Tag Archives: 2010 World Cup

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.

A matter of life and death

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

“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.