Anti-Semitism in football

As Peter Watts considers the complexities of fans using the word ’Yid‘ at Spurs games, he worries that the Carling Cup final could resemble the bad old days of the ‘80s

  • Anti-Semitism in football

    Where does name-calling end and anti-Semitism begin?

  • I’d been calling Spurs ‘the Yids’ for a couple of years before my dad told me it was racist. ‘Don’t you realise it’s an abusive term for someone who is Jewish?’ he said. I didn’t, nor had I worked it out from one of my favourite Chelsea chants: ‘He’s only a poor little Yiddo/He stands at the back of the Shelf/He goes to the bar/To buy a lager/And only buys one for himself’. Racial stereotypes were clearly not one of my strong points as a 13-year-old.

    I’d like to say that I immediately stopped using the word, but I didn’t. Chelsea fans – like those at Arsenal and West Ham – had been calling Tottenham ‘Yids’ for decades. Given that Spurs devotees called themselves the ‘Yid Army’ I didn’t see how it caused any harm. I’ve since ceased, but at the Carling Cup final on February 24 cries of ’Yiddo’ will ring round Wembley – and they’re as likely to come from the Spurs end as the Chelsea one. Is anti-Semitism, the oldest hate, prospering in football or is this just a near-the-knuckle nickname for a rival football club?

    Many supporters are convinced it’s the latter. David Baddiel, a Jewish Chelsea fan, wrote in 2002: ‘I told myself that it didn’t matter, that for most of these fans, “Yiddo” simply meant a Tottenham player or fan and that the negativity was about that and not about race.’ However, when Chelsea fans aimed the chant at non-Tottenham Israeli players, Baddiel ‘realised I was in denial: “Yiddo” may mean Tottenham fan but it also means Jew.’ Baddiel may be interested to know that my own eureka moment involved him. When he was spotted during a game in the mid-1990s and half the West Stand broke into a chorus of ‘Yiddo, yiddo!’, Baddiel smiled it off – but the penny finally dropped that this was racist abuse, pure and simple.

    It used to be worse. In the 1980s chants about Auschwitz and hissing to imitate the release of gas were common, but I haven’t heard either in nearly 20 years of attending Chelsea-Spurs fixtures. Jeremy Vine, a Times journalist and another Jewish Chelsea fan, agrees: ‘I’m sure I would notice hissing as it would most likely come from the Matthew Harding Stand, where I sit.’ However, a lot of old faces will be on display at Wembley and the atmosphere could get ’80s ugly. Even if it doesn’t, the existing abuse is bad enough.

    Vine, who briefly stopped attending games in the 1980s due to racism, says: ‘Without doubt some of those who chant “Yid” are anti-Semites at heart… but I don’t believe all are.’ The problem, Vine feels, is that ‘personal jibes are part of the language of the terraces. Anything goes. And so the boundaries of decency and offensiveness become blurred.’

    What muddies the water further is that, since the 1970s, Spurs fans have proudly reclaimed what was originally coined as a term of abuse (nobody knows why, Tottenham being no more ‘Jewish’ than Arsenal or Chelsea) and now call themselves the ‘Yid Army’. Chelsea chairman Ken Bates, always torn between defending Chelsea supporters while confronting their excesses, argued that, ‘It is hard to criticise Chelsea fans for calling Tottenham supporters something that they call themselves.’

    Spurs conducted a ‘full consultation exercise’ over the use of ‘Yid Army’ because of fears it led to ‘casual anti-Semitism’, but this was criticised by many of their own supporters who felt the chant united both Jewish and non-Jewish Tottenham fans against their abusers. ‘If you are Tottenham, you are a Yid,’ is the argument. Many agree there’s a distinction between chanting ‘Yiddo’ and singing about concentration camps, which is broadly true – unless you’re racist.

    Simon Greenberg, Chelsea’s director of communications, disagrees and has denounced the Bates defence, leading to the curious situation where Chelsea – who now have a Jewish owner and manager – are promising to take a harder line on anti-Semitism than conflicted Tottenham. ‘We have a policy of zero tolerance,’ says Greenberg. ‘There is no justification in our eyes and we’re not going to get into a philosophical debate about it.’ The club strongly denounced the anti-Semitic hate mail they received after Avram Grant’s appointment as manager.

    Fine words, though if zero tolerance is applied at Wembley next week both ends will be half-empty before kick-off. Nevertheless, Vine insists: ‘There is no comparison to be made between three decades ago and now. It’s not perfect. I stayed away from the ground once before because of the people it attracted. The difference now is that these people are an extremely small minority. I don’t like it but I accept it as a reality. And it is slowly improving.’ That said, as anybody who watches the Carling Cup final will discover, there is still a very long way to go.

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