As far as I can establish, only four arrests were made ahead of the weekend’s Champions League final between Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur in Madrid. Given that 70,000 British football fans descended on the Spanish capital for the match intent on having a boisterous time, this is a remarkable figure. For contrast, that’s fewer people than were arrested at the January sales. News footage shows rival supporters frolicking in the fountains, and partying together in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor.
The overall sense was that the most important club football game in the world took place in the atmosphere of a carnival, against the backdrop of peace and harmony, with fans joined together in celebration of the game. Anyone who goes to football regularly will know how erroneous this impression will have been. There may be very little violence at and around the games any longer, but going to a football match, contrary to what you might be inclined to believe, is not like being at a church fete.
Deep-seated rivalries still create an atmosphere of enmity and barely disguised hatred, which is most usually expressed in vitriolic verbal exchanges that, should they take place in a street, would result in the participants having their collars felt. Football can make reasonable people behave in a way they’d never countenance elsewhere.
I am moved to make this point because any match involving Tottenham brings with it a particularly nasty strain of behaviour among fans, one that is not often enough brought to the fore. The football authorities have made great progress in curbing racism at grounds, but very little focus is paid to the issue of anti-semitism. For spurious historic reasons, Tottenham has traditionally been regarded as a Jewish club, although I am sure the profile of its fanbase merely reflects the ethnic mix of north London.
Tottenham fans wave Israeli flags, and they proclaim that they are the “Yid Army”. They sing loudly to that effect. This is clearly offensive, but nothing seems to be done about it. No one could call a Jewish person a “Yid” in normal circumstances without repercussions. However, football people are deaf to its connotations, and it could be heard echoing around Madrid’s streets at the weekend. Is it seen as akin to black people using the N-word? If so, that’s completely wrong – the overwhelming majority of the fans chanting “Yid Army” are not Jewish.
Tottenham’s owner is Jewish, and so, for that matter, is one of Liverpool’s co-owners. Rival fans have in the past made hissing noises at Tottenham fans (a vile reference to gas chambers). At the weekend, George Galloway spoke up in support of Liverpool – “No Israeli flag on the Cup”, he tweeted – and was cleared of anti-Semitism by Twitter (he has been sacked by TalkRadio as a result of the comment).
I love football, and I particularly love being subsumed by its tribalism. For 15 years, I have taken my daughter to matches all over Europe, and we have only felt threatened once, and that was by the Madrid police some years ago. But that’s not to say that football is rid of its ills, and it’s time that special attention should be paid to the way that Jewish cultural associations have been appropriated by Tottenham fans and their rivals.
This article was amended on 3 June 2019 to remove a reference to Liverpool fans hissing at Tottenham Hotspur fans. We apologise for the error