by Mar­tin Fletcher

Jonathan Wilson’s most recent book is Kick and Run: Mem­oir with Soc­cer Ball, which was pub­lished in Octo­ber by Blooms­bury Academic.

Mar­tin Fletch­er: What posi­tion do you play and are you any good? 

Jonathan Wil­son: I played always on the right wing. I am not as good as Zidane or Mes­si but I did once score six goals for North­west Lon­don Jew­ish Boys Club against Stan­more and a hat-trick for St. Catherine’s Col­lege, Oxford against Bal­li­ol. My career came to an abrupt end when I tore my ACL dur­ing a game 13 years ago. 

MF: We lived in the same Lon­don street and played in the same Jew­ish soc­cer league, yet soc­cer nev­er meant as much to me as it did to you. Why does soc­cer remain so impor­tant for you?

JW: In the resid­ual ado­les­cence that remains part of my adult being, soc­cer rules. Beyond that I main­tain an endur­ing pas­sion for the game, espe­cial­ly when it is played at its high­est lev­el. Through play­ing, watch­ing, coach­ing and report­ing on soc­cer, I’ve met a world of fas­ci­nat­ing indi­vid­u­als I might oth­er­wise nev­er have come across. A life­long attach­ment to a sport (or sports) whether as spec­ta­tor, or par­tic­i­pant, isn’t par­tic­u­lar­ly unusu­al. It doesn’t seem to be among the child­ish things that we’re sup­posed to put away. But I guess I’m danc­ing around your ques­tion, which is, What’s in it for you?” To which I might answer soc­cer is not my reli­gion but I am intense­ly and mag­net­i­cal­ly drawn to its hous­es of wor­ship and the beau­ty of its rituals. 

MF: Is the soc­cer motif a metaphor for your life? For instance, you quote Albert Camus: All that I know about the moral­i­ty and duty of man I learned from foot­ball. (soc­cer)”

JW: No, not a metaphor for my life, but cer­tain­ly an enhance­ment of it. Camus was a goal­keep­er, so, if he played for a good team, which he did, he had a lot of time to think while on the field. I’m not sure what I’ve learned from soc­cer, per­haps some­thing about loy­al­ty, its plea­sures and its pain. I’ve nev­er been able to under­stand why Amer­i­cans fre­quent­ly switch team alle­giances when they move towns. 

MF: I believe you came to Amer­i­ca because you want­ed to be a Jew­ish writer, which you felt you could not do in Eng­land. Is that true? 

JW: Yes, that is true. I was enchant­ed by the ease with which Jew­ish- Amer­i­can writ­ers entered the main­stream of Amer­i­can life and litera­ture in the sec­ond half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry and I felt, and still do, that a Jew can nev­er real­ly be Eng­lish. But per­haps I’m wrong; after all a num­ber of Jew­ish nov­el­ists have become very suc­cess­ful in Eng­land recent­ly. Per­haps I am work­ing from an old template. 

MF: One review­er has called you an intel­lec­tu­al hooli­gan.” Do you like that epi­thet? And what does it mean? 

JW: Well, this is advance praise from the writer Josip Novakovich and I thank him dear­ly for it. To be a dis­rup­tive force with the mind (rather, say, than on the ter­races — I have nev­er been thrown out of a game) is some­thing that every writer craves. 

MF: You write very inti­mate­ly of your rela­tion­ship with your par­ents, and not always kind­ly. There was some­thing supreme­ly painful in your father’s I’m sor­ry, Doris” when he returned home from the men­tal hos­pi­tal. Why did you need to be so honest? 

JW: I don’t think I write unkind­ly of my par­ents. I hope not. I cer­tain­ly didn’t intend to. I do describe cer­tain acts of what I per­ceived to be exas­per­a­tion on my mother’s part toward my father, but I also tried to rep­re­sent the dif­fi­cul­ties of her posi­tion as wife to some­one with a long-term debil­i­tat­ing heart con­di­tion. I don’t think one can choose dis­honesty in a mem­oir, or any oth­er kind of writ­ing, truth is prefer­able no mat­ter how painful it might be to present. I have to show the experienc­es that marked me as a child. I can’t pre­tend that my father wasn’t in a men­tal hos­pi­tal for a while or that the way he sub­mit­ted to my moth­er didn’t upset me. In this regard no one’s behav­ior is a stain on his or her char­ac­ter, it is sim­ply an inven­to­ry of human strengths and frailties. 

MF: The Lon­don Pre­mier League soc­cer team that you sup­port, Tot­tenham Hot­spur, is iden­ti­fied in Eng­land and else­where as a Jew­ish” team. A rump of its own non-Jew­ish sup­port­ers call them­selves The Yids.” Can you talk about this unusu­al phenomenon?

JW: Some­time around the late 1980s or ear­ly 1990s, Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur became indeli­bly iden­ti­fied with its Jew­ish sup­port­ers, a small minor­i­ty of the team’s over­all sup­port. Rival fans had begun to heap anti-Semit­ic abuse upon the Spurs sup­port­ers. Yids” cer­tain­ly formed part of the vocab­u­lary of insult. In time the Spurs fans exe­cut­ed the ma­neuver favored by many an abused group: they appro­pri­at­ed the insult that had been hurled at them and wore it as a badge of hon­or. You want us to be The Yids,” the team’s work­ing class non-Jew­ish sup­port­ers seemed to say, OK, we’ll be the Yids — and screw you.”

Nowa­days, every­body calls Spurs The Yids”: the team’s sup­port­ers, its detrac­tors, and neu­trals. In Feb­ru­ary 2002 I flew back to Lon­don because Spurs had reached the final of one of England’s three major domes­tic foot­ball com­pe­ti­tions, the League Cup. My nephew James and I trav­eled by train to Cardiff’s Mil­len­ni­um Sta­di­um, where major games were staged while Wem­b­ley, London’s super sta­di­um, was under recon­struc­tion. I had not been to a live game for a long time, not, in fact, since before Spurs became The Yids.” At first I was suit­ably freaked out. We got off the train and began the long march to the sta­di­um flanked by cops and sep­a­rat­ed from the rival team’s sup­port­ers. The Spurs fans began a war­like chant Yids! Yids! Yids!” It was all a bit too Nurem­berg for me. Then, inside the sta­di­um, among 75,000 fans, a group of Tot­ten­ham sup­port­ers sud­den­ly unfurled a huge Israeli flag. I asked my nephew, Is this polit­i­cal?” No,” he replied. They couldn’t find Israel on the map.” 

It all seems fair­ly benign but the name-call­ing can eas­i­ly spi­ral out of con­trol. At West Ham in East Lon­don recent­ly, the crowd began to make gas-cham­ber hiss­ing sounds when the Spurs play­ers ran on to the pitch. The club was warned about its crowd’s racist and anti-Semit­ic behav­ior by the gov­ern­ing Foot­ball Asso­ci­a­tion, and could face a hefty fine. Not long ago a peti­tion cir­cu­lat­ed designed to press the Oxford Eng­lish Dic­tio­nary to change its def­i­n­i­tion of a Yid from the famil­iar deroga­to­ry term for a Jew to a Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur foot­ball fan.” Now that would be something.

Mar­tin Fletch­er is the author of four books, most recent­ly Jacob’s Oath. A five-time Emmy-win­ning tele­vi­sion news cor­re­spon­dent who has worked for decades as the NBC News Bureau Chief in Tel Aviv, he is cur­rent­ly a Spe­cial Cor­re­spon­dent for NBC News. He won a Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award for his book Walk­ing Israel in 2010.

Mar­tin Fletch­er spent many years as the NB News Bureau Chief in Tel Aviv, and has won many awards includ­ing the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award, a Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty DuPont Award, sev­er­al Over­seas Press Club Awards, and five Emmys. He is cur­rent­ly based in Israel and New York.