ROME (Jul. 24)
Israeli soccer star Ronny Rosenthal found himself booted between teams in Belgium and Italy last week, as a transfer deal soured by disputes over money and the player’s health encountered vicious anti-Semitic reactions from militant right-wing fans.
Rosenthal, who has been playing for the Liege Standards in Belgium, was traded to the soccer squad in Undine, a town in northern Italy near the Austrian border.
His arrival there last week was greeted by anti-Semitic graffiti smeared on the walls of the team’s headquarters and elsewhere in town.
Among the epithets were “Rosenthal to the ovens,” “Rosenthal go home,” and “Jews out of Friuli,” the region where Undine is located.
The Undine team received anonymous telephone warnings, and a local newspaper received a letter threatening the daughter of the team’s president.
The threats and graffiti were attributed to far right-wing soccer fans, loosely associated with the neo-Nazi “Skinheads” group.
Mayor Piergiorgio Bressani of Undine apologized on behalf of the town and expressed its anger “for these base acts.”
ANED, the national association of people who were deported to prison camps by the Nazis, also issued a sharp protest and urged “immediate action against the imbeciles responsible.”
Rosenthal himself was angry but unfazed. “I thought soccer served to unite people, not divide them,” he told reporters. “I’m sorry to learn that even in Undine there are crazy people.”
The Israeli athlete added that he had never experienced anti-Semitism in his three seasons playing in Belgium, first with Bruges and then with Liege.
CONCERN OVER PHYSICAL CONDITION
According to accounts in the Italian news media, which gave the affair vast coverage, the Italian team’s medical staff was concerned over a vertebrae condition of Rosenthal’s.
The Undine team wanted to engage him for a trial period, but Rosenthal refused. “We could not risk taking a player whose physical condition was not perfect,” Giampaolo Pozzo, Undine’s team president, told reporters last week.
He said the Liege team refused to send its doctors for a consultation with Italian specialists.
Rosenthal’s lawyer claimed “The real problem is that Undine did not want to pay Liege the agreed upon sum of money within the required time period” for the Israeli player.
Liege said it would be glad to take Rosenthal back, and the Israeli flew to Belgium last Thursday to rejoin his old team.
But commentators here are wondering how much the anti-Semitic hate campaign influenced the outcome.
Renato Pezzini wrote in the Rome daily, Il Messaggero: “Without doubt, the anti-Semitic slogans that appeared on the walls of the Undine headquarters contributed in no small way to poison a climate that was already tense.”
Five Socialist members of parliament, meanwhile, have presented a formal interrogation to the minister of tourism, asking to learn “the real motivations for the sudden release of the soccer player, if they were due to physical condition reasons or if the climate of intolerance and intimidation” surrounding his Jewish origin influenced the decision.