Category Archives: Sports

From austerity to Ottocracy: Rehhagel’s return

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Otto Rehhagel has proved throughout his long career as a soccer player and coach that he has many qualities. Diplomacy was never one of them. “Everyone’s free to say what I want,” he once told journalists. His tendency to gradually assume total control of the German clubs he managed even merited its own term – Ottocracy.

Yet, at the age of 74, Rehhagel is being called on by his homeland to show tact and sensitivity on a mission to Greece, which was his adopted home between 2001 and 2010 when he coached the Greek national team. Bild newspaper provided the rather surprising news on Wednesday that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had chosen Rehhagel to go on a goodwill mission to Athens in a bid to give relations between the two countries a boost and ensure that German tourists give the Greek economy a lift over the summer.

Although Rehhagel will reportedly meet with President Karolos Papoulias and Prime Minister Antonis Samaras during the visit, his assignment appears to be the latest attempt at low-level micro-diplomacy between Germany and Greece.

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In the Olympic race, Athens fell short of the line

One of the beauties of the Olympics is that it provides cut-and-dried answers to questions like “Who is the fastest?” “Who can jump the longest?” and “How high can they reach?” But while such queries are answered on the track, the field and elsewhere, the success of the Games themselves is a much more subjective thing.

Few can doubt that London2012 exceeded expectations. So surely it must be classified as a success. Well, it’s not that simple. Athens2004 also blew people away but its legacy has been in doubt almost since the moment the last athlete left the city. Today, the Athens Games are the bogeyman deployed to scare any other cities that might be inclined to see the occasion as a carefree celebration rather than a precision-timed exercise in planning and public spending.

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In pursuit of fool’s gold

In a harrowing Olympic Games for Greece, perhaps the country’s most tragic figure in London was open water swimmer Spyros Gianniotis. After 10 kilometers of grueling competition in Hyde Park’s Serpentine, an Olympic medal slipped from the 32-year-old’s grasp in the final seconds of the race. Gianniotis, a world champion in this event, missed his fourth chance to add an Olympic medal to his collection. He admitted that at his age, this might have been his last opportunity. Seconds later, he broke down in tears.

There was something else eating away at the swimmer. He knew that at these Games, where the Greek Olympic squad was whittled down to just 105 athletes, some traveling without their coaches due to a lack of funding, and where just two bronze medals had been won by Greek competitors, another podium finish would have meant a great deal.

“This was different from all my other races,” he told NET TV. “I wanted to do this for my country.”

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Say it ain’t so

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

When the news that Otto Rehhagel was ending his long association with the Greek national soccer team was confirmed on the radio one afternoon this summer, it hardly came as a surprise — it was, nevertheless, momentous. Even if you loathed his often defensive, dour style of soccer, you had to recognize that when Rehhagel guided Greece to its Euro 2004 win, he masterminded one of the biggest shocks world sport has ever seen. Yet, the news of his departure was the fifth item on the radio bulletin. The fourth story that day was about a seizure of moldy peanuts in Piraeus.

Perhaps now that we have entered an era of so many generation-defining challenges, such as the debt crisis, climate change and political instability, sport really isn’t that important. When people are losing their jobs, we are living through the hottest summer for 150 years and the right and left find themselves at a dead end, it doesn’t seem to matter much that one highly paid soccer coach is replaced by a slightly less well-paid one.

However, we’ve seen in recent days that sport can still dominate the headlines, not just in Greece but internationally. In one of the biggest sports stories of the year, four Pakistani cricket players were accused this week of colluding with a middleman to fix certain aspects of a match against England, so-called “spot fixing.” In a sense, there is nothing new here: The perverse relationship between gambling and sport is a longstanding affair. In one of the most famous cases, eight players of the 1919 Chicago White Sox baseball team were banned from playing due to claims they’d conspired to fix the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. But the allegations of such high-level corruption within cricket are especially gripping, because it’s a sport that prides itself on maintaining a high standard of ethics. After all, it’s difficult to imagine that a sport which stops for lunch and tea is anything other than genuine.

Another intriguing aspect to the story is the alleged involvement of one of the sport’s rising stars — 18-year-old bowler Mohammad Amir. Legend has it that in 1919, the White Sox’s star player, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson was confronted by a young fan as he left court – “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” pleaded the youngster. Well, in 2010, it’s a case of “Say it ain’t so, Mo.” Although much younger than Jackson when he was under suspicion, Amir has been similarly feted as an exceptional talent in a sport that is in desperate need of stars so it can compete against more popular attractions. His apparent fall from grace at such a tender age is an absorbing tragedy.

Perhaps, though, the most compelling element to the Pakistan story is that it plants doubt in the minds of fans about the sincerity of what they’re watching. In its highest form, cricket is played over five days, with the final result potentially hinging on a change in the weather or the condition of the pitch, so the possibility that all this can be negated by corrupt players is clearly devastating for the sport’s followers.

Greek soccer fans, on the other hand, are very well versed in these dark arts. It has long been suspected, although rarely proven, that the sport is corrupt at all levels. Earlier this year, it was revealed that European soccer’s governing body, UEFA, is investigating five Super League clubs and several lower-division ones over match-fixing suspicions. One of those clubs is Athens side Panionios, which was also probed over the unusual result of a European game against Dinamo Tblisi in 2004.

Last week, though, Panionios made headlines around the world for a different reason. The club, and Greek soccer along with it, became a laughing stock when hardcore Panionios fans broke into the team’s stadium and vandalized the pitch so that rival AEK could not play its Europa League match there. It was an unprecedented act of sabotage that showed money doesn’t always have to change hands for a particular sport, and the meaning of sport in general, to be sullied.

This fanatical act of guerrilla gardening confirmed the sad state of Greek soccer. The extreme position taken by the Panionios lunatics – that they would rather see their stadium destroyed than let someone else play on it – prompted a split between the club’s amateur arm, which had agreed for the ground to be used, and the soccer department, which essentially condoned the actions of this small group of lunatics. Like a cross between a fringe political party and a terrorist organization, the hardcore supporters issued statements explaining their actions and condemning the Quislings that handed over the keys to the Nea Smyrni stadium.

The whole affair is a useful guide to the somewhat different vice that subverts Greek sport: While others chase easy money, it’s power and influence that count in Greece. The ultimate goal for chairmen, officials and supporters’ groups is to become big fish in a very small and filthy pond.

However, whether the currency is cold hard cash or white-hot power, the ultimate effect is the same: Sport’s significance is gravely undermined. The power of sport has for decades emanated from its ability to cut through the peripherals of life, which often obscure the truth. Sport is at its best and most poignant when it is just player versus player or team against team, when bat strikes ball, when legs are jumping, arms are pumping and eyes are focused. At those moments, there is a purity of spirit and thought – it’s humanity without any filters.

But wherever humans are involved, their weaknesses will never be far behind. Whereas sport had once been an escape from the complexities of life, we are gradually seeing that it’s simply mirroring them. Sport, just like the society in which it exists, is becoming more about the individual and his wealth and power. In the Pakistani cricketers’ case, it seems poorly paid sportsmen saw peers from other countries making more money and were lured by the prospect of a quick buck, even if it meant compromising the integrity of the game. Greek soccer, meanwhile, has become just a cheap parody of national politics, full of posturing, squabbling and selfishness but always with the aim of carrying the greatest influence.

If this trend continues, then we will fast reach the day that sport has nothing new to tell people. And, if rather than being society’s inspiration, sport merely becomes its reflection, then it truly won’t amount to much more than a hill of moldy peanuts.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on September 3, 2010.

The World Cup: a measure of life

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” wrote T.S. Eliot in one of his poems. I know exactly what he means. I have measured out my life with cups, World Cups.

The significant moments in my life – meeting special people, saying goodbye to others, obtaining academic qualifications and reaching career milestones – all seem to have coincided with international football’s top tournament every four years. Obviously, things have happened in between World Cups but my recollection of them is a little blurry – like vaguely remembering the name of someone you met at a party while on your way to greet another person you actually wanted to talk to.

Every four years, I become the object of ridicule as I read up on the participating teams like a scientist preparing for a job interview at NASA, check the TV schedule with the fastidiousness of a railway stationmaster and spread out my World Cup wall chart like a general preparing for battle. I go through this ritual each time because I have always regarded the World Cup as a unique learning experience. “All that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football,” wrote Albert Camus. To paraphrase him, most of the important things I have learnt about life, I owe to the World Cup.

My first memories are of the 1982 tournament in Spain, when I would rush home from school during gloomy English summer afternoons to watch the teams play in the brilliant Iberian sunshine. The first incident that made an impression on me was in the Kuwait v France group game when the French, already 3-1 up, scored a fourth goal. Bizarrely, the Kuwait defenders stood still, allowing the French to hit the back of the net. They immediately remonstrated with the referee, claiming they had heard him blow the whistle during the build up to the goal. A sheikh who was president of the Kuwaiti federation stormed onto the pitch and demanded that the goal be cancelled. The Russian referee eventually caved in. I watched agog – this wasn’t the World Cup, this was my playground game being broadcast on TV. It was at that point that the tournament taught me my first lesson: there are no children and adults in this world, just small children and bigger ones.

Spain 1982 was also my first experience of Brazilian brilliance. The 1982 team is regarded by some as the most beautiful side never to have won the tournament. Echoing the remarkable Brazilian World Cup-winning team of 1970 – generally deemed to be the most entertaining to have won the trophy – the Brazil of 1982 played with panache and abandon, radiating optimism. Watching their yellow shirts dart across the screen felt like liquid sunshine was flooding into the room. Years later, I would read a book written by Garry Jenkins about Brazil’s 1970 victory, and his memories of watching the team on small colour TV in a tiny Welsh Village. “All coffee browns and ebony blacks, cobalt blues and canary yellows, their players and their playing came in shades I had never seen before. They have occupied a sun-kissed corner of my mind ever since,” he wrote in “The Beautiful Team.” I knew exactly what he meant.

The Brazil of 1982 would succumb to the eventual winners, Italy, in an epic game that finished 3-2. This match provided me with two more useful lessons. Firstly, Brazil’s defeat at the hands of the less imaginative but much more functional Italians made it clear that the most worthy are not always rewarded. Secondly, I came to realise that no boundaries, be they geographical, social or emotional, can contain the unifying power of sport. We were driving through what was then Yugoslavia when the Italians were taking on Brazil. We stopped at a village for something to eat but found the streets completely deserted. Like extras in a spaghetti western, we searched for signs of life before stumbling on the locals ensconced in cafe, watching the game together in absolute fascination. Ten years later, this same group of people would be torn apart by ethnic war.

In 1986, the football world gathered in Mexico and I was given special parental dispensation to stay up to watch the games being played in exotic-sounding places like Guadalajara and the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. Two memories stand out from this summer – the first is recreating scenes from the World Cup on the football pitch with my schoolmates. We were all given names of the players we resembled and lunch breaks immediately became flights of fantasy in the afternoon sun. The other memory is more of a childhood trauma, which involved sitting on an Athens balcony on a hot summer night and watching Argentinean midfield genius Diego Maradona punch the ball into the net to set his team on the way to knocking my beloved England out of the tournament. Aged 11, I was in a complete state of shock. I did not for a second believe that authorities would let this stand and was convinced that the next day football’s world governing body, FIFA, would order the game to be replayed. When this didn’t happen, I started a petition. I only ever got around to collecting three signatures – two of them were my parents’ and the other was my grandmother’s. She had no idea who this dastardly Maradona chap was but he had clearly upset her grandson and that was all the reason she needed to sign on the dotted line.

My indignation at Maradona’s cheating blinded me to the sublime nature of his second goal against England that day, as he danced passed player after player to score what many believe is the best World Cup finals goal. Years later I would be able to marvel at how his balance and strength were for a few seconds in complete harmony with his improvisation and creativity. But in the summer of 1986, I was too busy coming to terms with the fact that cheaters sometimes get away with it and that fairness can prove as elusive in life as a stocky man from the slums of Buenos Aires weaving his way towards goal.

In Italy four years later, there was more anguish for England as they were eliminated by West Germany in the semi-finals. The match became synonymous with the tears of young English midfielder Paul Gascoigne, who was inconsolable after England’s defeat. I shared in his tearful dejection. The obliviousness of youth meant that I had never considered defeat was a possibility for the team I was supporting. Coping with its reality proved a test of my emotions. Coming a few months after my mother’s death, England’s loss revealed to me that pain and disappointment don’t come in neat packages but that they can crash in on you like waves, one after another, and you either stand up to them or face being swept away. Gascoigne, known simply as “Gazza” in England, never fully recovered from his disappointment in Turin in 1990. Although his career lasted almost another decade, it was blighted by injury, controversy and drink and drug problems. Gascoigne is still struggling with his demons in retirement and is a stark example of how fame can destroy people as well as create stars.

It was Gazza’s tears that first made me aware of the fact that I was not the only one experiencing moments of clarity thanks to the World Cup. It was also happening on a collective level. England’s unlikely run to the semi-final in 1990 and its unjust defeat to the Germans prompted a rare awakening of people’s conscience back home. It led to England increasingly trying to establish and project its identity through sport. More importantly though, the English had recast themselves in the role of gallant losers who wanted to be loved rather than aloof snobs. The game against the West Germans inspired a play, a film, a documentary and a host of books suggesting that England had emerged from the embarrassment of the hooligan- and Thatcherism-filled 80s with a new creative, positive energy.

At this point, I began to join the dots and connect the significance of what was happening on the field of play with what was taking place beyond the confines of football. This link was described most eloquently by journalist Arthur Hopcraft in his 1968 book “The Football Man”. “It [football] has more significance to the national character than theatre has,” he wrote. “What happens on the football field matters, not in the way food matters but as poetry does to some people – the way we play the game, organise it and reward it reflects the kind of community we are.”

My first visit to a World Cup was in 1998 when France hosted the tournament and the local team’s victory was certainly taken as a reflection of the successful integration of different ethnicities and nationalities in the country’s social fabric. Such powerful symbols are too important for politicians to ignore and it was at this tournament that I became acutely aware of how desperate leaders are to bask in sport’s glory. French President Jacques Chirac – who along the country’s other politicians had been largely oblivious to the tournament until France started to do well – attended the final with a France scarf awkwardly draped over his shoulders, looking as if he had mistakenly put on one of his wife’s shawls for the evening. If the Brazilian strikers had displayed the same opportunism against France in the final, he would have little to celebrate and no opinion poll “bounce” to enjoy after the match.

The enthusiasm displayed in Germany eight years later was much more genuine. I experienced first-hand a nation that embraced the event – not just its own team – and used the World Cup as an opportunity to break down stereotypes. This attitude was reflected in the country’s national team, which played with a freedom and attacking spirit that was untypical of its predecessors as it progressed to the semi-finals, where it was beaten by Italy. The Italians defeated France in the final, where it’s captain and the epitome of racial equilibrium, Zinedine Zidane, was sent off for headbutting an opponent.

Zidane’s dismissal proved to be the moment when French harmony began to disintegrate. Just as the team imploded at this year’s World Cup amid a bitter exchange of insults between players and coaching staff, so France appears a society ill at ease with itself and in search of a collective identity.

Germany is another country which is going through turmoil – political rather than social. Once the spiritual and physical driving force of the European Union, Germany is now suffering a crisis of conscience. So, it was no surprise to see Chancellor Angela Merkel in the stands of South Africa’s stadiums, cheering on her country’s young, effervescent team, hoping some of the positivity would rub off. In their progress to the semifinal, their determination to attack games rather than to rely on the all-out defensive tactics that have been popular with many teams helped to dispel the image of Germans as cautious conservatives who could not inspire others to admire or respect them. “In the history of German football, there have been many successes but they were expected, hard-fought and enforced. Achieved with limited skills, with accomplished destroyers who made life difficult for the star opponents, with iron feet, iron calves and an iron will,” wrote Die Welt daily after Germany’s historic 4-1 win over England in the second round. “Often our national team was strangely alien to us. We wanted to love them but we were unable to. They often found their way into the semi-finals and finals but rarely into the hearts of fans.”

The performance of individual teams apart, South Africa’s World Cup has taken football’s significance to another level. First of all, there was an opportunity for Africans to come together, especially when Ghana were the continent’s last remaining representatives in the competition. “Ghana’s exploits, and the team’s epically tragic exit, arguably did more for grassroots African unity in a few days than the African Union did over decades,” wrote Simon Tisdall in The Guardian on July 7. “It also re-focused attention on the lack of African coaches and under-investment in the sport and the young people that play it.” FIFA certainly wanted to make this last aspect – offering young South Africans an opportunity to learn football – to be a lasting legacy of this World Cup, The efforts that have been made so far have been laudable. Whether they will have a lasting impact remains to be seen. However, one of this tournament’s greatest legacies will be something that FIFA could never plan. It’s the fact that thousands of Europeans, Asians, North and South Americans have had first-hand experience of the huge divide in living standards that exist in South Africa and of the barriers that still exist in this beautiful country. It’s the thousands of foreigners who have visited Robben Island over the last few weeks and have been reminded or made aware of the damage that hate can wreak. It’s the fact that outsiders have had an opportunity to contribute to South Africa’s future, like the group of England fans who built an orphanage in the Valley of a Thousand Hills. The World Cup won’t make South Africa a fair or equal society but if it can help push it in that direction, then it’s been a worthwhile effort.

So, now we look to Sunday’s final between the Netherlands and Spain, which will no doubt also provide plenty to absorb. The winners will see at as confirmation that their country is doing something right while the losers will hold an inquest into what they are doing wrong. For the rest of us, there will be something very tangible to take away from the game – it will be less than 1,460 days until the next tournament begins in Brazil, when we can all attempt to measure out our lives, individually or collectively, again.

Nick Malkoutzis

A dangerous game

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

If you typed the word “Greece” into an Internet search engine a few weeks ago, all you would have got in return were stories about the economic crisis. If you conducted the same search over the past few days, those reports would have been about the national team’s involvement in the World Cup. That’s the power of sport – it doesn’t always write history but it defines the present and that’s the hard currency the world’s politicians increasingly deal in, which is why they both love and fear sport, especially its most popular exponent, football.

Sport has a unique ability to unite disparate sections of society in a way that politicians can only dream of. No amount of slick campaigning or spin doctoring can give leaders the kind of universal appeal they get by associating themselves with successful sportsmen or teams. No amount of populist rhetoric and analysis of focus group statistics can help politicians connect with the public in the way that relating to sport can.

“You can occupy a cathedral and you will have upset Catholics, a fringe of approving dissidents, an indulgent left wing, while the secular parties will be (secretly) happy. You can occupy a party’s headquarters, and other parties, with or without a show of solidarity, will think it serves them right,” wrote Italian author and philosopher Umberto Eco. “But if a football stadium is occupied, the disclaiming of responsibility will be total: Church, Left, Right, State, Judiciary, Divorce League, anarchist unions, all will send the criminals to the pillory.”

An example of how football can lure politicians who want to bask in its glory came at the beginning of this week when Prime Minister George Papandreou, who hitherto had not shown any interest in sport beyond jogging and going to the gym, lauded Greece for its 2-1 win over Nigeria at the World Cup and suggested it should serve as an example for his government. “The Greek national football team won because the players displayed team spirit, which is something that Greece needs if it is to overcome the economic crisis,” he said.

Interestingly, the prime minister had not commented on Greece’s 2-0 defeat to South Korea in the opening game, when the team’s disjointed performance would presumably have served as an even timelier reminder that his government will have difficulty getting anything done if it remains as divided as it is now. Equally, the 2-0 loss against Argentina might suggest that a lack of decisiveness in the face of powerful forces will lead to the country’s ultimate failure.

Politicians toy with sport at their peril – its outcome cannot be predicted by an opinion poll and it has an uncanny knack of refusing to conform. Papandreou joins a long line of his political colleagues that have hoped a positive result on the field of play would lead to favorable developments off it. Most of them end up being deeply disappointed.

In 1970, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson had been hoping that a rousing display by England at that summer’s World Cup in Mexico would help his Labour Party be reelected. But England, then world champions, suffered a shock 3-2 defeat to Germany in the quarter-finals despite having led their opponents 2-0 late in the game. Four days later, on June 18, Wilson and Labour suffered an unexpected loss of their own at the ballot box despite having held a 7.5 percent lead in the opinion polls three weeks earlier. Wilson denied any connection between the two events. “Governance of a country has nothing to do with a study of its football fixtures,” he said. But the memoirs of top officials published in later years revealed that strategy meetings had been held when the elections were called to discuss the possible impact of an England defeat.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is the latest leader to reap the ill-wind of a sporting disaster after his country’s national team imploded in the most spectacular way at the World Cup. The decision of striker Nicolas Anelka to cast aspersions about the sexual habits of unpopular coach Raymond Domenech’s mother during a half-time team talk sparked an almighty crisis of confidence within the team and crisis of conscience at home. Anelka was expelled by France’s soccer federation after the content of his outburst was leaked to the press. The players refused to train the following day in protest at his dismissal.

Sarkozy dispatched his Sports Minister Roselyne Bachelot to try and smooth things over. Bachelot said that she and the president shared “the indignation of the French people” and called for “dignity and responsibility”. Back in France, the squad’s disintegration was seen as reflecting a failed society and a failing president. “Soccer should be exemplary, but instead it has become a symptom of everything that is wrong with France: the lack of respect pupils have towards their teachers, contempt for authority, civil disobedience,” said Parisian Left Bank philosopher Alain Finkielkraut.

“We take them to be role models for kids who lost their way in life, but in reality they are just bling bling merchants for a sport which yesterday lost a lot of credit in France,” wrote daily Liberation of the players. The newspaper’s choice of words was probably no coincidence given that Sarkozy is also known as “President Bling Bling” for his showy, sometimes lavish, style.

“The shipwreck of the French team tells us something about the weaknesses of France, of a model of society that is based above all on money, which is adulated,” said Francois Bayrou, president of the centrist Union for French Democracy. Socialist deputy Jerome Cahuzac went even further. “The atmosphere that prevails in the French team is one that Nicolas Sarkozy exults – it’s all about individualism, egotism, everyone for themselves, and the only way to judge human success is the check you get at the end of the month,” he said.

A public relations disaster of this magnitude is the last thing a president with declining ratings wants to deal with. Yet, this is exactly what Sarkozy has been forced to do. After an emergency meeting with Prime Minister Francois Fillon at the Elysee Palace on Wednesday, the president was due to meet star striker Thierry Henry on Thursday. The latter meeting was taking place at the request of the player, underlining just how sport has the power to master politics and not the other way around.

Sarkozy’s travails are a far cry from the summer of 1998 when France won the World Cup on home soil with a squad known as the “Blacks, Blancs, Beurs” (Blacks, Whites, Arabs) that was the epitome of racial harmony and social cohesion. Then, President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin enjoyed a double digit surge in their poll ratings. It helps explain why for decades, politicians have tried to harness sport’s positive power and deflect its negative energy. But ultimately, sport, particularly football, has proved too raw, too elusive and too ephemeral for politics to capture and tame. The politicians that remain in the hunt are clearly playing a dangerous game. 

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and appeared in Athens Plus on June 25, 2010.

Win or lose?

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

When Greece lines up against Argentina at the World Cup in South Africa on Tuesday, the two sides will not appear to have much in common. Argentina, a squad packed with some of the planet’s best soccer talents, will be wondering whether it can make it to the final. Greece, a squad of ageing tryers running short of ideas, will probably be wondering what time their flight home is.

But beneath the surface, there is plenty that links these two teams. They both represent countries that have experienced economic meltdowns. Both have suffered the ignominy of being ridiculed for their handling of public finances. Both have had trouble convincing financial markets of their credibility. Both peoples have had to endure the consequences of these failures.

The similarities do not end there. Before defaulting on almost $100 billion of debt in 2001, Argentina had tied its currency to the dollar for 10 years – almost as long as Greece has been a member of the eurozone. Buenos Aires also relied on loans from the International Monetary Fund, paying a rate of 6 percent – almost as high as the one Greece is paying for its bailout package. And, despite Buenos Aires adopting austerity measures in 2001, the IMF pulled out of the South American country, triggering a default and devaluation of the peso.

“The circumstances leading to the Greek and Argentinean crises were similar – two countries with a great reputation that did not see the consequences of their excessive expansion and who counted on continued external support,” Claudio Loser, a Senior Fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based forum for opinion leaders, told Athens Plus

Argentina once had an economy that was as dynamic and successful as Diego Maradona, the country’s former star midfielder who now coaches the national side. But like Maradona, who suffered from drug abuse, health issues, money problems and general erratic behaviour, the Argentinean economy hit a brick wall in 2001. Greece always craved a Maradona-like economy. The good news is that it finally got it. The bad news is that it’s the fat, wheezy and unruly Maradona, not the nimble world-beater.

So, with talk of default and exit from the single currency rife in the Athens air. Is there anything that Greece can learn from Argentina? Fernando Navajas, the chief economist and director of the Buenos Aires-based FIEL think-tank believes the best advice for Greece is to be more cohesive and organized than Argentina. “I am not saying that devaluation and default could have easily been avoided but one could have minimized the costs by some collective action on the political side coupled with a professional approach to crisis management,” he told Athens Plus. “Argentina did just the opposite on both fronts. Instead of minimizing, it maximized the cost of the crisis.”

Argentina’s disorderly retreat meant that millions of people lost their savings overnight and the value of property crashed, bringing people out onto the streets in daily protests. More than 20 people lost their lives in riots. It’s no wonder that Argentineans are cautious when they hear economists recommending that Greece leave the euro and devalue the drachma.

“Do not be fooled by a sorcerer’s apprentice that tells you the Argentinean case is a good recipe for Greece,” says Navajas. “This is particularly true in the case of magic formulas that involve asymmetric conversion from euros to drachmas in the financial sector.

“If confronted with the hard choice to abandon the euro, Greece should combine collective action and high technical capabilities to think not of an unconditional exit but rather an exit-plus-reentry program,” adds the FIEL director. “Argentina never thought about reentry and has been drifting ever since.”

Argentina used the depreciation of the peso to offset declining domestic demand by making its exports cheaper in foreign markets. It sounds like a good example to follow but Greece exports hardly anything. Also, unlike Argentina, Greece is one of 12 members of a single currency and any decision to abandon the euro would have far-reaching consequences for its eurozone partners and the European Union as a whole. Even if exit and devaluation were a viable economic option, it is almost inconceivable in political terms. This leaves debt restructuring as the only realistic option on the table.

“A process of adjustment without devaluation is possible although it may require in practice a reduction in nominal salaries and declining prices for goods and services, such as tourism,” says Loser. “A situation of adjustment without a serious look at the debt is much more difficult.”

However, even restructuring carries a very heavy economic and political cost. Argentina’s decision to default may have seemed like a simple way to get rid of an onerous load but it only helped the country switch one burden for another. Since 2001, the South American country has not been able to borrow on international markets and has been involved in a protracted process to convince its creditors to accept a loss on their investment. In 2005, three-quarters accepted a bond exchange worth a third of what they had invested. Buenos Aires is currently in negotiations with the remaining creditors and has given them until June 22 – the day Greece will play Argentina – to accept a debt securities swap.

Since its default, a number of factors have helped Argentina turn its fortunes around. Chief among which was the upturn in the world economy during the last decade. Greece, on the other hand, has to clamber out of its deep hole in the middle of a global recession. Also, Argentina’s success has come at a price – increased government spending that has been funded in part by central bank reserves and nationalized pension funds. Many economists have been scathing about this tactic, accusing the government of President Cristina Fernandez, who dismissed the rescue plan for Greece as being “condemned to fail”, of having no economic plan and burning its way through the country’s savings

“Argentina’s default and devaluation was a one-way journey without any careful planning that damaged the reputation of the country and affected its long-term growth prospects,” says Navajas. “This has been hidden by the extraordinary external conditions after the crisis, which will not be available for Greece, and which have led to confusion about the causes of recovery.”

It’s evident from Argentina’s experience that despite what some may say, default and exit from the euro are options that Greece should avoid considering. Or, at least if it does, then it should think its strategy through properly, something Greek governments do not have a very good track record of doing. Of course, there is always the possibility that, as with Argentina, its financial backers will just lose confidence in Greece and default/devaluation will not be a matter of opinion but a matter of course.

“The big message is that even with significant resources, there is a point when the rest of the world – or Europe and the IMF in Greece’s case – will not be willing to continue the support, even if they support others, such as Portugal, Spain and Ireland, because they are seen as more virtuous,” says Loser. “This is exactly what happened with Brazil and Uruguay at the time of the Argentinean crisis.”

There are clearly many things that Greece can learn from Argentina but perhaps the most useful one is that, as the national soccer team is likely to find out on Tuesday, when your back is up against the wall, there is no easy way to end up on the winning side.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and appeared in Athens Plus on June 18, 2010.