Spurs in Israel: Why a pre-season trip to Haifa to face Roma has proven so controversial

At the end of May, Tottenham Hotspur confirmed that they would be playing a friendly against Roma in Israel.

The match, which takes place on Saturday, instantly generated plenty of excitement given that it pits Jose Mourinho against Spurs for the first time since they sacked him last year.

But the location of the friendly also provoked a huge amount of attention.

Israel, which has an obvious link to Spurs and Roma given both have sections of Jewish supporters, has also faced serious accusations around its treatment of the Palestinian population. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and representatives from the United Nations are among those who have accused the Israeli authorities of practising “apartheid”.

The Israeli government described Amnesty International’s report in February, titled “Israel’s apartheid against Palestinians: Cruel system of domination and crime against humanity”, as “false, biased, and antisemitic”. Israel’s defenders also point to how the nation, which only came into being in its modern form in 1948, has constantly had to defend itself from existential threats.

Ever since Israel was founded on what was previously the territory of Mandatory Palestine, the nation has been in conflict with Palestinians. The conflict has escalated at various points, including in 1967 when Israel took over the occupied territories referred to above. It remains ongoing.

During the bitter clashes in Gaza last year, the Israeli forces and Palestinian militant groups carried out attacks that in the eyes of Human Rights Watch amounted to war crimes. Hundreds of Palestinian civilians were killed in 2021 alone, along with a smaller number of Israelis. Two years ago, the UN Office for Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that, as of October 19, 2020, Israeli authorities had demolished 568 Palestinian homes and other structures in the West Bank that year, including in East Jerusalem, displacing 759 people.

Given this context, many Spurs supporters have become extremely concerned about their team playing a friendly in Israel. Often speaking anonymously because they didn’t want to be drawn into such a contentious debate publicly, some have told The Athletic of their disappointment. “Spurs’ decision to play a friendly in Israel is tacit support for its continued oppression,” says one.

Another, 57-year-old Roshan Dadoo, coordinator of the South African coalition of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement towards Israel, and a lifelong Tottenham supporter said: “It is the height of hypocrisy for Tottenham, a club that says it is a proud supporter of the Premier League’s ‘No Room for Racism’ campaign, to play in a state whose authorities have practised the crime against humanity of apartheid for decades.

“The wider football world must emulate the isolation of apartheid-era South Africa and red-card apartheid Israel.”

It should be said that Israel has long claimed BDS opposes the country’s very existence and is motivated by antisemitism. Spurs, meanwhile, are clear that they are apolitical and multi-denominational, and that when they travel they do not engage with foreign governments.

Some of the fans of Tottenham’s opponents Roma have also demonstrated against the game. Fedayn, one of the oldest groups in the Curva Sud where the Roma hardcore sit — who are traditionally of the left but have since claimed they’re apolitical — held up a banner outside Roma’s training ground saying: “There can’t be a ‘friendly’ in an occupying state”.

Jose Mourinho’s Roma will play Tottenham in Haifa (Photo: Getty Images)

But with Tottenham, despite the profound concerns some supporters have, there is nothing like a consensus among the club’s fans around the game, and indeed in attitudes towards Israel.

Starting with the game, many supporters do not feel strongly about Israel as a location, and most fan groups received only a handful of complaints each.

Others feel strongly that Spurs should not boycott Israel, with some viewing it as antisemitic to single out the nation. “When you hold Israel to a different standard, that’s antisemitism, and visiting a country doesn’t mean you condone their government,” says Charlotte Hussey, a 32-year-old Spurs supporter. “Tottenham toured Donald Trump’s America in 2017, and where was the outcry when they went to China a few years ago, when the alleged genocide against the Uyghurs was widely reported, as well as many other human rights abuses?”

There are also heartwarming stories of Jewish fans, who fled the Holocaust and found a haven in Israel, being able to watch their beloved Spurs. “It’s quite a proud day for my family as my grandfather and his brother both escaped the Nazis in Germany together,” says Adam Nathan, a 34-year-old Spurs season ticket holder. “My grandfather came to England, his brother went to Haifa, and both set up families while their parents were murdered in the camps, so there’s a definite degree of pride to the circle being so nicely squared like that with the location of the game. Any family that has suffered the ultimate loss of the Holocaust, we always look for little wins.”

“It’s great to see the ‘Jewish club’ come to the ‘Jewish state’,” adds Ilan Glave, a Spurs fan based in Israel.

In general, Tottenham are well supported in Israel, and the chairman of the club’s supporters group there, Ohad Aridan, says, “There’s so much buzz, people are very excited about the game.” The argument goes that those fans shouldn’t be punished for the ongoing conflict.

It should be noted also that the Roma friendly will be played in Haifa, a city where Jews and Arabs live peacefully alongside one another. Fans will likely attend the game from nearby Acre, which is one of the best examples of Arabs and Israelis coexisting, although violence did flare up between the two groups in these cities last year.

Spurs will not be visiting the occupied territories, staying instead in Tel Aviv, another mixed city, before making the journey to Haifa for the game. Roma, by contrast, have scheduled a visit to Jerusalem’s Western Wall.

While in Israel, Spurs also want to make a positive impact and are linking up with The Equalizer Programme, a charity that brings Arab and Israeli children together through football. A combined team of Israeli and Palestinian children will take part in activities together.

Whatever your perspective, it’s extremely complicated.

For a pre-season friendly, there’s a lot of potential aggravation for Tottenham. The Athletic looks at why the match is taking place, and the issues it throws up.

Why is this match taking place?

There are a few reasons Spurs are playing the match. First, having a competitive match against a tough opponent before the season starts next week is important, and Mourinho’s Roma neatly tick that box.

There is also a financial incentive, especially important in a post-COVID-19 world. Tottenham are receiving a sizeable fee for the game, believed to be in the millions of pounds. This is broadly in line with other prestige friendlies. The International Champions Cup (ICC) that Spurs were a part of in previous pre-seasons used to offer around £2million ($2.44m) per club. Roma will also benefit from a hefty appearance fee.

The funding for Saturday’s game comes from the Jerusalem-based production company MTR7, which is putting on the game. It is a private company not affiliated with the government. However, Moti Sobel, MTR7’s CMO and one of the partners responsible for the game, says that: “The government is not supporting us or the match financially, but they do provide support bureaucratically. The startup companies involved in the match are all private companies, but the government has the wish to showcase this technology and export it to the world. It provides us with the right environment to grow.”

Another aspect that made the game appealing for Spurs is that their strategic aims align with those of the Israeli public and private sector. Israel, and many of its businesses, want the country to become a hub for sports tech startups. They are in competition with others in the region — Qatar has its own sports tech hub, as does Saudi Arabia. Israel claims to have more than 200 successful sports-based startups.

MTR7 has put on other big events in Israel, including a Clasico Legends game between Barcelona and Real Madrid, which took place in Tel Aviv in July 2021, and a Kings of Dribble event which includes a mixture of regular football and freestyling and involved the legendary Ronaldinho. Afterwards, Ronaldinho posed for a picture with the Israeli flag — catnip for those who believe there is a sportswashing element to these events, even if there is no official government involvement.

The synergy comes from the fact that Tottenham, as demonstrated by the launch of their own streaming service Spurs Play, are interested in this technological space. While in Israel, MTR7 will host an expo for more than 15 startups highlighting tech innovations in the sporting world, and Tottenham’s tech department leads will attend several events showcasing new technologies. As Fabio Paratici, Tottenham’s managing director of football, said at the end of June: “Taking part in the I-Tech Cup allows the Tottenham executives to evaluate new areas of innovation in a risk-free POC (proof of concept) setting.” When they announced the fixture a month earlier, Tottenham wrote: “The game will form part of the I-Tech Cup, a format created by event organisers MTR7 to showcase local technologies in a country that is renowned as a hub for high-tech companies.”

This sort of language has made some fans uncomfortable. “I can see the idea that it’s engaging with Tottenham’s ties to the Jewish community… but all the talk of promoting Israeli tech companies seems a bit sportswashy,” says one. Incidentally, the link to Tottenham’s Jewish supporters is not something that has been mentioned by the club.

But the connection between Spurs and Israel is felt keenly in the country. “There is some authentic connection between Tottenham and Israel due to the Jewish heritage and history of the Spurs,” says Dr Yoav Dubinsky, instructor of sports business at the University of Oregon. “The second leg of the 2019 Champions League semi-final between Tottenham and Ajax was held on Israel’s Independence Day eve, and was somewhat framed as the Y** Army vs the Superjoden.

“Also, Ronny Rosenthal, one of Israel’s most successful international players, played for Tottenham in the 1990s.”

Israeli Ronny Rosenthal (right) played for Spurs between 1994 and 1997 (Photo: Getty Images)

For MTR7, meanwhile, the match offers an opportunity to demonstrate what it can offer clubs like Spurs. “The I-Tech Cup is a tournament to showcase and integrate new sports technologies into the game and to provide the technological solutions that clubs are looking for,” explains the company’s CMO Moti. “In Israel, we have a big sports tech industry — including different verticals like fan engagement, data analytics, 5G, cloud, etc.

“So we searched for very modern and technological brands and clubs who are looking for those new technologies. And we knew Spurs with their new stadium, they are a very technological club, and it’s a great fit. We had a very open relationship with Spurs and they are really glad to come to Israel. With other projects, we heard other noises in the background, but this time it all ran really smoothly so we were positively surprised.

“And of course the historic links of the club with the state of Israel, and it’s a club with great names — Antonio Conte, Harry Kane, Son Heung-min.”

To help showcase the technological capabilities that Israeli companies possess, MTR7 has linked up for Saturday’s friendly with Hype Sports Innovation, which claims to have “built the largest global ecosystem in sports innovation”. This ecosystem saw six of Hype Sports’ startups join up with one of its partners FC Cologne to produce the recent friendly against AC Milan. The game saw innovative technologies like body cams used to create an immersive experience, and Hype had hoped to do something similar for Saturday’s friendly between Spurs and Roma. They wanted to put body cams on Conte and Mourinho but neither club said yes to the idea.

Hype Sports Innovation is also a private company, and its founder Amir Raveh is based in London and an alumnus of Middlesex University. During meetings and visits where Spurs staff have looked at some of the technologies Israeli companies have to offer, Raveh has been impressed with Spurs’ interest in these new frontiers.

“The strategic value in bringing Son to South Korea and growing the fanbase there and selling merchandise is second to none,” a source at Hype Sports Innovation explains. “The value in Tottenham visiting Israel and gaining new technologies that will amplify their own OTT (over-the-top) application services like Spurs Play is also second to none.”

“There are various lenses to look at this game through — financial, human rights, etc,” says Simon Chadwick, global professor of sport and director of the centre for Eurasian sport at the Emlyon Business School. “Looking at the commercial opportunity and through the sports startup lens, you could see Spurs as a pioneer. They’re going to a country that’s investing huge sums of money in becoming one of the world’s leading sports tech providers. In essence, Israel is trying to become the Silicon Valley of sports technology, so Spurs could establish first-mover competitive advantage. They have always been good at exploring opportunities in overseas territories.”

Is this “sportswashing”?

Many who write on these issues do not like the term, as it’s become a bit of a catch-all for anything that we don’t like or agree with, and can be an oversimplification.

But, certainly, some of the more hostile opponents of Israel, such as BDS and the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) view the game in this way.

In a statement sent to The Athletic, Kristyan Benedict, Amnesty International UK’s Crisis Response Manager, says: “We would urge all Spurs players, staff and fans to consult our recent report on Israel’s system of apartheid. It’s available online and will provide the context to anger over this match — something that Tottenham’s hosts in Israel will almost certainly prefer to keep under wraps as they attempt to sportswash their heavily-tarnished image.”

But it’s complicated, as Professor Chadwick explains. “Some would see this as Israeli sportswashing, some would say it’s just a friendly and not that big a deal.

“The question of legitimacy appears to be central — for everyone. The more legitimacy Hype has, the more it can sell its services to European football clubs. The more legitimacy MTR7 has, the more it can organise tour games. For Israel, it’s a chance to acquire some legitimacy in the eyes of the world football community.

“Because while European clubs have training camps in Dubai, and the Spanish Super Cup is in Saudi Arabia and the World Cup and training camps in Qatar, Israel has up until now often missed out on this because it has been contentious and controversial.”

Argentina, for instance, pulled out of a friendly against Israel that was due to be played in Jerusalem in 2018 because of political pressure from pro-Palestinian groups. They did play a match against Uruguay in Tel Aviv a year later, which prompted a big backlash from left-wing workers union groups in Uruguay. Argentina then withdrew from playing in Israel again in June, this time from a friendly against the national team due to be played in Haifa, following a letter from the Palestinian Al-Khader Football Club to the national team. Al-Khader player Mohammad Ghneim, 19, was killed by Israeli forces in April and the letter received widespread coverage.

Shortly before Argentina’s cancellation, Borussia Dortmund withdrew from a friendly they were due to play in Tel Aviv against Israeli side Maccabi Netanya. This was partly due to security concerns, but there was political pressure too from a section of the club’s fanbase. Dortmund, though, remain committed to a strong relationship with Maccabi Netanya to exchange ideas and possibly players, and are planning on rescheduling the friendly.

Professor Chadwick continues: “If some of the reservations teams have around going to Israel can be addressed through this I-Tech Cup and through the legitimacy Roma and Spurs bring, then potentially we’ll see more teams there. Maybe Israel will assume a legitimacy it hasn’t had up until now.”

Israel is already attracting European clubs. On Sunday, ​​for the second year in a row, France’s Trophee des Champions (their Community Shield equivalent) will take place in Tel Aviv, on this occasion between Paris Saint-Germain and Nantes.

The 2021 Trophee des Champions between PSG and Rennes took place in Tel Aviv (Photo: Getty Images)

The week after Spurs play Roma, Atletico Madrid take on Juventus in Tel Aviv. That game is being put on by Israeli billionaire Sylvan Adams and the Israeli production and events company Comtecgroup — the same partnership that brought the Giro d’Italia to Israel in 2018.

It’s important to remember that Israel is a UEFA nation whose national team and clubs compete in UEFA competitions. Moreover, the British government trades billions of pounds with their Israeli counterparts every year.

“I don’t think we should talk about these things,” says Inbal Manor, a football writer and TV broadcaster for Sport1. “Israel is an independent country, we play in UEFA tournaments, and are recognised all over the world.

“This is a football game, produced by a production company. No relation to politicians. Haifa is a city that’s a symbol of peace, with Arabs and Jews living side by side. There’s no problem there. Or Tel Aviv, or many Israeli cities. Jerusalem is different.”

Some have suggested also that this is only a one-off friendly, though the counter-argument there is that it could be a precursor to more partnerships between Spurs and Israeli companies.

Whether you view that as problematic depends on your world view and, either way, companies not government is an important distinction for some. “This game seems more of a commercial initiative rather than a diplomatic state-led attempt with nation branding purposes,” says Dr Dubinsky.

This chimes with Spurs’ position that they are totally apolitical and multi-denominational. This position was cited just over a year ago when a supporter at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium was asked to put away an Israeli flag during the 2-1 defeat against Aston Villa. There was controversy at the time, as footballers and fans were holding up Palestinian flags with impunity.

Returning to the idea of sportswashing, Dr Paul Widdop, a sports marketing academic from the University of Manchester, argues: “For Israel, there’s a soft power benefit to this — an element of promoting their brand through Spurs and through tourism in that area. That’s one of the reasons there’s a backlash to this, the suggestion that Spurs are being invited to be a proxy brand ambassador for Israel.”

Why do Israel’s critics insist the game shouldn’t go ahead?

As spelt out earlier, one of the most serious accusations levelled at Israeli authorities is that it is practising a form of apartheid. This is based on the fact that there are essentially two legal systems for two sets of people in the occupied territories. Even traffic offences are covered by different laws in the occupied territories — one by civilian law, the other by military law.

The Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are regarded as illegal in international law by nearly every democratic country, including Britain.

Benedict, from Amnesty International UK, says that: “Along with other top European clubs due to play in Israel in the coming weeks, Tottenham should — at a minimum — ensure their visit in no way supports or contributes to Israel’s system of apartheid against Palestinians.”

Those that emphasise the importance of Israeli authorities’ “apartheid” regime forcefully make the case that, as was the case in South Africa, there should be an international boycott of the nation. They argue that this was a powerful tool to isolate South Africa, especially in the 1980s, and a coordinated approach by sports teams today could have a similar effect. And that by not doing so, clubs are allowing Israel to sportswash their crimes.

Proponents of this argument also point to how Russia has been made a sporting pariah following its invasion of Ukraine.

“Boycotts have been used throughout history and used now against Russia but with Israel that say, ‘No, don’t mix politics with sport’,” says a Palestinian member of the BDS movement, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons. “So why not Israel? What’s the difference?”

Russian teams were banned from UEFA competition after the invasion of Ukraine (Photo: Getty Images)

A couple of Spurs fans make similar points. “Taking your brand to a country where there are occupied territories and where there’s war, displaced people, where there’s suffering is a bad, bad look,” says one. “You wouldn’t dream of taking this game to another country where there’s an ongoing conflict. I get that it’s exciting for Israelis to have this game there but human rights has to transcend that. And that’s why I won’t watch the game.”

Another asks: “Could you imagine the response if Tottenham were to be playing a friendly in Moscow this summer?” They put the difference and the willingness to overlook offences like “trade sanctions, covert insurrections and war crimes” (as defined on numerous occasions by the UN, along with ones committed by Palestinian forces) down to the fact that Israel is considered to be a political ally of the West.

This is viewed as a major reason Israel is not viewed in the same way as Russia.

“There’s no reason Spurs shouldn’t play in Israel,” says Dr Middop. “The British government does lots of trade deals with Israel. It’s a legitimate state.” He points to Transparency International’s most recent ranking of nations by public sector corruption, where Israel is ranked the 35th least corrupt, just behind South Korea and Spain.

But there’s something especially potent about football and Israel. It is a football-mad nation, and for those on the Palestinian side, there is a huge amount of sadness at the death of Palestinian footballers.

The example of Al-Khader player Ghneim being killed was part of the case made to Argentina to cancel their friendly this year, and according to Adam from the PACBI, “playing a ‘friendly’ match in apartheid Israel is an affront to the families of dozens of Palestinian athletes who have been killed or maimed for life by Israel soldiers, including many young footballers in the last year alone”.

Others point to the death of footballer Saeed Odeh, who aged 16 was killed by Israeli occupation forces last year, and the existence of a Palestinian Amputee Football Association, made up of players who have lost limbs during the conflict with Israel.

Palestinians have also had calls for six Israeli football teams based in West Bank settlements to be banned or relocated ignored by FIFA.

Is a boycott the answer?

The issue of boycotting Israel has rumbled on for some time, and in sport, it is only feasible to a degree given that nations and club teams can be drawn to play there in UEFA and FIFA competitions. In other sports, though, bans have been imposed on Israelis competing under the Israeli flag — at last year’s Olympics, two judo competitors withdrew before facing Israeli opponents. The two judokas were from Algeria and Sudan, and the Algerian judoka Fethi Nourine and his coach were suspended for 10 years by the International Judo Federation (IJF) because the pair used the Games “as a platform for protest and promotion of political and religious propaganda.”

Meanwhile, footballers such as Paul Pogba and Wesley Fofana have made their feelings clear by holding up Palestinian flags. 

Several music acts have also refused to play in the country. Last year, following Israeli attacks on Palestinians, 600 musicians signed an open letter urging their peers to boycott performing in Israel until there was a “free Palestine”. Rage Against the Machine, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, and The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas were among the signatories.

In March, though, Radiohead performed in Israel and lead singer Thom Yorke has reacted angrily to pressure to boycott Israel. “The person who knows most about these things is (Radiohead guitarist) Jonny (Greenwood). He has both Palestinian and Israeli friends and a wife who’s an Arab Jew,” he said in 2017 before the band performed in Israel that year. “All these people to stand there at a distance throwing stuff at us, waving flags, saying, ‘You don’t know anything about it!’. Imagine how offensive that is for Jonny. And imagine how upsetting it’s been to have this out there. Just to assume that we know nothing about this. Just to throw the word ‘apartheid’ around and think that’s enough.

Fans mingle before Radiohead’s show in Tel Aviv in 2017 (Photo: Getty Images)

“Playing in a country isn’t the same as endorsing its government.”

Yorke’s view, especially the final sentence, was cited by a few Spurs fans, who strongly believe that isolating Israel and its inhabitants, most of whom have nothing to do with the actions of its authorities, is not the answer. “What keeps coming to mind is what Thom Yorke says — you can’t punish a whole country,” says Adam Elliott, a 57-year-old Spurs season ticket holder, whose son lives in Israel. “I don’t believe in the politics of Israel, they’ve had good and bad governments.

“But if you start blacklisting whole countries it’s just going to make it worse. We need to flood the place with influence of football culture and bring people together.”

One Israeli-based journalist says matches like Saturday’s can also have the effect of shining a light on some of the issues that otherwise get ignored.

Sam Green, a director at UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI), says that “Sport should be a political-free zone. Otherwise, you have countries and events using sport as a political weapon by banning countries they don’t get on with.

“The whole point of sport is not to isolate, and to recognise that what is happening in their countries is out of the athletes’ hands.”

“We don’t care about this sort of thing because we believe in sport and people and football, not about countries,” says Aridan, the chairman of the Israel Spurs supporters club. “With the clubs coming here, it’s because they think the same. And they are not letting all the stuff going on affect them. A friendly should be about the fans, and the fans are not the people who make the political decisions.

“Israeli fans shouldn’t be punished.”

By the time the match kicks off on Saturday, most of this will be a side issue as the attention turns to the tensions between Conte and Mourinho and which players look best before the new season.

Arabs and Jews will likely enjoy the game side by side in a city where they peacefully coexist, and one of the biggest talking points among fans will be the high ticket prices, with the cheapest originally priced at around £60. There has been frustration that many supporters have been priced out and that the game is still not sold out.

Members of the Spurs supporters group in Israel are looking forward to going to the game or watching it in places like Tel Aviv and nearby Petah Tikva.

And for 90 minutes, the conflicts and divisions that ravage Israel will be briefly forgotten about. And, depending on your perspective, that is either a wonderful thing, a terrible thing, or something in between.

(Top photo: Alan Harvey/SNS Group via Getty Images)

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