The most important game in the world this year, in America’s fastest growing team sport, takes place on Saturday May 19. And, because they don’t have a representative on the field, American Jews may feel a little left out. But, as Alan Rothenberg — who presided over the soccer World Cup in America in 1994 as well as the founding of the MLS — would surely tell them, they shouldn’t ignore it, because when Chelsea Football Club play FC Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena on Saturday it will be Jewish history versus Jewish present.
On the one hand, the home team, Bayern Munich, are the representatives of South Germany, playing in the city where Hitler felt strong enough, even in 1923, to launch a putsch against the Weimar government. But this unpromising context shouldn’t deter those of you who want to support Jupp Heynckes and the reds of Bayern because, as Raphael Honigstein and David Winner have pointed out in the Guardian and the Jewish Chronicle respectively, Bayern Munich was always a Jewish team.
If you’ve ever seen the Menorah that stands outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, that was made by sculptor Benno Elkan, who was one of 17 founders of the club in 1900. Known as a Jewish club in the 1930s, and having a Jewish president and manager, it became a target for Nazi abuse, which the players, officials and, to some degree supporters, resisted. Winner explains the invaluable contributions of Walther Bensemann and Kurt Landauer to Bayern in particular and German soccer in general, while Hoenigstein outlines the history that made German Jewish football invisible in the wake of the Holocaust.
Chelsea’s blue tide seeking to stem the red wave, seem no less part of the white Anglo-Saxon heart of old, Christian Europe. Based in posh West London, with a stadium less than three miles from Buckingham Palace, the Blues had an impeccably judenrein pedigree. Even in London, the Jewish capital of Britain, they boasted few fans of the faith, who tended instead to support West Ham (from the East End), Arsenal or Tottenham Hotspur (often known, for better or worse, as the Yids).
But, in 2004, Chelsea were bought by Jewish Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, from Ken Bates (who is currently in another, less savoury, struggle with a Jewish businessman over soccer). Abramovich is one of the ten wealthiest men in Russia and, of necessity, cautious. Although his investment in Chelsea — like his spending on the region of Chukotka, where he was governor from 2000-2008 — has been characterized as insurance against summary attacks by the Russian government like those suffered by other Jewish oligarchs Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Boris Berezovsky, he seems to have a genuine enthusiasm for both Chukotka and Chelsea.
According to Russiapedia, Abramovich was orphaned “at the age of three and brought up by relatives in a remote area of northern Russia” but had been “born into a Jewish family of Latvian origins in the southern Russian city of Saratov” — a family which he still honors, it’s reported, by donating to several Jewish charities.
So before you tell your TIVO to avoid the UEFA Champions League Cup Final this shabbas, ask yourself whether you can really afford to miss the Blues of Jewish oligarchs present against the Reds of Jewish resistance past. What would Alan Rothenberg do?
Dan Friedman is the managing editor of the Forward. But when he’s not doing that, he’s writing a book about the rock band Tears for Fears.