“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I can assure you it is much more important than that.” When one of soccer’s most successful coaches, Bill Shankly of Liverpool, uttered these words decades ago he wouldn’t have expected them to eventually carry a much more sinister meaning than he intended.
Since Shankly’s heyday in the 1960s, the world’s most popular sport has been transformed into a cutthroat business, manna for the media, a political plaything and war by other means. The Scotsman’s dry humor doesn’t seem so amusing when in the background what was once just a game is pulled and stretched beyond recognition. All this tugging is causing the unravelling of soccer’s fabric.
This self-destructiveness was in evidence last Saturday when Greece coach Otto Rehhagel faced journalists following his side’s 0-0 draw with Ukraine in Athens in the first leg of the 2010 World Cup playoff between the two teams.
The result put a dent — a fixable one as it turned out — in the national team’s hopes of making it to South Africa. Despite the disappointment in the air, Rehhagel had little to be apologetic about. Even if his eight-year tenure in the job was about to end on a low, his place in the history books was already assured. He had steered Greece, a team with a history of catastrophic failure sparingly peppered with mild success, to unprecedented glory.
However, typical of soccer’s growing trend for chewing up and spitting out the people that keep the game alive, Rehhagel received shabby treatment from the Greek press on Saturday, as he has done for the last few months – treatment that does not befit a man who guided Greece to the Euro 2004 trophy when the odds of him doing so were greater than those for discovering Elvis alive and rebuilding Graceland on the moon so he could rent it out to Martians on vacation.
Arriving a few minutes late for the press conference, Rehhagel was on the end of a tirade from an experienced Greek broadcaster unhappy at being kept waiting. A man who had spent more than 50 years in the game as player and coach was being treated like a worthless rookie by a peer who should have known much better. Fortunately for the German, his lack of familiarity with the Greek language meant he could ignore the verbal volley.
But he could not dismiss the repeated questions about his defensive formation. Everybody wanted to know why Greece could not posses the attacking flair of Brazil, while conveniently ignoring the fact that Rehhagel picks most of his players from a substandard league – corrupt since it was conceived and continuously abused by the clubs that dominate it.
In what was potentially his last post-match news conference in Greece, Rehhagel was treated with disdain — journalists walked away muttering various epithets for the 71-year-old German. A man who was feted as a god five years ago was now being dismissed as persona non grata.
How ironic it was that Rehhagel’s shabby treatment came just a few hours before the German Football Federation (DFB) President Theo Zwanziger uttered words, which, if soccer is to save itself, should become as memorable as Shankly’s. “Soccer is not everything,” he said. “It must not be everything in life. Think not only of glory. Think about what is in a person, about doubts and weaknesses.”
Zwanziger was speaking at the memorial service for the German national goalkeeper, Robert Enke, who earlier in the week had committed suicide by walking in front of a train near Hanover as his latest bout of depression became too much for him to bear.
Although a tragedy, Enke’s suicide is a reminder of why soccer, or any sport, is worth people’s time. Dirk Enke, Robert’s father, a psychologist who tried to help the goalkeeper through his dark moments, intimated as much when he explained why his son feared being admitted to a psychiatric clinic. “He was always very close to taking this step but then he would say: ‘If I went into a psychiatric clinic, then that would be the end of football for me. That is the only thing I am good at and enjoy doing.’”
Enjoyment is a word that is disappearing from the vocabulary of fans, players, coaches, officials and journalists. We speculate, analyze and criticize but few people really enjoy a game of soccer any more. If the result is good, then the style of play is not satisfactory. If the team performs with panache but doesn’t win, then it might as well not have taken to the field. We are no longer allowed to dwell on the ethereal qualities of the game: mesmerizing skill, spellbinding teamwork, unadulterated passion and honest endeavor. Instead, we are buried under a landslide of tangibles: league points, transfer fees, lengths of contracts, annual wages and financial debt.
Perhaps it’s fitting that Robert Enke’s words should remind us what soccer is about. The Hanover 96 goalkeeper’s 2-year-old daughter died of a rare heart ailment in 2006 and in an interview after her death, he explained what sport meant for him while his child went through regular treatment. “Soccer was a wonderful distraction,” he said.
One of the keys to Rehhagel’s success in Greece is that he has never taken himself, or anyone else, too seriously. For all the frenzied reactions to his team’s poor performances, he maintains the zen-like calm of a man who knows that he’s just part of a wonderful distraction. Now at the age of 71, he feels no compulsion to pander to the fantasies of many fans and journalists who choose to ignore the limited resources the country has to offer.
Rehhagel confounded his detractors again by securing qualification to the World Cup with a 1-0 win in Ukraine on Wednesday. He will be lauded and welcomed back into Greece’s bosom, until the next poor performance, when the doubts and insults resume.
But those responsible would do well to realize that soccer is not more important than life or death. In fact, it is life, and as we were reminded in recent days, it is death as well — and through their actions, day by day, little by little, they are killing the beautiful game.
This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on November 20, 2009.