A win for the fanatics

We’re all familiar with sports-as-war metaphors. I see them regularly in my day job with Packersnews.com: the “battles” between linemen “in the trenches,” the quarterback as “field general,” the NFL draft “war room.” It can be a bit much, particularly for those who have served and suffered in the real deal.

But there’s a purpose to such staged combat. Sports provide a safe outlet for our primal inclination toward periodic social conflict. Uniforms and logos establish which tribes we belong to. The winner is decided in accordance with game rules enforced by mediators, all of which is agreed to by combatants who shake hands as compatriots regardless of the outcome. We’ve satisfied our tribal and territorial impulses, with no one getting (badly) hurt.

Modern organized sports thrive off of the cohesion that has otherwise gone missing in a much of Western society. Outdated concepts such as honor, loyalty and territorial defense still matter — at least in the stands. While players play for whoever pays them, fans exhibit a devotion that, as the “fanatic” root word indicates, borders on the irrational. It’s about the hometown, the colors, the mascot. “We” define ourselves by not being “them.” It’s a tribal thing.

All of this is fairly harmless (not to mention big business) as long as people let it go at the final gun. Sure, there will always be sporadic bar fights and intra-family snubs as a few of us take the big game a little too seriously. But what happens when a sports team grows beyond a mild dalliance into tribalism, beyond geographical borders and comes to define an ethnic or racial identity? That’s the subject of “Forever Pure,” an Independent Lens documentary recently screened on PBS.

“Forever Pure” explores the unique story of the Beitar Jerusalem Football Club, an Israeli soccer team that is historically identified with the nation’s political right. Supported by a rabid fan base that has not only embraced but steered the team’s ideological bent, Beitar demands enthusiastic and vocal allegiance from any Likud party member with political ambitions. So it was a bombshell in Israeli sports and politics when in 2012, Beitar’s enigmatic owner, Arcadi Gaydamak, signed a pair of Muslim players. Never mind that the two athletes were Chechnyan; for supporters of a team that had never signed an Arab player, the act was tantamount to treachery.

The documentary follows the football club through its turbulent 2012-13 campaign, as sports and politics intermingle to sometimes uncomfortable degrees. After a smiling, highly orchestrated public welcome to Israel, the two young Chechnyans are subjected to Jackie Robinson levels of taunts, abuse and threats from fans. Their Israeli teammates, some well-meaning and others reluctant, offer half-hearted encouragement that scoring goals and winning games will turn the crowds in their favor. But as the Israeli players begin enduring collateral damage from the stands, whatever initial lukewarm support extended to the guest Muslims fades, and all quickly sour on the experience.

Gaydamak presses on, touting motives that on the surface appear altruistic, although somewhat perplexing. He admits he has little interest in the game of soccer, or sports in general, and seems intent on conducting a massive social experiment. But as losses pile up and fan boycotts leave the team playing in a nearly empty stadium, the businessman succumbs to the bottom line and ultimately sells the club. For the Beitar faithful, purity, with all its racial and ethnic connotations, is restored.

Sports movies are notoriously sappy. If “Forever Pure” had been a scripted Hollywood feature, Beitar would’ve gelled midseason, rallying together for an improbable championship run that wins over fans. A Chechnyan Muslim would score in overtime to end the title game, and Jews and Arabs would hug in the streets. Pie-in-the-sky to be sure, but there are brief flashes in “Forever Pure” that hint at such possibilities. You want it to happen. The reality that makes that scenario impossible is an overriding political narrative that relegates the players on the field, the coaches on the sideline and the wealthy owner in the luxury box as secondary figures to the irrational fanatics in the stands.