OPINION: Football is an irresistible addiction I will never kick

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OPINION: Football is an irresistible addiction I will never kick

This summer, the England football team has its best chance of silverware in decades (heard that one before?!) Darren Richman waxes lyrical on Euro 2024 and what the sport means to British Jews.

England lost to Italy in the final of Euro 2020
England lost to Italy in the final of Euro 2020

For Jews, football is something of an unrequited love. I have tended to play at least once a week for the better part of a quarter of a century and end most games thinking I could kick myself but I’d more than likely miss.

I have played for the England Writers’ team in Rome, Vienna and Berlin but all these hours combined only go to show that Malcolm Gladwell isn’t right about everything. The group I play with on a Monday night, largely Jews although with the occasional token gentile, cannot help but call to mind the woman in Airplane! who requests something light to read and is handed a miniscule leaflet of “Famous Jewish sports legends”.

Our devotion extends beyond simply playing the sport. Like the narrator of Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, “I am and Englishman born and bred, almost.” Only one of my four grandparents was born in this country, a familiar story if your ancestors were European Jews living in the 1930s.

Both of my parents were born here, however, and perhaps because of their parents’ complicated relationships with their places of birth, England is the only national team any of us have ever supported. As a child, I once made the mistake of asking Zigi, my mother’s father, who he would be supporting in England’s crunch game with Poland. His accent might have been eastern European but his allegiances were anything but.

The European Championships will kick off in Germany next month and those of us of a certain age will recall 1996 and all that. England’s second match that summer was against Scotland at Wembley and, because the Old Testament God is nothing if not angry, it coincided with my cousin’s barmitzvah.

The Jewish English experience is a peculiar one, not least because there are so few of us in this country. My parents had fought us hard on the suggestion that we hang a St. George’s Cross flag from the window of our house (“A cross? It’ll be a crucifix next”) but, as time passes and the image feels more unsavoury with each passing year, I respect their reticence.

Darren Richman

Still, the vast majority of the family have and had a keen interest in football and a television was duly (Jewly?) wheeled into the function room of a fancy London hotel and we watched McAllister’s penalty miss (Uri Geller, another Jewish football fan, would later somehow take credit for this), Gazza’s goal and the iconic celebration that followed. It was pandemonium in that particular corner of Marylebone. I have no idea what my grandfather on my dad’s side, a reserved man who didn’t like football and only did something as wild as dropping an E when he changed the family name from Reichman to Richman, made of it all.

Eleven days later came the semi-final clash with Germany, the day Piers Morgan concocted the infamous “Achtung! Surrender” Daily Mirror front cover. We went to Wembley with Zigi that night and, as a Holocaust survivor, I can only imagine his disgust at that particular editorial decision.

He sat beside me and, as was his wont, spent a large portion of the match putting his fingers in his mouth and whistling at a startling volume that still did nothing to put the Germans off their stride during the inevitable penalty shootout. I exited the ground in floods of tears while Zigi, understandably, maintained a sense of perspective.

In the tournaments since 1996, I have tended to watch England games with a group of friends, again largely Jews but with the occasional token gentile. Until recent years, we could be said to have followed the national side through thin and thin.

This summer, the England team has its best chance of silverware in decades. My grandfather was born in 1930 and was alive for every single World Cup in the tournament’s history but this summer, for the Euros, he and his whistle will be missed. He supported England and so do I and this year so will my son, Isaac Zigi. After all, as the fella once said, the only love that lasts is unrequited love.

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