Ditching the Y-word
As a new campaign targets anti-Semitism in football, Brian Glanville asks if getting Tottenham fans to ditch the self-referential "Yid Army" chant will solve anything
20 Apr 11

As a new campaign targets anti-Semitism in football, Brian Glanville asks if getting Tottenham fans to ditch the self-referential “Yid Army” chant will solve anything

While I have every respect for David Baddiel and much sympathy with his efforts to drive out football fans’ anti-Semitism, I fear he looks something of a King Canute. Anti-Semitism after all has been a bleak constant of English life since the remote reign of Edward I, who brutally kicked out the Jews who were not “officially” readmitted till the time of Oliver Cromwell.

The vexed question of Tottenham’s Yids should surely be seen in two distinct aspects. I first heard of the expression some years ago when told that Peter Osgood, then a Chelsea team hero, had been reported drunk in the King Road after Chelsea had defeated Spurs, kicking glass and exalting “We beat those yids.” That non-Jewish Spurs supporters have taken the insult and turned it, sometimes complete with Israeli flags, — as with “Yiddo!” — into a kind of ironic war chant, has always seemed to me amusing rather than oppressive. Though I remember an aggressive, middle-aged fan approaching me on Liverpool Street station after a Spurs game and demanding that I deplore the practice in my newspaper: “I don’t want to be called a fucking yid!”

The sad truth is that football’s more basic fans are racists by nature and sometimes, collectively, all but de-humanised. For many years after the appalling Munich airport crash of February 1958, which wiped out half of the Manchester United team and many others, you heard heartless choruses: “Who’s that lying on the runway, who’s that dying in the snow?” All too recently, four Millwall fans were ejected after flaunting banners, on the occasion of Leeds United’s visit, commemorating the brutal murder in Istanbul of two Leeds United supporters. The perversion of the Tottenham song, “Spurs are on their way to Wembley” into “Spurs are on their way to Auschwitz” and the repugnant hissing choruses suggesting poison gas belong in the same warped category.

Yet on the positive side, there has been in recent years a radical change in the treatment of black players. A black winger called Canoville, when he played for Chelsea in the early 80s, was subject to vicious abuse from a bunch of neo-fascist fans, while, in the professional game itself, there was absurd prejudice towards black players. Yet when West Indian footballers made their impressive mark on the game, followed by a host of outstanding black players from abroad, sheer weight of talented numbers put an end to black baiting. It took longer in Scotland, however and not so many years ago, at Celtic Park, that fine centre-back, Paul Elliott, playing for the home team, was so monstrously abused by Hearts fans that Robertson, Hearts captain, gallantly went over to them and begged them to stop. Racism in football, alas, is simply endemic in Eastern Europe and even in Spain where, not long since, black English footballers were vilely abused by Spain’s fans during an international.

FIFA, that sink of iniquity, spent years promulgating a campaign to “Kick Out Racism” yet when push came to shove it was made known that racism wouldn’t be a criterion when the venue for the 2018 World Cup was chosen. So Russia, where anti-black racism in football is a disgraceful constant, was duly awarded the tournament. This though racist incidents proliferate.

This season, Odemwingie, the highly effective Nigerian international forward, was driven out of the Lokomotiv Moscow club by fans who, when he joined West Bromwich Albion — with outstanding success — displayed a banner “thanking” West Bromwich and displaying a banana. More recently, Roberto Carlos, the outstanding Brazil left back, now playing for a provincial Russian club, has bitterly complained about the torrents of abuse from fans. And when the celebrated Dutch coach, Dick Advocaat, was managing Zenith St. Petersburg, he admitted that he dared not sign a black player.

One of my salient memories of the 2006 World Cup in Germany was seeing before a match involving Ukraine, a ceremony in which all the players dedicated themselves to anti-racism. But standing unabashed beside the line of Ukrainians was their manager, Oleg Blokhin, previously a star attacker, who had recently and publicly railed against the presence of black players in Ukrainian soccer.

Matthew Norman recently wrote an article about the Tottenham Yids debate with the jocular assertion that “the second shortest book ever published is The Global Compendium of Jewish Sports Stars”. Meaning now, or historically? If the latter, he is way off beam. Think of Ted Kid Lewis and Jack Kid Berg or the many other great Jewish boxers of the last century. Or Sandy Koufax — the leading baseball pitcher of his generation. Or swimming great Mark Spitz.

As for the issue of Tottenham Yids, it seems to me somewhat marginal.

Brian Glanville is a football writer and novelist. He is a columnist for the Sunday Times and World Soccer. His novel The Rise of Gerry Logan, recently republished by Faber, was described by Franz Beckenbauer as “the best football book ever written”.