As part of a broader cultural exchange, Israel hosts an international Writers’ League tournament, including England and Germany, from Dec 14–16 (see 19 Dec 08). Deutscher Fußball-Bund president Theo Zwanziger leads a delegation to mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel and to commemorate sporting contacts that helped build cultural and diplomatic relations between the two countries in the 1950s and ’60s.
“It was sport that first … led to a change in the way Germany was viewed by a large part of the Israeli population,” Zwanziger says. “Football played a decisive role in this process.”
The Israeli writers play England and Germany, the latter a rematch of the May friendly that Assaf Gavron describes below. On Dec 16, Israeli and German authors feature in a reading and discussion co-sponsored by the Goethe Institut in Tel Aviv and FAs from the two countries. The writers, according to the German Foreign Ministry, will also visit peace centers, school groups and the Holocaust monument Yad Vashem.
In addition to matches involving authors, Borussia Mönchengladbach plays an exhibition against Makkabi Netanya, coached by Lothar Matthäus, as part of the three-day commemoration. Germany’s U18 team competes against Israel, Finland and Romania.
Poets, children’s-book authors, comics creators, magazine editors, playwrights and novelists, including Gavron (number 10), filled out the Israel writers XI at the 6 May friendly. (With thanks to Mordechai Alon, Glory Publishing)
I can’t truly say that on a lovely spring day last May, when I led 11 Israeli writers and poets in blue shirts and with heads held up high onto the green grass of a soccer pitch in Berlin; when I exchanged flags with the German captain, shook hands with the German Foreign Minister, moved my lips with the national anthem—I can’t truly say that my excited thoughts wandered back to the moment it all began. But it would make sense to insert a flashback at this point, so here we go:
6 September 2007
Dear Etgar Keret, I am a member of the German writer’s national soccer team, we were third in the European “word cup” in Sweden this year, which had a huge resonance in the media. Now, following my thesis that the game makes politics often look stupid, when Iran plays USA or England plays Argentina, showing we can be different and equal at the same time, we are planning something with more input and would love to invite a team from Israel. What do you think? Any soccer-playing writers in Israel? We talked to the Government today, and things are beginning to move.
Yours truly, Ralf Bönt
Keret, a very successful author and also a soccer fan, was incredibly busy, so he asked me if I would like to do something about it. Ralf told me more: the Writers’ League is an initiative conceived by the Italian novelist Alessandro Baricco (author of Silk), the former publisher Paolo Verri and Hungary’s Péter Zilahy. In Sept 05, Italy organized the first Writers’ League tournament in San Casciano dei Bagni, with Germany, Hungary, Italy and Sweden competing against one another. There is no official body organizing the tournaments, just enthusiastic writers who manage to acquire some sponsorship and public funding and invite other teams to play. Most players are in their 30s or 40s, and the general requirement for belonging to a team is to be a published writer or poet. The biggest tournament so far took place in Sweden in 2007 with six national teams, and the hosts won it (leading to claims by other teams that they cheated: using non-Swedes and professional ex-players who only published ghosted biographies …). This summer Hungary won a European championship in Switzerland.
One of the mysteries of the game is the existence of a U.S. team. Persistent rumors claim that such a team is being formed and that Dave Eggers and Aleksandar Hemon are among the players, but the person I’ve been in contact with seems to have gone underground recently. The last thing he wrote before disappearing was “we’re all still keen, we’re just … very dispersed.”
Which is one problem we in small Israel don’t suffer from. I gave it a shot: I sent a few e-mails and made a few phone calls and got a mixed bag of reactions. Some were very enthusiastic but too busy or injured. Some roared with laughter. Some came to one practice but left. Some didn’t reply, and one writer said he had serious matters to attend to. They all asked if I could invite professional ex-players who only published ghosted biographies.
Many people asked us along the way what soccer has got to do with literature. The connection seemed bizarre to them, but for us the connection is natural—the creativity and the passion, the excitement and the pain, the rage and the fame: soccer is life, literature is about life. Albert Camus once said that he learned everything he knows about life on a soccer pitch; Peter Handke wrote Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (The Goalkeeper’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick), which also became a Wim Wenders movie; England’s Nick Hornby, Scotland’s Irvine Welsh, the Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano—all have written fiction about the game, and you can mention in this context the importance of baseball in the works of Americans Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo and others. And besides the literary representation, there were plenty of other attractions—the chance to play, to exert your muscles, to ease tensions, to freshen the brain cells, to fulfill dreams, to get out of your shell and meet people like you, to learn about a different literature and present your own, to use the resonance of the most popular game on earth to somewhat lighten up your ascetic vocation … what exactly is so difficult to understand here?
Let’s return to the green pitch in Berlin. Long months of preparations end with a short, sharp whistle. In the next minutes we are under attack. Germans are coming in waves, with their white adidas shirts and the intimidating eagle logo. They attack from the left, center, and it seems mainly right, which is my position. We hardly pass the halfway line. Each of our kicks finds its way to some tall, efficient German writer. In the 25th minute my mistake releases Ralf Bönt to a one-on-one with our defender Amichai Shalev. Shalev crushes Bönt like a fly, and the referee points to the white spot.
Two minutes later our defense opens its legs again, and Moritz Rinke heads in from the goal line. A few minutes later Shalev contacts another German leg in the area, and a second penalty, by Daniel Simmons in the 43rd minute, makes it 3:0 at halftime. Germans don’t miss penalties. Never. I remember asking one of our players, “Who said soccer was fun?”
A few months earlier it was looking nicer. We held our first practice sessions and started to form the squad. The question “who is a writer” came up more than once and eventually we decided that publishing a book under your name—fiction, nonfiction or poetry—will entitle you an entry to the team. The Aroma Espresso Bar chain offered sponsorship and appointed a manager who took care of practice grounds, outfits and the like.
He also became the second goalkeeper and almost played. Tal Benaya, a former professional player who published a novel, agreed to be the coach. He came to two practices but then became too busy. We went our separate ways as friends. The last thing he told me before he left was, “This little fellow is your best. He’s fantastic.” He was talking about playwright Lior Garty. His prophecy will be realized.
We started with biweekly sessions and went up to twice a week, but up to the very end we repressed the fact that the matter at hand is a real football match, meaning 11 v. 11, over 90 minutes, on a big pitch, with studs and all. One of our poets suggested the team name Sofrim Golim (which has a double meaning: “Counting goals” and “authors in exile”). Another player, a comics writer, designed our logo and our shirts.
One of our key midfielders, author of four nonfiction sports books, broke two fingers. The biographer of former Prime Minister Menachem Begin joined. And our new coach shouted at us after his first session, “You are not a team of authors, you’re a bunch of illiterates!”
Back to halftime in Berlin. The rage and the shock. The coach was screaming. The captain is silent. He is not making a passionate speech about fighting a war for our pride. Someone else fills the vacuum and asks us to win the second half. Coach makes a change in the team and strengthens the defense. But in the 50th minute it’s already 4:0. Bönt kicks from 16 meters, the ball hits a defender’s stretched leg and bounces inside.
Buried? No way! Not Israel’s writers. Fresh winds are blowing. The Germans retreat. Our defense gives everything and closes the area. The forwards begin to create chances. The few Israeli fans in the stands wave the flag and shout.
German writer Bönt reached out to Israel to expand the Writers’ League beyond Europe. The friendly took place with assistance from German football authorities and the Foreign Ministry. “It is actually amazing,” Bönt said, “that writers play football so gladly.” (www.boent.eu)
In the meantime the Germans have finalized the details of the trip: the Deutscher Fußball-Bund and Foreign Ministry confirmed the funding for the trip, and the German Foreign Minister will grace us with his presence. In March the Germans traveled to Saudi Arabia and lost 1:5 to a team of journalists. I met them in the Leipzig book fair two days later and saw them play.
What can you say, they are German, and Germans know their football. But I tried to give our team relaxing messages. In our first practice game, 10 days before the trip, we lost 0:4. But we looked like a team. We had movement, we had creativity, we had encouragement. On the radio the host told one of our poets, “I think this is the first time a footballer quoted Socrates in an interview.”
In a TV report, another poet explained the connection between his lyrical poetry and the soccer pitch. The Ha’aretz newspaper examined whether soccer will ever be seen as a worthy subject in serious literature in Israel. And then we left.
Getting out from our dim studios to the Berlin sun enlightened us in more than one way. Many of our writers have never been and were not planning to go to Germany and seeing the city, the culture and the writers was pleasant, enriching and eye-opening for both sides. In meals, travels and going out together we talked football and politics, literature and nationalism, writing and beer.
The day before the game we traveled in pairs—a German and an Israeli writer—to read and meet schoolkids. The students I met, in the southeastern part of the city, showed a lot of interest in the Middle East conflict. In the literary event—which took place in the elegant Berlin theatre, in front of a crowd that probably never visited a football ground (all 250 tickets sold out)—Israeli fiction published in Germany by me and Nir Baram was read, as were texts especially translated for the evening. Another of our guys spoke of his feelings coming to Berlin as the son of a Holocaust survivor. From the Germans we heard a text on a trip to Palestine by Moritz Rinke, poems by Albert Ostermaier and a piece about Albert Einstein‘s childhood from a novel by Bönt. The German Foreign Minister stayed impressively alert. Conversations, contacts, a moving and enriching cultural experience—all this is very well, but let’s not forget the game. And especially its final 30 minutes.
We attacked in waves with our blue shirts the solid German defense. In the 64th minute the ball came high into the area and an aerial collision occurred between our center-forward and their tall goalkeeper, a known poet and playwright. The ball bounced up high, and the Israeli captain, Gavron, followed it up and headed it accurately into the awaiting net.
The first ever goal in the history of the Israeli national team of writers! And it’s mine! No. The whistle blows. The referee saw a foul on the goalkeeper. The goal is disallowed. But still a change is happening. The German goal has been broken into. Full of belief we continue attacking, and in the 68th minute a good passing play leads to a shot from 18 meters by Lior Garty to the lower right corner—and the ’keeper is beaten!
In the 77th minute the ball hits the post and while trying to get the rebound we get a penalty, driven in coolly by our man. 2:4. We keep attacking, but the Germans stand firm. We walk off the pitch with our heads up high.
9 May 2008
Dear Assaf, Did you notice the scene in the game when Nachum [Patchenik] lost his cap [yarmulke] and I picked it up? He passed me with the ball again, very fast and motivated, kicked the cap out of my hand and shot the ball to the goal. Very complex humor in this moment. People were laughing, and I felt that the game brings us together. Yours, Ralf
© 2008 Assaf Gavron. All rights reserved.