No matter what his team does on the field, Avram Grant is always able to rely on his home support in Israel, writes Shaul Adar

“We will put you on hold, Shaul, you’ll be on-air in a minute,” said the producer at Radio Tel Aviv, where I was about to do a radio interview. In the background I could hear Rom Kofman, an Israeli sports shock jock booming over the airwaves. “I’m telling you, those English are stinking farts, pompous morons, lifeless stiffs. Anybody with over nine years of education is a minister. They can’t take Avram’s sense of humour and that’s why the tabloids hunt him.”

“On the phone,” said Miri Nevo, the co-host, “is Shaul Adar, an Israeli journalist living in London who will help us to crack the English code and explain to us why they hate our Avram.” I was an unusual choice to defend the Chelsea manager. In the past few months articles I have written criticising him have made me a prime target for the Grant worshippers. In comments on newspaper websites, I have been accused of jealousy, anti-Semitism, hatred of Israel, of being an unhappy child and a sad adult. There have also been repeats of a claim made in private by Grant’s confidants that I am behind the British media hate campaign against him. Well, thanks for the compliment.

Grant’s success seems to have triggered an outburst of chauvinism in Israel. Even writers who just report on the criticism of him in the British press are accused of treason. When Martin Samuel of the Times called Grant a “football genius” in his match report on Chelsea’s win over Arsenal in early April, he would have no idea that it would be cited in Israel as proof of Grant’s superiority over his peers in England. Irony does not translate well to Hebrew.

Whether Chelsea have had a fine victory or a dismal failure, both can be used to show how Grant is doing great work against all odds. The quoting from UK media reports tends to be very selective, though. When Chelsea won at Craven Cottage, the English papers reported that the Blues’ assistant coach, Steve Clarke, was the one who was telling off the Chelsea players at half-time, contrary to Grant’s claims that he was in charge of the shouting. The Israeli media were reluctant to pick up on that story.

The general feeling among Israeli fans and in the media there is that anti-Semitism is the root cause. Grant himself has explained without batting an eyelid to the adoring reporters on his recent visit to Tel Aviv that the English media “doesn’t always like foreigners”. When he was asked if this was anti-Semitism, he said that it shouldn’t be ruled out.

Grant’s status as one of the most famous Israelis overseas has been a source of conflict in itself. Some didn’t like his references to the Holocaust, the Yom Kippur War and 9/11 in his first big interview with the British press, at the Park Lane Casino in late March. Israeli supporters of other English clubs are unhappy with the blanket coverage of Chelsea and there has been dismay that some of their countrymen have switched allegiances from traditionally more popular clubs such as Man Utd, Liverpool and Arsenal. Some Israelis even managed to find Grant “not Zionist enough” after his publicised falling-out with Tal Ben-Haim. Demands that a Jew should always support another Jew abroad have been aimed in my direction, too.

It’s fair to say that around 75 per cent of Israelis interested in football want Grant to do well, but that doesn’t stop the flow of articles blaming his fellow countrymen for not supporting him enough or for wanting other teams to beat Chelsea. Rom Kofman the shock jock couldn’t understand how the tabloid reporters could criticise Grant when it’s Roman Abramovich who pays his salary rather than them. I don’t think he understood my point about freedom of speech.

Grant is an unlikely figurehead for nationalism in Israel, where anti-European feelings have escalated since the Intifada and more recently the military debacle in Lebanon in 2006. Colleagues in Tel Aviv report that there is admiration for Grant, but little affection. Most Israelis, though, will agree that he is at least a very canny politician.

From WSC 256 June 2008

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