Nothing had prepared him for the horrible treatment he endured at the hands of rival team Maccabi Tel Aviv’s fans.
“Racist chants would greet me from the direction of the Maccabi stands each time I touched the ball,” Kamanan painfully recalls. “At first, I tried not to pay attention to it. But after a few minutes, it was apparently too much for me, and I broke down.
“I said to myself: ‘I can’t believe that my skin is a problem in this world.’ We all come from the same source. You can be white; you can be yellow; you can be any color. But at the end of the day, we came from the same place. We’re all Adam and Eve’s descendents.
“I think that it’s simply terrible that skin is a problem,” he observes bitterly.
Racist Israeli soccer fans are nothing new. For example, in the early 1990s, Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Cameroon-native Cyril Makanaky would routinely be taunted by other teams’ fans. However, most players never dared complain.
But Kamanan decided that the time had come to take a stand. “I knew that if I didn’t speak up, no one would speak up. I couldn’t understand how specifically in Israel, a country where millions of its sons were murdered because they were Jewish, these kinds of things could happen.”
What went through your head when you heard the chanting?
“Mainly, I wanted to score in that game, in order to prove to them that I can be a monkey but also score a goal against them. I understand when fans want to disturb the concentration of rival players. I wouldn’t care if they called me a thousand names, but why chant based on skin color?
“After all, why do white people go to the sea? In order to get a tan, to become darker. So how are they different from us? I don’t care if they curse me, but why racist chants? There’s racism in Israel, and everyone knows it. But no one admits it out loud.”
'Don’t let them win'
Kamanan, 25, arrived in Israel four months ago from the Swiss League. His prowess was already evident at his first Herzliya game, and he has been racking up the goals ever since then. Nevertheless, despite his professional success in Israel, Kamanan admits to being disappointed by the Holy Land.
“When I was told that I’m going to be playing in Israel, my first reaction was this is going to be completely different,” he reports. “At first, I wasn’t willing to come here, but then I said to myself; ‘let’s try something different. Let’s see what happens in other countries.’
Yannick Kamanan in action
“Some friends told me that Israel is a great country: nice people, beautiful scenery. There’s sun; the food’s good; the soccer is good. It’s good playing here. So I decided to try it.”
Kamanan says that he experienced racism as soon as he arrived. “It didn’t happen explicitly,” he elaborates. “But there were many times when they looked at me strangely.
“I have no problem with these stares. These are stares that tell you that you’re different. When they look at me like that, I look back at them. If you don’t say anything, it’s fine, as far as I’m concerned. But the Maccabi Tel Aviv fans crossed a line.”
In retrospect, do you think you should’ve left in the middle of the game against Maccabi Tel Aviv?
“I wanted to go out. I approached my coach, Freddy David, and I said to him that I’m unwilling to continue playing like this. And then Freddy told me not to do it, because by doing so, I would be letting them, the fans, win.”
How should the teams be punished in order to prevent this racist phenomenon?
“The fans could be suspended; points could be removed. But at the end of the day, it’s going to happen again. In my opinion, there’s no solution to the phenomenon.”
What happened after the game?
“No one saw it, but I walked over to the Maccabi Tel Aviv stand and applauded them and told them thank you. If that’s what they like doing, then let them enjoy. Good for them. I wanted to show them that I didn’t care.”
But it affected you?
“It mostly affected me because it happened in Israel. Jews died because of their appearances during the Holocaust. After all, almost every family here had some sort of distant relative that died during the Holocaust, and that’s what I don’t understand.
“How can you make these noises after all you went through? In Europe, it’s different, because there, they don’t have your history. I couldn’t understand how people here don’t respect other people because of their skin color.
“I would like to think that these things will never happen again, but I know that’s not how it’ll be.”
Despite the fans’ racist attitudes, Kamanan claims that he admires Israel and was surprised by how pleasant life here can be. “Of course, like everyone else, I heard things on the news about Israel,” he recounts. “I thought that I was coming to a country where there’s fighting in the streets.”
What was your first impression of Israel?
“When I arrived at the airport, I saw that it’s a large and attractive airport. I said that this is a good start. Then, I saw all the scenery and the trees on the way to Herzliya and the tall buildings in Tel Aviv. I thought that it’s like in the United States.
“When I arrived in Herzliya, I told myself that it’s a sparkling city filled with rich people. And I won’t lie; I love this life. It’s been good for me. I love being in nice places. They told me that Herzliya is located exactly in the middle of the country, and then I knew that I would have a great time here.
“I immediately called my friends and told them that they must come see this place, and then they’ll understand why I’m here.”
A different type of soccer player
Kamanan is a far cry from the typical Israeli soccer player; he’s intelligent, confident, and socially aware. “I wanted to speak in the name of black people,” he explains. “I didn’t want to be a politician. I knew that I would likely have to pay a great personal toll because of my words.
“What I’m doing, in essence, is fighting against the State of Israel, attacking the people that live here. On the other hand, it’s hard knowing that your skin color is problematic in Israel. I was upset, and I know that there are people who would be glad to see me leave the country. It would be like a victory for the Maccabi Tel Aviv fans.”
Do you think matters will improve?
“To be honest, nothing will change. After all, despite the Maccabi Tel Aviv fans’ apologies, the following week, they played against Hakoah Ramat Gan, where my friend Pappy Kimoto plays. He’s also black, and there were racist chants against him on the field as well.
“So nothing changes. Unfortunately, that’s how it is in life. You can’t run away from it. Black people are a problem in this world. I don’t know why, but that’s what happens.”
What would you like to say to the Maccabi Tel Aviv fans?
“They called me after the game, apologized and gave me flowers. I said thank you, but I asked them not to make these noises in future games. But that’s exactly what happened the following week.”
If Maccabi Tel Aviv would ask, would you agree to play for them next year?
“That would be the funniest thing in the world. It’s really a good question. On one hand, I wouldn’t want to, because you can’t play for fans who don’t want you. But on the other hand, it’s Maccabi Tel Aviv, and it’s a big team.”
Is there something that specifically moved you about the fans’ reaction?
“I attended a game of the Israel youth team against France two weeks ago. And a small boy came up to me and said that he’s a Maccabi Tel Aviv fan, and he apologized in the name of the fans about what happened to me. That touched me more than anything else.”
If a black player would ask you if it’s worth coming here to play, what would you tell him?
“I would tell him to come here only if he’s strong enough to have fun and not care about these types of things. There’s a whole story behind this state, and everyone needs to know about his roots. I have Israeli friends who are embarrassed by the state because of what happened.
“I went to Yad Vashem in order to get to know your state better and to honor your history, what you went through. I placed flowers. If just like I tried to understand you, you would stand in my shoes, you would better understand what it feels like to be a black player here.”