England’s trip to Tel Aviv was for the most part peaceful, though some in Israel were unhappy not at the excesses of some fans but what was seen as the do-gooding of others, as Shaul Adar explains

With England coming to Israel for the first competitive meeting of the teams, one might expect media coverage revolving around Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney and the rest of the star names. After three days in Israel there was one Englishman who stole the limelight from the players, although nobody can remember his name. He was an England fan, bearded, obese, shirtless and sunburned, with a tattoo of Preston North End. Israelis queued for a photo with him and he appeared on TV and in all the papers, usually doing his party trick – licking his own nipple. His soundbites were rather repetitive, like the questions. “I had X beers so far today.” Or, “I went to a whore house in Tel Aviv, a whore house in Jerusalem and I’m looking for a whore house in Nazareth.” He was the star but by no means alone – the crew of a respectable TV magazine show took some fans to a strip club in search of the same story.

For a while it had seemed as though the travelling fans wouldn’t get into the country, due to a threatened general strike. When that was called off after a few hours, you could almost hear the collective sight of relief. The first England fan to land at the almost deserted airport was greeted by about 50 frenzied journalists and for three days there was non-stop coverage, mostly revolving around beer and sex. With a mix of contempt and admiration, the Israeli media unleashed every stereotype in the book. You could also sense some disappointment when the visitors turned out to be relatively harmless. There was a distinct lack of trouble, despite the relentless efforts of the locals to chat about the Premiership and to extract compliments about Yossi Benayoun and GoldStar beer. After years of isolation and wars, hordes of drunken football supporters singing No Surrender and Vindaloo on Tel Aviv seafront looked like the normality and acceptance that Israelis are craving.

The media also covered the activities of the official supporters’ group, Englandfans, and the British Council. In two days they managed to visit the Holocaust Museum, organise an Anglo‑Israel-Arab tournament in Tel Aviv, play against supporters of Bnei Sakhnin – the best‑known Arab community club in Israel – and see the match. Although nobody questioned their good intentions, many in Israel thought that some of this was patronising – old-fashioned colonialism disguised as liberal do-gooding.

“The idea that a kick-around in Tel Aviv could be a harbinger of reconciliation makes a mockery of the dispute in the Middle East,” wrote Matthew Syed in the Times. “It is an insult to Arabs who have endured decades of discrimination within Israel’s borders and suffered murder and indignity in the occupied territories. It is an insult to Jews who have lost loved ones to the suicide bombers and who live in existential fear of their hostile neighbours.” This echoed feelings in Israel. “How would they feel if we organise a tournament in Belfast between Protestants and Catholics?” was one Israeli message-board comment. Thanks for the goodwill, but no thanks.

From WSC 243 May 2007. What was happening this month

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