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International soccer match fights hate

Players from Chelsea and the New England Revolution vie in a charity match at Gillette Stadium, May 15, 2019.

Players from Chelsea and the New England Revolution vie in a charity match at Gillette Stadium, May 15, 2019.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — When the New England Revolution and England’s Chelsea Football Club took the field on a chilly evening in mid-May at Gillette Stadium, home of the NFL’s Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, they weren’t playing just an ordinary soccer game.

The match, which drew 27,000 fans, was part of a unique partnership between the team owners.

Called “Final Whistle On Hate,” their collaboration is aimed at promoting tolerance and fighting anti-Semitism. Between proceeds from ticket sales and a $1 million commitment from each of the owners, the effort has raised nearly $4 million for 15 organizations dedicated to combating hate.

Among the recipients of the funds are the soccer anti-discrimination group Kick it Out, the International March of the Living, the Holocaust Educational Trust, the Anti-Defamation League, the World Jewish Congress and the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 worshippers were killed last October in the deadliest attack ever at a US Jewish institution.

The synagogue shooting helped spur the unusual partnership between Robert Kraft, owner of Major League Soccer’s Revolution as well as the Patriots, and Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich.

Kraft’s giving totals in the hundreds of millions, including to health care, education and the Jewish community in his native Boston, nationally and in Israel.

Kraft is known for his efforts to fight “anti-Semitism, attempts to delegitimize Israel and other forms of prejudices,” in his words.

Anti-Semitism remains a pervasive problem at soccer matches across Europe, and Abramovich’s ownership of the Chelsea club has made the world-ranked team a target of anti-Semitic enmity.

Last year, Abramovich launched a “Say No to Anti-Semitism” campaign involving educational programs for players, fans and even team staff, including encounters between Holocaust survivors and players, as well as with fans.

Following the attack on the Tree of life Synagogue, Kraft reached out to Abramovich — his anti-hate campaign has drawn widespread attention and praise in Europe — to see how the two could team up to fight anti-Semitism.

“We chatted about mutual interests and using sport to build bridges,” Kraft told CNN in a recent interview. “What has gone on in the area of anti-Semitism has been very disturbing for both of us.”

The partnership isn’t just about fundraising. The two owners are also using their teams’ influence and public profiles to promote tolerance and awareness. Players from both teams visited Auschwitz in early May with the March of the Living, a gathering of some 30,000 at the Nazi concentration camp to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Last week, before the Final Whistle On Hate match here, the Kraft family hosted community and team leaders and representatives of beneficiary organizations at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum for a lunchtime discussion of the problem of hate and anti-Semitism, and the positive role sports can play.

Elan Carr, the US special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, talked about the global rise of anti-Semitism, the spread of vitriol on social media and the hate being taught to schoolchildren via tainted textbooks in the Middle East.

In the US, Jews are the leading target of hate crimes, and such crimes against Jews are rising rapidly. In Europe, a recent poll found that 50% of respondents blame the Jews for anti-Semitism and 30% are unaware of the Holocaust, noted the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s director, Sara Bloomfield.

Carr said sports has a unique role to play in the fight against anti-Semitism because players’ talents and broad followings give them enormous power to influence others.

Vince Gennaro, associate dean at New York University’s Tisch Institute for Global Sport, said professional sports commands an enormous following, and fans increasingly want to know what their teams stand for.

Brian Bilello, president of the Revolution, agreed. Fans want more than entertainment, he said, and want their sports heroes to talk about issues that matter.

“You have to use your influence to start to make a difference,” Bilello said.

At the recent charity match, spectators waved Final Whistle On Hate banners, and a Holocaust survivor served as the Revolution’s ceremonial team captain. During halftime, the Jumbotron aired a video chronicling the Revolution-Chelsea delegation visit to Auschwitz. Chelsea won the game, 3-0, behind goals from Ross Barkley and Olivier Giroud.

Elementary schoolteacher Aly Frank said she appreciated the game’s message, especially given the outsize influence sports has on her students.

“When I ask kids who they identify with, it’s athletes,” Frank said. “They say, ‘I play soccer, I play football.’ That’s who they see themselves to be, and so athletes make the best role models of anyone.”

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