The Soccer Curse

The roots of my fickleness go back to early childhood | Non-Fiction | Fresh Soup

Of all the sports I know, soccer is the one most similar to life, and that’s why I like to watch it. In soccer, as in life, everyone’s irritable, most of the time it’s boring, and when something does finally happen, it’s almost always random and often goes against your and your team’s best interests. To watch soccer, as I see it, is to make peace with life and all its limitations. And that was something I learned at a very young age.

My name is Etgar Keret and I am a fan of the Maccabi Petah Tikva soccer team. As I write that sentence, I feel like an aging drunk at an AA meeting, with one significant difference – it’s much easier to understand how someone can sink into alcoholism.

Here are a few painful facts about the Maccabi Petah Tikva soccer club: although it was established more than one hundred years ago (the second oldest soccer club in Israel), it has never won a championship, and in the last sixty-odd years, not a State Cup either. The legendary club manager, Itzik Luzon, gained world renown among lovers of the sport when he exposed his sex organ to the fans of the opposing team during a derby. Prominent Maccabi Petah Tikva players are seen in TV reruns only when they spit on or kick opponents, and justifiably so, because seeing their other brilliant moves once is one time too many.

The saying goes that you can choose your lover, but you can’t choose your family. On the axis between lover and family, where exactly does rooting for a soccer team lie? For me, rooting for a soccer team, at least the way I root for Maccabi Petah Tikva, is similar to having caught a sexually transmitted disease – it’s something you never wanted, you’re far from being proud of it, but when your back is to the wall, you have to take responsibility for it. After all, no one forced me to be a fan of a team that has so few fans and so little talent, which never comes to my hometown of Ramat Gan and doesn’t represent it. And as with every story about STDs, what lies behind the story of my support of that team is one mortifying moment I will regret my entire life.

The sad story of how I became a Maccabi Petah Tikva fan begins on my fifth birthday. A distant relative who worked for the local soccer team management agreed to take me to a home game for my birthday, and as a special, one-time-only present, let me sit on the team’s bench. It was a particularly important game because the loser would be relegated, so the stadium was sure to be jam-packed with rowdy fans.

As a hyperactive kid with a mild case of attention deficit disorder, I didn’t really pay much attention to the boring, goal-less game until the last minute, when the visiting team did something totally unexpected – it scored the winning goal that would relegate the home team to the lower division. The crowd in the stands was devastated, even a few of the tough-looking substitute players sitting next to me on the bench burst into tears, and the home team players on the field flopped down on the grass looking completely miserable. Members of the opposing team, on the other hand, looked overjoyed. They sang happy songs and climbed on each other’s back in what looked like a fun way to bond.

It was on my fifth birthday that my opportunistic personality reared its ugly head for the first time. Instead of staying on the depressing bench, I ran onto the field cheering wildly and jumped onto the pile of players from the opposing team. Our relative, who was still standing next to the losing team’s bench trying to console his players, signaled me to come back. But that seemed like a very unappealing idea to me. Why should I spend time with a bunch of bummed out, sweaty guys when the alternative was to spend it sitting astride the broad shoulders of a smiling, shouting goalkeeper who was running ecstatically around the field? 

All the way back home, our relative wouldn’t say a word to me. That silence continued for eight long years, during which I waited for forgiveness. Only at my bar mitzvah party, pressured by my parents, did he finally shake my hand and say, “Congratulations, you dirty, demented dog. Even if I live to be one hundred, I’ll never forgive you for what you did.” He didn’t live to be one hundred. He died at sixty-something. His heart couldn’t withstand all the joys and disappointments his team made him endure. And I, after long negotiations between him and my parents, was sentenced to eternal banishment from the stands of the local team because of the terrible disgrace I brought on it and my family.

The shame led me to become a fan of our neighboring city’s awful team, Maccabi Petah Tikva, and the disgraceful act I committed at the age of five, like a cruel curse of the gods, continues to haunt me to this day whenever I find myself at a game, trying to root for my painfully embarrassing team. But no matter how agonizing the punishment and how great the shame, there always exists a tiny bit of hope. Because the ball, as physicists and mathematicians keep insisting, is still round, and next year, if the gods and the linesmen wish it, maybe we’ll finally win the championship or at least a cup, which will definitely give our genteel team manager a wonderful new reason to expose his sex organ to the crowd once again.

Translated by Sondra Silverston