Soccer On The Sabbath

One of the things that leagues across the globe can generally agree on, even if they agree on little else, is that Saturday is matchday. Continental obligations are typically saved for midweek so as to best squeeze them in between league dates.

One of the many things that they can’t agree on is religion. Playing in all corners of the world will do that. These days, religious differences in sports can involve such things as if women can play, what the women can wear while playing, who can sign for a given club, and whether two religiously-opposed fanbases will end up hating each other. A much larger issue, though, used to be what day of the week you can play.

The Fourth Commandment in the Bible is to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Modern interpretation typically just figures this as ‘go to church once a week or at least pray a bit’. In the early half of the 20th century, though, it was much more common to regard this as a mandate to not perform any kind of real labor at all on the Sabbath, instead devoting it entirely to rest and religious duties. This included not taking part in sporting events, and it was not a particularly uncommon sight to see devout athletes forfeit a sporting event because it was held on the Sabbath, up to and including the Olympics.

I choose the words ‘more common’ carefully, because this practice still occurs, albeit less often than it used to. Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, devout Mormon, does not play sporting contests on Sunday, to the point where when they qualify for the NCAA Basketball Tournament, the selection committee makes sure not to put them in a position where they might have to play a tournament game on Sunday. (A task they screwed up at in 2003, causing speculation of a possible reseed if BYU advanced to that point. They didn’t.) In 1995, offensive lineman Eli Herring of BYU, despite gaining intense interest from the NFL, sent letters to every team in the league asking them not to draft him. The Raiders took him in the 6th round anyway. He did not sign, and became a math teacher instead. He has never regretted it.) And here’s an editorial arguing that even so much as watching an NFL game violates the Sabbath.

Even if you’re a soccer fan- and if you’re not, errrrrrr, hi there- you still probably don’t pay too much attention to beach soccer. But the Sabbath played a major role in deciding this year’s Beach Soccer World Cup, held in Espinho, Portugal. In the final, the hosts took on Tahiti. Tahitian captain Naea Bennett, who is Mormon, sat out the final, as it was held on Sunday. Prior to that game, Bennett had scored five goals in the four games he did play (he also sat out the previous Sunday’s group game, a 7-5 win over Paraguay). As many dissenting Tahitian fans feared, Tahiti turned out to miss Bennett badly in the final, as Portugal won 5-3.

Two years prior, Tahiti itself hosted. The final that year was held on Saturday, which ended up not concerning Tahiti, as they lost in the semis and ended up watching Russia beat Spain 5-1. Bennett’s club teams are heavily Mormon and do not schedule games for Sundays.

However, Sunday isn’t the only Sabbath. There’s a Jewish Sabbath as well, and Jewish Sabbath is Saturday. Which has ended up placing the Israeli league under threat. In 1951, the Hours of Work and Rest Law was passed requiring any employer who wants their workers to come in on a religious day of rest to get a special dispensation from the Minister of Economics: not only Saturday for Jews and Sunday for Christians, but also Friday for Muslims. For over 60 years, though, even though Saturday is soccer matchday, everyone’s generally agreed to look the other way and hit the field anyway.

They are no longer looking the other way. On August 20, in response to a petition signed by hundreds of Israeli players, labor judge Ariella Gilzer-Kats ruled that, without that dispensation which nobody ever bothered to go get, soccer on Saturday is a criminal offense… as well as any other sport. For now, soccer can continue, as Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein gave a two-month waiver on status-quo grounds, but some sort of permanent compromise or solution will need to be found.

Why not just get the dispensation? The person who would be issuing them is Aryeh Deri, current Economic Minister. Deri is a member of the Shas party, which adheres to Haredi Judaism (known widely as ‘ultra-orthodox’ Judaism). This branch, among other things, mandates modest dress to the point of public harassment of anyone thought to run afoul of expectations, advises against the watching of television, and many Haredi Jews have asked for their neighborhood roads to be closed on Saturday, as driving is also advised against on the Sabbath. State-run buses do not operate on Saturday, to the chagrin of anyone who isn’t Haredi that would like to get things done on Saturday. A gay pride parade in Jerusalem in July was marred when one Haredi Jew stabbed six people, as the sect opposes homosexuality. The attacker had been released from prison just three weeks prior for stabbing three people at the same parade in 2005. A bus line in Brooklyn serving a Haredi community attempted to practice gender separation, leading the city of New York to quickly cancel the bus line entirely. I need to stop this paragraph now before it gets out of control.

So the chances of Deri granting the dispensation are…. shall we say, slim.

So what happens if they can’t play on the weekend? Well, UEFA isn’t moving their continental matches off of Tuesday and Wednesday (the Champions League) and Thursday (the Europa League). Which leaves Monday as the only remaining day of the week that won’t be a continental date or anyone’s day of rest. And this assumes you’re only holding one competition, and not trying to hold a cup competition as well. Things are going to break pretty quickly, and the net effect is sure to be significantly less soccer from top to bottom, down all the way to youth leagues… and a less attractive outpost for anyone looking to play professionally. As Israel is presently 21st in the UEFA coefficient– the higher end of the countries allotted only one Champions League club- a setback like this could utterly crush any hopes of carving out a second berth (they would need to be at 15th for that). Dropping much further would mean extra rounds of qualifying for their Europa League teams as well; two of their three failed to make it past their first opponent this year as it is, and none made the group stage.

The effect on this year’s Champions League group stage representative, Maccabi Tel Aviv, should prove instructive. They’re grouped with Chelsea, FC Porto and Dynamo Kiev. Their first game is Wednesday at Stamford Bridge. The return match against Chelsea, to be held in Haifa, will be on November 24th, by which time the two-month exemption will have expired.

So circle that fixture on your calendar.


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