• U.S.

Sport: Soccer to ‘Em

4 minute read

“Ben zonah! Ben zonah!” The chant at the soccer match between Tel Aviv Hapoel and Jerusalem Hapoel was not a cheer for the home team but an angry denunciation of the referees. Though the epithet means “Son of a whore!” in Hebrew, the referees were more relieved than offended; after all, the abuse was merely verbal.

All too frequently, volatile Israeli fans show their displeasure by stoning, beating up and even chasing the refs with knives and axes. After one stormy game, Referee Julius Josephson had to take refuge in an army camp to escape a man hunt by seven carloads of irate spectators. Referee Shimon Chogeg, co-owner of a sports shop, was less fortunate. Incensed by one of his decisions, a gang of fans bombed his shop, causing $2,000 damage. Says Chogeg: “I’ve been a referee for seven years and every Saturday I’ve seen violence. Even the ushers threaten me.”

Violence in the name of the game of soccer is a worldwide phenomenon, hardly unique to Israel. Altercations are so common that in Bulgaria, for instance, a judge set up his court on the sidelines to prosecute offenders on the spot, while in Rio de Janeiro one team requested that the moat built round their field be stocked with piranhas. In Israel the Union of Referees has decided on a more practical tactic. Last April, after a record total of 42 referees were injured in 175 riots and fights during the season, the union went on strike. “Soccer fields have become battlefields,” Labor Party Member Shoshona Arbeli said in a speech before the Knesset (parliament). “Human life is in danger. Hatred is fomented between one town and another. The referees are right to strike.”

The Israeli government agreed, and now at last something is being done about the problem. Pinhas Koppell, a former police inspector-general, has been put in charge of the Football Federation and will supervise a threeyear, $750,000 program to civilize soccer. Referees have been granted disability pay if injured, and their life insurance policies have been doubled. Penalties for violence are stiff and swift. For damaging a referee’s car, the players on one team were suspended for up to three years, and their stadium was closed down. For spitting at a referee, Jerusalem Hapoel’s Zion Turjeman was suspended for four games (weakened by the loss of its star left wing, the Jerusalem team lost in the state-cup finals and dropped to last place in the standings). After its fans stoned a referee and destroyed a team bus, league-leading Beersheba Hapoel was ordered to play two games in an empty stadium 30 miles from their home field. The team not only lost an estimated $10,000 in gate receipts, but lost both games and later toppled to 13th place.

As part of a government education program for fans, game tickets are now printed with standard admonitions: “Don’t cause your team to be punished. Do everything you can to calm people around you.” Israeli TV and radio will soon carry programs on sportsmanship, and schoolchildren will be instructed to cheer rather than boo an outstanding play by an opposing team. Acknowledging that the education may not be 100% effective, the Football Association also plans to erect security fences between the fields and the stands. For all the preventive measures, however, many soccer officials feel that it will take more than one season to bring about any significant changes. Noting that 15 officials have already been injured in the first two months of the current season, Referee Chogeg laments: “Once a referee in Israel was an honored man. Not so any more. I can’t quit because it is in my blood. But I would not suggest that any young man get into it now.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com