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 continue its early season efforts in the relatively big leagues for the first time in its 133-year history.
The match, a home game at New Lawn Stadium, pit Forest Green Rovers against Plymouth Argyle. For the first time, Rovers had ascended 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.)
As the Rovers attempted to punch well above their weight in League One, the players were already looking ahead to greater heights — ascending one further rung at the end of the 2022-23 season — to the next tier, the English Football League Championship, just one level below the elite Premier League.
Rubbing shoulders with much bigger clubs may be intimidating for a club like the Rovers, but it does things differently: Even the road leading to its modest stadium is called Another Way.
Known far and wide as the “green club,” Forest Green Rovers was the first professional sports team in the world to be certified as carbon-neutral by the United Nations. It offers no meat or dairy products at its concession stands — though fans can bring their own. The club also follows and promotes environmentally-friendly policies.
Green by name as well as nature, it 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.
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 has 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. In 2019, he had welcomed Jeremy Corbyn — the former Labour Party leader known for his staunch support of the Palestinians — onto the pitch. It didn’t go unnoticed.
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 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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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 the owner’s 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 it to intervene, but 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.
On the pitch last week, meanwhile, Forest Green Rovers opened the match brightly and came 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.
I joined The Times of Israel after many years covering US and Israeli politics for Hebrew news outlets.
I believe responsible coverage of Israeli politicians means presenting a 360 degree view of their words and deeds – not only conveying what occurs, but also what that means in the broader context of Israeli society and the region.
That’s hard to do because you can rarely take politicians at face value – you must go the extra mile to present full context and try to overcome your own biases.
I’m proud of our work that tells the story of Israeli politics straight and comprehensively. I believe Israel is stronger and more democratic when professional journalists do that tough job well.
Your support for our work by joining The Times of Israel Community helps ensure we can continue to do so.
Tal Schneider, Political Correspondent
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we started the Times of Israel ten years ago - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.
David Horovitz, Founding Editor of The Times of Israel