How Soccer Explains the Jewish Question

| Joshua Alter | 25 July 2012 | The Hague, Netherlands |

An Ajax jersey or an Israeli flag?

As I wolfed down my ‘Real American’ hot dog and finished my beer, I was debating which souvenir I was going to purchase. I was outside the Amsterdam ArenA waiting on line at one of the souvenir carts. The match between Ajax of Amsterdam and Celtic from Glasgow, Scotland kicked off in about thirty minutes, the sun was beating down, and Tom was ready to go inside. Tom already began his NATO externship but he took a train in from Belgium on Friday night to spend a weekend with me in Amsterdam. Aside from booking the hostel this was the only other part of the Amsterdam trip that had been set in stone. We spent the 24 hours prior to the game exploring the city on foot and we were both exhausted. Sleeping in bunk beds the night before, for the first time in about 15 years, did not help the situation. I was beyond excited for the game but I figured worst case scenario, Tom would enjoy being able to sit down for the first time since he arrived.

I was debating what to get in my head. I already have two football kits: Norwich City from the English Premier League and Zenit St. Petersburg from the Russian Premier League (more on this one later). Although an Ajax one would have been a nice addition to the collection, it would mean betraying my adopted Dutch home; ADO Den Haag plays in the top-flight Dutch league and I’m going to get that kit as a reminder of my summer in The Hague. As the line moves and it’s about to be my turn, I’m still trying to figure out how I would manage to get the Israeli flag from Amsterdam back to The Hague on a midnight train with a 20 minute walk from the station.

There have been plenty of shocks over my two months in Holland, including the sun staying out until 11:00 p.m., seagulls that have no respect for humanity and spending a night in a hostel. However,  seeing Israeli flags for sale outside the home stadium of Ajax was not one of them. How Soccer Explains the World is the only book I brought to Holland that does not deal exclusively with the former Yugoslavia. In chapter 3, titled ‘How Soccer Explains the Jewish Question,’ Franklin Foer writes

Only one club in the world, however, can out-Jew Tottenham. Ajax of
Amsterdam decorate their stadium with Israeli flags, which can be
purchased on game day just outside the stadium. The unforgettable site of
blond-haired Dutchmen with beer guts and red Stars of David painted on their
forehead accompanies Ajax matches. And unlike Tottenham’s official organization,
which does nothing to encourage its Jewish identification, Ajax has made
Judaism part of its ethos.

My first European football match was more enjoyable than any professional sporting event I attended in the United States over the past five years. And this was a friendly! American arenas require all the bells and whistles for professional events in order to keep spectators entertained. In order to improve the library like atmosphere, they pump in artificial noise, have scoreboards and jumbotrons and set out instructing the spectator on how to be a fan. In contrast, I was able to enjoy the game from close to the centre of the pitch without being interrupted by a bunch of airplanes racing on a giant scoreboard. Fifteen minutes before the game the stadium still looked empty but by kickoff, there were no seats in either section behind the goals.

The Celtic supporters were seated directly above us. Throughout the early stages of the match they were chanting and singing and we felt like the upper tier of the arena would cave in from all the energy of their supporters jumping up and down. After a comfortable win, the highlight of the post-match was squeezing onto a train back to Centraal Station with about 2-3x the amount of people that should have been in each car. The Celtic supporters, to their credit, were still in full voice. In a complete coincidence, Celtic, the Scottish opponent, has its own chapter in Foer’s book, titled ‘How Soccer Explains the Pornography of Sects’ which deals with the Old Firm rivalry between Irish Catholic Celtic and Brittania Protestant Rangers.

For the third weekend in a row I returned on a late train from Amsterdam to The Hague. But this time I had a nice new scarf around my neck. I got my Ajax memorabilia, but with the Star of David prominently displayed. However, it would be a mistake to say that soccer had just explained the Jewish question to me as that Saturday night turned into Sunday morning.


It is a little over a week prior to the game. It is late on a Thursday evening and I am sitting outside in an area known as Plein, a nice centre that is surrounded by bars. It is Thursday Night Drinks, a way for interns across the city to decompress and get ready for the weekend.

I am introduced to a blonde haired, green-eyed girl that came with one of my friends. It only takes a second for someone to realise that I am from the States but it takes me even less time to realise that she is not from the States. She is Russian and without thinking I immediately find a picture on my Blackberry of my Zenit St. Petersburg Andrei Arshavin kit (in Cyrillic). She laughs probably not knowing what to make of this American idiot who is sitting next to her. But Andrei Arshavin leads into two hours of conversation. The next night I see her again and she shares that her mother’s mother is Jewish. Thank you Andrei Arshavin.


2 responses to “How Soccer Explains the Jewish Question

  1. great post. another good example that the wrold is small and only small people make it uncomfortable. big people, like you can make a difference. enjoyed the post. a dad of another intern, Pete Duffy

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