In England, world’s greenest soccer team is vocal critic of Israel’s blue and white
In England, world’s greenest soccer team is vocal critic of Israel’s blue and white

NAILSWORTH, England — Three o’clock p.m. on Saturday, August 20, was soccer time in Nailsworth, as the small western English town watched its team play in the big leagues for the first time in its 133-year history.

The match, a home game at New Lawn Stadium, pit the Forest Green Rovers against the Plymouth Argyle. For the first time, the Rovers were ascending the ladder to the English Football League One, in a merit-based system that assigns teams to higher or lower leagues based on their last season’s record. (League One is the third-highest tier in English soccer.)

While the Rovers attempted to punch well above their weight against the Argyle they kept their eyes on the true prize of one day — leveling up to the next tier, the English Football League Championship.

Rubbing shoulders with much bigger clubs may be intimidating for a club like the Rovers, but they do things differently: Even the road leading to their modest stadium is called Another Way.

Known far and wide as the “green club,” the Rovers were the first professional sports team in the world to be certified as carbon-neutral by the United Nations. They offer no meat or dairy products at their concession stands — though fans can bring their own. The club also follows and promotes environmentally-friendly policies.

Green by name as well as nature, the club plays some of its games under the sponsorship of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society — a marine protection nonprofit whose tactics have stirred controversy — and the organization’s black Jolly Roger flag flies above the manicured grass. It may not come as a surprise that spectators often hear chants of “You dirty vegan bastards,” and “Where’s your burger gone?” from opposing fans.

Vegan food at New Lawn Stadium in Nailsworth, England, August 20, 2022. (Shaul Adar)

But there’s another standard flying high — the Palestinian flag. Dale Vince, the club’s charismatic owner, fiercely promotes Palestinian issues and is challenging the old maxim of not mixing politics with sport.

Vince is a former hippie-turned-businessman and green energy company owner who used to roam the hills of Gloucestershire. He bought the club in 2010 and bankrolled its most successful era. The flags, the lack of greasy burger trucks near the stadium, the Sea Shepherd shirts and the vegan food promos are all part of his vision. Likewise, the potentially controversial politics.

In April of this year, he posted a picture of the Palestinian flag with the caption: “We flew this flag at FGR’s [Forest Green Rovers] game today. In solidarity with Palestine. The conflict there has all the same ingredients as the one in Ukraine — invasion, occupation, murder of civilians, destruction of homes and hospitals — and sieges… Palestine has been under siege by Israel — by air, land and sea, for decades. The US allows this, pumps billions into Israel to support its economy and military and uses its veto to block any meaningful action by the UN.”

On April 30, Vince also hosted Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) representative in Great Britain, and in 2019 welcomed Jermy Corbyn — the former Labour Party leader known for his staunch support of the Palestinians — onto the pitch. It didn’t go unnoticed.

A Sea Shepherds/ Rovers jersey hangs at New Lawn Stadium in Nailsworth, England, August 20, 2022. (Shaul Adar)

On May 25, a group called UK Lawyers For Israel (UKLFI) sent a letter to Vince highlighting their objection to his actions.

“Mr. Vince and FGRFC clearly used sports events for demonstrations of a non-sporting nature and brought the sport into disrepute. They are in clear and flagrant breach of these provisions,” said UKLFI director Sam Green.

The right-wing free newspaper Israel Hayom published an article this month accusing Vince of being antisemitic. The article reached peak hysteria with the claim, “As for Jewish soccer fans, it is best they do not attend these matches, especially if they’re wearing anything identifying them as such.”

Last weekend, The Times of Israel decided to investigate and made the trek from London to Nailsworth — located in the Cotswolds — for the historic August 20 match.

‘I don’t have a problem with the existence of Israel’

Despite being unmistakably Israeli, upon arriving in Nailsworth, this reporter received a warm welcome from all — from the press office to the fans, as well as Vince himself.

Vince spoke with The Times of Israel before the game, wearing a T-shirt and camouflage trousers. He immediately admitted that he sees no reason not to mix politics with sports. “Why would I draw a line?” he asked.

Dale Vince, owner of the Forest Green Rovers at New Lawn Stadium in Nailsworth, England, August 20, 2022. (Shaul Adar)

Echoing a favorite “Ted Lasso” saying, he continued, “Football is life. It’s about people coming together, doing things they have in common. Why would you exclude things from that moment and time? If you look at football, it stands against racism, sexism and homophobia. Football already takes a stand on the big issues.”

Even were a club to invite bombastic right-wing British politician and Brexit supporter Nigel Farage, “that would be their business,” Vince said.

“I wouldn’t say that they can’t and it’s a breach of the rules,” he said. “We all got to do the things that we believe in them. Farage got supporters and people who believe in the things he stands for, and so do we.”

Vince said that he received “a long letter” from UKLFI in May that accused him of racism and discrimination.

“I did say that criticism of the state of Israel isn’t in any way antisemitic,” he said. “I criticize Britain, I criticize the United States, I criticize anybody who I think is doing something wrong.”

In this July 30, 2018 photo, merchandise for sale at The New Lawn, Forest Green Rovers’ football ground, in Nailsworth, England. (AP Photo/James Brook)

But Vince was clear that he does not support boycotting the Jewish state’s soccer clubs.

“We wouldn’t boycott any Israeli football team, as they are not the people who are in charge of the country,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with the existence of Israel. Not at all. It’s simply criticism of the State of Israel for the occupation of what should be the state of Palestine.”

Nothing is more important to me than standing up for what you believe in, come what may

Still, when asked about his support for Corbyn, whose tenure was marred by accusations of systemic antisemitism within the party and who isolated many Labour supporters with his extreme tactics, Vince doubled down.

“It was during the 2019 elections,” Vince said of his inviting Corbyn out onto the pitch. “He was Labour leader. I wanted them to win it because of their stand on green issues. For me, that’s the most important thing. So, we may have alienated non-Labour voters, and even some Labour voters who didn’t like Corbyn, but what can you do?”

“Nothing is more important to me than standing up for what you believe in, come what may,” he said. “I’m not interested in commercial or political implications. We do it on climate issues as well. Instead of advertising stuff you should buy, we advertise what happens when you buy stuff — the degradation of the planet. We are not here for escapism.”

‘I just came for the football’

Outside the match at Nailsworth, the atmosphere was intensifying. Of the 3,400 fans attending, half were Argyle fans. Complicating things — or simplifying them, depending on how one looked at it — the entire fan base encouragingly shouted “green army” to both teams. While the visitors played in dark green, the Rovers wore a phosphorescent, in-your-face green zig-zagged with black zebra stripes. Vince is not known for his subtlety.

The Forest Green Rovers play Plymouth Argyle at New Lawn Stadium in Nailsworth, England, August 20, 2022. (Shaul Adar)

In the stands, two fans named John and Clive, both retired locals who have been cheering the Rovers on for more than 25 years, sat together near this reporter.

“It’s wonderful to play here in such a setting, in beautiful scenery — although I wouldn’t say that in January,” John said.

“I’m grateful to Dale for taking us up the leagues and I don’t have a problem with his green issues, but the rest,” he said, pointing to the Palestinian flag in disdain, “is not to my taste.”

I don’t know enough about the Palestinian issue, but I don’t want to deal with it here in the stadium

“I don’t know enough about the Palestinian issue, but I don’t want to deal with it here in the stadium,” John said. “I hate it when I say I’m a Rovers fan and it comes with assumptions. Guilty by association. Or when Corbyn came on the pitch. I’m here for the club and for the football, and would have objected to any politician, including Boris Johnson, being presented like this.”

From the nodding heads around us, it appears as if he speaks for the many, not just the few.

‘I don’t feel that I would be welcome there’

Shai Yazdy lives in the central Israeli city of Rosh Ha’ayin and is one of the Rovers’ handful of Israeli supporters. While he’s never been to a game in person, he’d always hoped to attend one day — until recently.

“I became a fan because of the vegan agenda and started watching every game from Israel and communicating with other fans,” Yazdy said. “But due to recent events, I don’t feel that I would be welcome there.”

A sign warning opposing teams that they will be eating ‘houmous’ next season after the Forest Green Rovers level up. (Shaul Adar)

Yazdy got into a nasty Twitter spat with Vince on the topic of Israel that received mixed reactions from his fellow fans. While some Rover fans delighted in the altercation and took Vince’s side, others who identified as supporting the team prior to Vince’s tenure sent private messages to Yazdy saying that they don’t agree with his views.

“Dale is a very influential figure in the FGR community and people listen to what he says,” Yazdy said. “It’s clear he doesn’t understand the Israeli-Palestinian issue and just wants to provoke. He’s using the club for his political aspirations, and that offends me on a personal level.”

Lawyers group UKLFI sent a letter of complaint to the Football Association asking them to intervene, but they received no response. Looking at the team’s fan forum and Vince’s Twitter feed, one can see that the effort only stoked the flames — the Palestine vs. Israel duel is being featured more and more prominently online.

For Israelis, FGR appears to be taking a page from the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team’s playbook. The controversial team has made Israeli headlines for the pervasive anti-Arab racism among fans, and is paying the financial price for its seeming radicalization.

On the pitch last week, however, the Forest Green Rovers opened the match brightly and were close to scoring, but two devastating Argyle attacks put the visitors up 2-0 at halftime. The second half followed the same pattern. The Rovers held the ball but were toothless, getting punished yet again.

The game ended with the team losing in a 3-0 shutout. A smattering of people shouted, “You don’t know what you’re doing,” toward the Rovers’ manager. It is going to be a long season, not just off the pitch.

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