Rabbi Savage on Football
‘Maturity,’ wrote the Norwegian scholar Stig Itinder Mikserssen, ‘means learning to wait.’ As new-born infants, we feel the mother’s absence — be it only for a few moments — as an absolute loss which, psychoanalysts and mothers-in-law claim, can traumatize us for life. Later, as toddlers, waiting for anything — food, home, tomorrow — whips up in us the boundless, impotent rage of a pint-sized thunder-god. Not until adolescence do we grasp that a period of inactivity is something to be filled — with cigarettes, music, ambivalent grunting, depending on the phase — rather than to be wished away. By then we are on our way to Mikserssen’s ‘maturity’: the understanding that anticipation is more fun than consummation. Unfortunately, it’s only then that we realize we’ve just squandered twenty years of precious waiting-time yearning to be grown-ups.
At this point, psychic well-being demands that we invent something else to wait for — ideally something that will take a lifetime to come. Retirement, perhaps, or the Revolution, or Manchester City winning a trophy. To this end — or lack of end — the Jews went one further: they found a means of waiting forever. Not just on the scale of a lifetime, but on the scale of human history. They called it Messiah. The word originally meant ‘annointed with oil’ and was used to refer to kings, prophets, high priests and fried fish. But over time it was invested with greater significance: the Messiah would be a single man, a divine redeemer who would gather the people from their exile, rule them with strength and wisdom, rekindle in their hearts the love of Torah and extend the blessing of peace across the entire earth. So no pressure then. Not that many are expecting him any time soon. Indeed, stung by Christian claims that he’d already been and gone without their noticing, Jews have made his tardiness, ironically, an article of faith. The Ukrainian scholar E. Zhuslys Gedimov used to tell of the small Hasidic community that employed a local man to stand at the village gates, all day long, all year round, ready to greet the Messiah on his arrival. ‘Fifty measly kopeks a day they’re paying you!’ chided his wife, ‘Even Oleg the ironmonger pays eighty.’ ‘True,’ replied the man, ‘but this is a job for life!’
Jews may not wait patiently or politely (it’s well known there’s no such thing as a polite Jewish waiter), but that’s not to say they don’t enjoy it. For one thing, the Messiah’s prospective arrival inspires courage in dark times; for another, it offers rich opportunities for bickering. Will he be a descendent of David or of Joseph? Is he a person or a symbol of the era of redemption? Is the hour of his advent predetermined, or is there a potential saviour living among us in every generation? And if he was going to be this late, could he not at least have rung?
It is this Messianic vision that has, in part, enabled Jews to endure. And it is the same self-replenishing flask of elated, frustrated hope that allows football fans to survive the barren desert that is the close season. For barely have the floodlights been switched off, the turnstiles locked and the manager sacked, than the football fan begins to dream of salvation. There are no supporters, however hapless and hopeless their club, however plagued by existential doubts and exponential debts, who don’t believe in the imminent arrival of that redeemer, that saviour, that big-money transfer who will lift the spirits and the gates and the whole club back to glory on high. And so they scour the back pages for ‘transfer rumours’, stories sprung full-grown and monstrous from the imaginations of desperate editors; these they copy on to web forums, only to see their own speculations recycled by the hacks as ‘breaking news’; in response to which, chairmen and agents release statements, greedily swallowed by the press and regurgitated for the fans. And so the whole benighted community immerses itself in a timeless ritual: prophecy, interpretation, revelation.
This is all so much fun that most fans far prefer it to the actual football — even fans of thrilling, successful sides. Like end-of-dayers dreaming of the apocalypse, they spend the season secretly wishing it could all be over, the pointless, predictable charade of it all, so they can get down to the real business — doing business with Real. This summer, Madrid fans awaited the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United. The move seemed perfect. Not only would Ronaldo have brought goals by the score and cups by the plateful; not only would he have had chicas chucking Euros and shounen shoving Yen into Madrid’s coffers; but the winger would even have fulfilled the literal biblical meaning of ‘Messiah’, being routinely plastered with more oil than a Kuwaiti sardine. But it was not to be. United put their foot down, even though a plaster-cast will prevent the player himself doing so till October. And yet, a wonderful summer holiday was had by all.
And then, suddenly, the wait was over. For me, at any rate, and my fellow City fans. He had arrived. Anointed with all the oil wealth of Abu Dhabi, Dr Sulaiman Al-Fahim strolled in from nowhere, bought the club, and instantly alchemised it into a major global player. Within a day he was promising us Torres, Messi (ah …), even the oleaginous Portuguese genius himself … every foolish dream we’ve ever had to wait for nightfall to live out. And suddenly I don’t know what to do with myself. Why move, when you are cradled in the arms of a giant? Why hope, when all is on offer like milk from the teat? Or, as the essayist Mark der Sentebach put it, ‘Be careful what you pray for, because nothing is duller than heaven.’
Having spent twenty-one years as a rabbi in his native Morecambe, and a brief spell as inside-right for Preston North End, Rabbi Savage is now a freelance Talmudic Scholar.