Spotlight: Soccer memories of Zurich

By Arieh Ullmann

On our recent visit to Zurich for a family celebration, I took advantage of the stay in my hometown to visit an exhibition celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Hakoah soccer club Zurich (FC Hakoah) where I had played in the 1950s and 1960s, first as a junior and then in the premier team.(1) I was delighted to notice several photos with me in them. Later, I was thrilled when my 7-year-old grandson instantly recognized me in the photo shown with this article (see photo on page 8). Evidently, I am as handsome today as a septuagenarian as I was as a 19-year-old.

Wandering through the exhibit, reading the explanations and seeing the faces of former friends, some of them no longer alive, made me aware how little I knew until that moment of the background of FC Hakoah, and of the historical context of its founding and decades-long struggle as a Jewish sports club. 

The slogan of the exhibition and title of the commemorative volume captures the essence of the club: “A star on the chest, at home in Zurich.” FC Hakoah played an important role in integrating Jews within Swiss society, within the Jewish sports world and within Zurich’s Jewish community. The name “Hakoah,” meaning “strength,” is quite common and was adopted by several European Jewish sports clubs founded around 100 years ago. Most famous is Sportsclub Hakoah Vienna founded in 1909. Its soccer team won the Austrian championship in 1924-25 and was the first team to beat an English club – West Ham  – on British soil.

The founding of FC Hakoah in 1921 as the 10th oldest soccer club in Zurich occurred a mere 55 years after the Jews in Switzerland were granted equal rights, which allowed them to settle freely anywhere in the country. Up to that point Jews lived in the villages of Endingen and Lengnau, around 18 miles outside Zurich. 

 The founding of FC Hakoah, like other Jewish sports clubs at that time, was motivated by the concept of “Muscular Judaism,” a term coined by Marx Nordau at the first Zionist Congress in Basel in 1898. The concept was meant to counter the widespread antisemitic notion of the weak Jew. This ideology was still very much alive when I played soccer. Many antisemitic slurs I heard on the soccer field confirmed that the prejudice of the weak, but clever, Jew was still prevalent. 

FC Hakoah was quite successful. In 1926, a mere five years after its founding, it became champion of Eastern Switzerland C-League demonstrating the “muscular Jew.” A 1934 Hakoah commemorative publication reads: “A Jew who is on top mental and physical form is the most convincing way to refute the claim that the Jewish race is inferior to other races. […] A strong ‘Hakoah’ will also be a bastion of Jewish strength in Switzerland.” 

FC Hakoah was somewhat unique in the Swiss sports world because, together with other Jewish sports clubs in gymnastics, tennis and skiing located in cities where now Jews could live, it belonged to a small minority of amateur sports clubs that were not neighborhood centered, but part of the socio-cultural makeup of a minority. Much later, with the influx of foreign workers starting in the 1950s, minority-based sports clubs became commonplace. 
A Jewish sports club was not universally accepted within the Jewish community. Some opined that Jews should join existing clubs and not separate themselves from the rest of society. However, not every club accepted Jews. Best known is Grasshoppers Zurich, one of the oldest clubs in Switzerland that plays in the top professional league. Under the leadership of an antisemitic president, it did not accept Jews as players or members unless the player was extremely talented or respectively the membership applicant very wealthy. The club’s antisemitic reputation lingered on for years long after said president had resigned. 

For me, being a player for the Jewish FC Hakoah – just like generations of players before and after me – was a way to affirm my Jewish identity while also demonstrating being part of Swiss society. I learned that this integration was not a gift; it was the result of a struggle. For example, junior matches used to take place on Saturday. Of course my team played on Sunday, which became possible only after a fight with the local soccer association. Playing us on Sunday the opposing team always knew they were playing “them Jews.” 

For us players, this arrangement had certain advantages. After our match in the early Sunday afternoon, we would walk over to a nearby soccer stadium to watch one of the professional teams’ home games that during those days were scheduled on Sunday afternoons. At the time, anyone below the age of 12 was granted free entry. Since I was short and my puberty came late, I benefited from this largesse until I was almost 16. 

The exhibition also made me aware of another issue that smacked of antisemitism. The annual assembly of delegates of the Zurich Soccer Association would take place on a Saturday, naturally without Hakoah’s participation. As late as 1978, the Association deemed the explanation of Hakoah’s absence unacceptable and imposed a fine of 150 francs. Even the intervention of the president of the Swiss Federation of Jewish Congregations in the following year didn’t immediately resolve the matter. 

During my years on the team, I encountered my fair share of antisemitism both from players, spectators and referees. Most common was the verbal accusation “Saujud” translated “Jewish sow.” The insult harks back to medieval European folk-art images of Jews in obscene contact with a large sow. One can find related carvings on many European churches, most famously on the facade of Martin Luther’s church in Wittenberg, Germany. Once my friend Shugy, officially known as (the late) Prof. Bernhard Guggenheim, inadvertently fouled another player who then insulted him with “Saujud.” The player didn’t know who he was dealing with, for sure. Shugy knocked him down hard so that he had to be treated at the sideline. Upon learning what had happened, the referee shrugged his shoulders, bent over the player on the ground and said, “You deserved it.”

From early on, FC Hakoah’s leadership established contacts with Jewish teams abroad and with the worldwide Maccabi organization. In fact, Hakoah players formed the roster of the Swiss team that participated in the 1953 and later Maccabiah Games. As juniors, my teammates and I represented Switzerland at the European Maccabiah games in Copenhagen, Denmark. 

FC Hakoah also helped its players overcome differences in origin, class and religious observance in the Zurich Jewish community, at least within the club. Because of the freedom of establishment granted to Jews in 1866, Zurich’s Jewish population grew rapidly. Until World War II, many of the Jewish immigrants who settled in Zurich were so-called “East Jews” who had escaped the pogroms of Czarist Russia and the Soviets in contrast to the “West Jews” who had immigrated from Western European countries. East and West Jews lived in different parts of Zurich; the East Jews in working class “red” neighborhoods, the West Jews like my parents in more upscale conservative parts of the city. 

As a player I was oblivious of these class differences, and I never noticed any class-based animosity among the players. I remember as a teenager watching soccer games on TV at a teammate’s parental apartment that was in a working-class neighborhood. I didn’t even notice it! I also remember my teammate István and his amazing soccer skills. He had fled Hungary after the Soviet invasion of 1956. He could score corner kicks directly by curving the ball around the goalkeeper and landing it in the rear upper corner. The exhibition made me aware that before his flight to safety he had been on the squad of Hungary’s national junior team. No wonder! Hakoah gave him a home in a foreign country. Indeed, soccer connects people across countries and continents. 

The players differed also in terms of religious observance. Some of them would never set foot in a synagogue, others like me belonged to the “Orthodox-lite” congregation, while some of my buddies were strictly Orthodox. I remember one teammate who would play with his right hand holding the yarmulka on his head. Obviously, this didn’t help his game, but he was accepted just like all the others.

I was happy to learn that FC Hakoah has grown and is prospering. Today, it has several junior and adult teams and a soccer camp for kids, and is starting a women’s team. The visit to the exhibition was a nostalgic trip to my past; I’m glad the timing afforded me this opportunity.
Arieh Ullmann was born in Zurich, Switzerland. After studies at the ETH Zurich (biochemistry) and St. Gall University (Ph.D. in management), he moved in 1976 to Berlin as a research fellow at the Science Center Berlin. In 1981, he was hired as an assistant professor at Binghamton University School of Management. He retired in 2015 as an associate professor. He has also been the president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Binghamton and the president of Beth David Synagogue. 

1. Sources: Jucker, M., Power on the Pitch:; FC Hakoah Zürich (ed.) “De Stern uf em Herz, i Züri dihei.” Hundert Jahre Vielfalt, Offenheit und Toleranz. Zürich: Chronos Publ. 2023.