Over the past ten years, I’ve become a big fan of soccer. It’s hard not to when living in Europe, where what they call football reigns undisputed. I don’t follow regular season, because to be honest, I’m somewhat turned off by the total commercialization of the sport, but when the international championships pop up biennially, I’m hooked. Did any of you who attended this week’s Colorado Rapids Jewish Community Night also get bitten by football fever?
Right now in Poland and Ukraine, teams from across Europe are competing in the UEFA Euro 2012, the second most popular tournament in the sport behind the World Cup. Following my pattern from past championships, I decided to investigate whether any Jewish players were taking part in the tournament, and I happened upon the very unlikely story of Mario Balotelli, a striker in Italy’s squad who plays for the English club Manchester City during the regular season.
Balotelli was born to Ghanian immigrants on the island of Sicily, but serious health problems led his parents to entrust him to social services, and his foster parents, Francesco and Silvia Balotelli – whose family name he adopted — essentially raised him from the age of three. During this tournament, Balotelli visited Auschwtiz, where two great-grandparents and a great aunt died in the Holocaust. After the trip he said, “When I was 18 I searched in a chest and found letters and documents telling me about this tragic past. I am proud to have come here to pay respects to them and all the dead.”
Balotelli isn’t the only one using the opportunity of being in Poland to visit Auschwitz, which is just 50 miles from Cracow, where many of the teams are based. Members of the English and Dutch squads visited the infamous concentration camp. Although the German team is based in Gdansk (Danzig), close to 350 miles north of Auschwitz, delegation which included the head coach and several members of the team – including two that are Polish-born — made the pilgrimage.
Despite the urging of Dieter Graumann, head of Germany’s Jewish community, that the whole team should participate, the German Football Federation made the trip optional, expressing concern about the mental stress on players before such an important competition. Graumann had said that “A visit like this sends a message to the whole world,” and that while “The young players, of course, carry absolutely no responsibility for what happened…they do have a responsibility to the future.” In an op-ed for German magazine Der Spiegel, the Jewish German writer and critic Henryk Broder called Graumann’s insistence “a cheap trick”, basically accusing him of vying for a publicity stunt.
What’s your take? Should the trip Auschwitz been mandatory for the German players? Post a comment and make sure to vote in the poll running on the IJN website.