As anyone familiar with Adam Sandler’s wonderful Hanukkah Song will know, the world of show business is blessed with an abundance of talented Jews. However, as the film Airplane! cheekily points out, the world of sports is not so blessed…
Nevertheless, over the years there have been a number of Jews who have chosen to spend the Shabbat on a football pitch. Game Intelligence lifts our collective glass of Manischewitz and wishes a sincere ‘Mazel Tov’ to our own Chosen People, in the all-time Jewish XI:
N.B. To make things a bit more interesting we have not included any Israeli footballers. Sorry Ronny…
GK: Shep Messing
Although now best known in the US as a commentator for the New York Red Bulls (like Clive Tyldesley for Manchester United, only more official), Messing was once a very good goalkeeper. A teammate of Pele and Beckenbauer at the New York Cosmos, the Harvard graduate became the first American on a six figure salary in the NASL when he signed for the Oakland Stompers on a contract worth $100,000 a year in 1978. He also gained notoriety after posing nude for Viva Magazine, an act that he jokes gave the Cosmos more media “exposure” than they had ever previously received. Although he never gained full international recognition, Messing did represent his country at the 1972 Munich Olympics, where the games were tragically overshadowed by the hostage crisis which culminated in the deaths of 11 Israeli athletes.
RB: Joe Jacobson
Upon signing his first full-time contract with Cardiff City in 2006, Jacobson became the first member of the British Jewish community to play professional football in over 25 years. The former captain of the Wales Under-21s has a couple of theories to explain this surprising statistic, stating first and foremost that “Most Jewish parents want their kids to go to university and from there go into professions like banking.” He also adds that “most of the Jewish people live in London and there are specific leagues up there. They play on Sundays, for obvious religious reasons, and maybe scouts just don’t get down to see them because it’s not at the traditional time.” Growing up in the Welsh capital, this was not an issue for Jacobson, who was scouted by the Bluebirds whilst playing for his local club. Despite slipping down the leagues somewhat (he is currently on loan at Accrington Stanley from Oldham), the Welshman remains the principal role model for British Jews with footballing aspirations today.
CB: Béla Guttmann
A football visionary, a Zionist, a dance instructor… Few have done as much to shape modern-day football as the legendary Guttmann. Born into a family of dance teachers in Budapest in 1899, Guttmann followed in his parents’ footsteps before taking his balletic poise onto the football pitch as an elegant defender. After winning a couple of titles with MTK Hungária, Guttmann fled Hungarian anti-semitism and signed for Hakoah Vienna, the great all-Jewish side of the Austrian capital. Following a club tour of the USA Guttmann decided to stay in New York, where greater financial rewards meant more money for the Zionist cause, and he remained on that side of the Atlantic for the remainder of his playing career.
Yet he is best remembered for his nomadic managerial career, as he enjoyed a number of invariably short stints (he was quoted as saying “the third season is fatal”) at many of the world’s biggest clubs. He led São Paulo to the State Championship title whilst pioneering the 4-2-4 formation that Brazil later employed to such devastating effect in their triumphant 1958 world cup, and won the Portuguese league in his one and only season at Porto. However, it was at archrivals Benfica where he achieved greatness, releasing 20 players on arrival before turning the Lisbon giants into the most feared team in Europe. His three years in Lisbon reaped 2 league titles, one Portuguese cup and, most famously, two European Cup victories. Victory in 1961 brought an end Real Madrid’s run of five consecutive titles, whilst the 1962 triumph was inspired by Guttmann’s latest recruit, a youngster from Mozambique named Eusébio (he was recommended to him by a former São Paulo players whilst at the barber’s). This win proved to be the Hungarian maverick’s final act for Benfica, as he resigned following the directors’ refusal to reward his efforts with a bonus. He is said to have cursed the club on leaving, declaring “Not in a hundred years will Benfica ever win a European Cup”. Despite reaching five finals since then, the curse prevails…
CB: Jeff Agoos
Although not quite as prestigious as his central defensive partner Guttmann, “The Goose” is revered in America, where he is the country’s second top cap holder, winner of a record five MLS championships, and a member of the MLS All-Time Best XI. Unfortunately for Jeff he is not so well-regarded in Europe, where he endured unsuccessful stints at SV Wehlen and West Brom. He also lacked the opportunity of a successful World Cup to showcase his undoubted talent, having been left out of the squad in 1994 (upon which he is said to have burnt his kit), been an unused squad member in 1998, and scoring an own-goal before suffering a calf injury in 2002. Luckily for Jeff, Nelson Mandela saw through these blips and showed his faith in the big American by naming in his World XI for a charity game in 1999, alongside Dunga, Jean-Pierre Papin and Thomas Häßler.
LB: Juan Pablo Sorín
Captain of Jewish coach Jose Pekerman’s swashbuckling 2006 world cup side (dubbed the Israelitas del Mundial by the Argentinian press), Sorín cut a striking figure on the pitch due to his aggressive style, rampaging runs and, of course, his long locks (he played Brian May in Reina, a Queen tribute act). Off the pitch ‘Juampi’ (as he was affectionately known) was equally remarkable. The son of an eminent Buenos Aires architect, the long-haired left-back was known to travel to training by bus in order to read in peace, even when joining up with the national team for the first time. He put this love of literature to good use later on in his career, publishing Grandes Chicos, a compilation of works by well-known poets, authors and artists (including Sorín himself) with the proceeds going to the impoverished children of Argentina. Aside from writing, he also hosted a radio talk show that discussed contemporary music and literature.
Although he comes from a Ukrainian Jewish family that emigrated to Argentina at the beginning of the last century, Sorín is hesitant to discuss his heritage, and was known to cross himself before games. This desire not to stand out is typical of many Argentinian Jews who grew up during the dangerous period of the Fascist junta, where the (sizeable) Jewish community was looked upon with suspicion by the government and many of whom were amongst the thousands of victims that were ‘disappeared’ by the brutal regime.
RM: David Beckham
What’s that? David Beckham, Jewish? Well… not exactly, but Goldenballs did have a Jewish grandfather who would occasionally take the young David along to Synagogue. “I used to wear the traditional Jewish skullcaps when I was younger, and I also went along to some Jewish weddings with my grandfather,” says the part-time footballer, who has previously described himself as “half Jewish” (obviously maths is not his strong point). Although he has never practised the faith, he claims to have “probably had more contact with Judaism than any other religion,” whilst he and Victoria are known to have sent their son Cruz to an exclusive Jewish school in LA. He is also the proud possessor of a Hebrew tattoo, bearing a verse from the “Song of Songs” on his forearm (although for all he knows it could be a verse from “Stairway to Heaven”). Surely a few strings could be pulled to allow his inclusion in a Jewish XI? His shirt sales alone would more than make it worth the while…
CM: Aron Winter
The son of a Muslim father and a Jewish mother, Aron Winter is a living embodiment of love’s utter disregard for even the most inveterate of obstacles. As if that wasn’t enough, he was also a gifted footballer. Born in the Surinamese capital of Paramaribo (where mosque and synagogue sit side by side), Winter made his name at Ajax, winning the Eredivisie, two domestic cups, the Cup-Winners’ Cup and the UEFA Cup, before moving on to Lazio. The famously right-wing club seemed an odd choice for the Dutchman who, despite attempts to keep his jewish heritage under wraps, suffered abuse from a large section of the Biancocelesti ultras (his skin colour was understandably more difficult to conceal, particularly amongst an otherwise all-white team). After somehow enduring four years of this treatment, Winter left for Internazionale where he picked up another UEFA Cup winners’ medal, before returning to Ajax. After another Dutch Cup and Eredivisie title, he retired in 2003. He was an integral part of the national team for over a decade, winning the European Championships in 1988 and playing at two world cups in the course of his 84 appearances.
CM: Johan Neeskens
A triple European champion, a protagonist in the final of two consecutive World Cups (scoring in one), a teammate of Cruyff at Ajax and Barcelona… Johan Neeskens is probably the greatest Jewish footballer of all time. Brought to Amsterdam by the legendary Rinus Michels at the age of 19, Neeskens played a central role in the great Ajax team that gave the world Total Football in the 1970s. A dynamic midfielder who could defend as well as attack, Neeskens formed an excellent understanding with Cruyff in midfield. He was an integral figure as Ajax won the European Cup in each of his first three seasons at the club, before he was brought to Barcelona by Michels, where he was reunited with Cruyff. This partnership with his compatriot earned him the nickname ‘Johan Segon’ (Johan the Second), yet Neeskens was far more than an also-ran in the hearts of the Blaugranes, who adored him for his competitive spirit and greeted his contributions with mass cries of ‘Olé!’. This admiration was evidently not restricted to fans of Barcelona, as he became the first winner of Don Balón’s Foreign Player of the Year in 1978 (ahead even of Johan the First). He was equally loved in the Netherlands for his performances in the finest Dutch team ever seen. He was his country’s top scorer (with five goals) as they finished as glorious runners up in the 1974 World Cup, before helping to lead the now Cruyff-less Holland to the same feat four years later. Since retiring he has served as Guus Hiddink’s assistant for the national teams of the Netherlands and Australia, where he charmed every Socceroo by enthusiastically singing the national anthem before each game.
LM: Jonathan Bornstein
Born to a Jewish father and a Mexican mother, the young Bornstein didn’t know whether to light the luminaria on Nochebuena or put a match to the menorah at Hanukkah. “Just experiencing both cultures, sometimes I felt like I didn’t know where I belonged,” he admits. It was only after representing the USA at the Maccabiah Games in 2005 (the ‘Jewish Olympics’) that Bornstein began to truly embrace his inner Jew. Playing in a team that also featured his World Cup teammate and old college friend Benny Feilhaber, Bornstein visited Israel for the first time and gained far more from the experience than just a silver medal. “I loved it. It made me realize how fulfilling and enriched Jewish culture really is,” he later extolled. “So in the past couple years, I’ve felt more Jewish than ever.” However, the man from L.A. has by no means cut all ties with his Mexican heritage, having recently left Chivas USA to sign for Tigres, one of Mexico’s best-supported teams.
CF: Gottfried Fuchs
The senior member of this semitic selection, Gottfried Fuchs was at his peak in the early part of the twentieth century. He was a key member of the Karlsruher FV side that won their only ever German title in 1910, forming a fearsome strikeforce alongside fellow Jew Julius Hirsch. He is best remembered for scoring ten goals in a 16-0 victory over Russia in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, a German record that stands to this day. Tsar Nicholas II was so disgusted with this humiliating defeat that the Russian players were left to make their own way home after the tournament. Fuchs scored 14 goals in 6 games for the German national team, yet few details of his career remain due to the German Football Association’s destruction of all records relating to Jewish footballers following the Nuremburg Laws of 1935. Fuchs managed to escape Nazi Germany in 1937, fleeing to Canada where he lived for the rest of his life. He is a recipient of the ‘Goldene Ehrennadel’ (Golden Badge of Honour), the German FA’s ultimate accolade.
CF: Sebastián Rozental
Rozental began his career in sensational style, banging in goals for Universidad Católica with such aplomb that he had Marcelo Salas and Ivan Zamorano looking worriedly over their shoulders in fear of being displaced in the national team. Rangers won the race for the young prodigy in 1997, paying £4 million (a Chilean record) to bring their first ever South American to Glasgow. It may have appeared a wise investment when he scored on his home debut, however joy turned to despair when he sustained a serious knee injury in the very same game. Sadly this was the beginning of the end for Chile’s great hope. Out of the game for a year, he missed the World Cup in France and failed to settle in Scotland. In four years at Ibrox he made just 17 appearances, scoring 3 goals. Various attempts to rebuild his career ensued, including spells in Argentina, Switzerland, USA, Puerto Rico and Chile, but he never rediscovered the form that had made him Chilean Player of the Year earlier in his career. He finished his career in Israel, having been granted Israeli citizenship through the Law of Return, yet by now the goals had truly dried up and his resemblance to Har Mar Superstar had become almost uncanny. His career is a sad tale of what might have been.