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.