine, founded Hakoah Tel Aviv in 1938.

That very year, as Hitler annexed Austria, the Nazis closed the original Hakoah Vienna. Hakoah star József Eisenhoffer, an outside-left who later managed Marseille, is believed to have died in a concentration camp in 1945. His more fortunate teammate, Egon Pollack, moved to Palestine in 1938 and managed the Israeli football team when they lost 3-1 to the United States in 1948.

Guttman survived to become a tactical innovator, almost as influential as another Austrian Jew Hugo Meisl, a talented inside forward who coached the great Austrian wunderteam of the 1930s.

This team played a free-flowing system, designed to (as Hugo’s brother Willy put it) “free our soccer youth from the shackles of playing to order” which was later dubbed The Whirl and anticipated the Total Football of Rinus Michel’s Ajax.

So the question I started with has one possible answer, which is that if there is a Jewish style of football, some of that – thanks to such pioneers as Meisl and Guttman – has been assimilated into the way the game is played from here to Brazil.

But that isn’t the whole answer. Many clubs – from Spurs to Ajax – are still regarded as Jewish clubs. Spurs’ Jewish identity was once, partly, a matter of geography. Ajax’s is more mysterious. Simon Kuper, author of Ajax, The Dutch, The War, believes that Ajax’s hard-core fans started carrying Jewish symbols in the 1980s after a visit from Spurs.

The issue of whether Ajax is or isn’t a Jewish club took a sinister turn in 2005 when the supporters club’s home was set ablaze in – Ajax fans are convinced – an anti-Semitic attack.

Ajax fans: Jewish identity remains mysterious

Spurs’ Jewish allegiance puzzled Franklin Foer, author of How Soccer Explains The World, who describes this as a form of “commodified tribalism” as the fans are “not Jewish and none of the players are Jewish”. Foer’s book is a good read, but he didn’t quite get the Jewish club thing.

He even recounts a tale of Manchester City fans exposing themselves and taunting Spurs fans with the chant “We’ve got foreskins, we’ve got foreskins”. I know many Spurs season ticket holders, none of whom remember this. If anyone does recall the foreskin-waving, do let me know.

But what about the players? Different countries do have different football cultures and players who symbolise how a nation plays the game – or likes to think it does. For Scotland, it might be Jinkin’ Jimmy Johnstone, for Argentina, Maradona and, for Italy - in the modern era - Paolo Maldini.

Researching Guttman I discovered the soccer section of a Jewish sports hall of fame and began, serendipitously, to click on the ‘next’ button and read the profiles.

Certain themes recur: spats with managers (Eyal Berkovic v Avram Grant and Harry Redknapp; Mickael Madar v Walter Smith), players who feel compelled to coach to pass on their wisdom (Guttman, Meisl and Giora Shpigel, who steered Maccabi Haifa to the last eight of the Cup-Winners’ Cup in the early 1990s) and, above all, technique. 

The words “incredible skills” and “technical ability” recur in the profiles of, to name just a few: Yossi Benayoun (Liverpool), Joszef Braun (outside-right for Hungary, 1918-1926), Uri Mamilian (a midfielder in Israel in the 1970s and 1980s whose technique was so good an Israeli grocer today, assuring a customer his wares are perfect, might say: “Every apple is a Mamilian”) Haum Revivo (attacking midfielder, Celta Vigo 1996-2000) and Mordechai Spiegler, Israeli’s greatest player and scorer of one of the most beautiful goals in World Cup history against Sweden in 1970.

Benayoun: “incredible skills” and “technical ability”

This doesn’t mean that Jewish/Israeli football hasn’t produced its share of defensive man-mountains, or bustling centre-forwards. But technique – from the mini-profiles posted on this site – is the most obvious recurring theme.

And yet in the Euro 2008 qualifiers, the most conspicuous feature of Israel’s play was their defensive mindset. And, if you watch the highlights of the Israel v Sweden game in 1970 you see, apart from Spiegler’s goal, a very muscular brand of football indeed.

I close this blog, as I started it, better informed but not much the wiser, hoping that someone reading this can enlighten me.