Tag Archives: football

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.

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The game’s true value

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

“The difference between you and me is that, if tomorrow there was no more money in football, I’d still be here, but not you,” Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger once told a soccer player’s agent. On Tuesday, Wenger’s north London side was involved in the second leg of a thrilling Champions League tie. Arsenal succumbed to the brilliance of Spanish giant Barcelona and its Argentinean magician Lionel Messi but the encounters were confirmation that whether it is played in England, Spain, Greece or anywhere else, soccer can be so much more than just a game.

Wenger, perhaps more than any other manager, embodies the belief that soccer has something valuable to offer, not just momentary entertainment; that beyond the blood, sweat and tears that fall on the pitch during 90 minutes of play, it can be a true art form that transcends boundaries and languages.

This all seems a world departed from what we experience in Greece, where soccer is mostly antagonistic, not artistic. The grubby disputes off the pitch do not provide an environment that fosters free expression on it. As Barcelona and Arsenal played out their majestic battle, Greek clubs were locked in dispute with the government over sponsorship. Following violence at soccer grounds, PASOK said it was freezing state funding until the sport cleans up its act. Greek soccer clubs receive some 40 million euros a year in sponsorship through the state-owned gambling company OPAP. The clubs reacted by threatening to seek sponsorship from foreign betting companies, which are banned from operating in Greece.

The argument is symptomatic of the pettiness that has held Greek soccer back for many years but it also underlines that the game in Greece, like so many other countries, is no longer driven by fans but by money. Wenger is no stranger to this phenomenon. The Frenchman has professed his football-as-art philosophy since arriving in London in 1996 but now finds himself swimming against the current because of the influence money has on the game. Nowhere is this more evident than in the English Premier League, where Wenger’s Arsenal, a club still run on sound financial principles, is fighting tooth and nail to compete at the top.

Soccer has been dying a slow death in England, where it was born in the mid-19th century. Players live off massively inflated wages while showing off even more inflated egos. To keep the stars happy, directors hike up the cost of tickets and push team merchandise like traders at a Marrakesh bazaar in the hope of containing their spiraling debt. However, this was a landmark year for the Premier League — the world’s richest and most popular league — as for the first time since it was founded in 1992, one of its clubs, Portsmouth, went into financial administration after racking up debts of more than 60 million euros. Several other clubs, including powerhouses like Manchester United and Liverpool are threatened by financial ruin.

This has highlighted what a folly it was to allow soccer in England to become purely commercially driven, looking for its next fat TV contract like a deadbeat junkie looks for his fix, while providing such scant regulation that one questionable businessman after another could buy a club and milk the round-the-clock publicity the sport now commands. The total debt of Premier League teams is some 4 billion euros — more than 1 percent of what Greece owes as a country and greater than that of the rest of Europe’s top-flight clubs put together. Greece’s soccer and basketball clubs owe a combined total of 222 million euros.

Having seen this model of concentrated capitalism fail, English soccer fans, many of whom have been priced out of the game, are crying out for soccer to be rescued. Ahead of the May 6 general election, the Labour government has proposed introducing stricter regulation and a rule that fans must own at least 25 percent of each club. Similar schemes operate in Spain and Germany. “I think it is a great idea… that the supporters invest in a club because they at the end of the day defend a club’s identity,” said Michel Platini, the president of UEFA, European soccer’s governing body.

There is, however, a major flaw in the supporter ownership argument: When a bus is being driven badly, you don’t necessarily want the passengers to drive it instead. Perhaps the only people less suited to running a soccer club than attention-seeking chairmen are the supporters — grown adults who lose all sense of perspective when it comes to matters concerning their team. Fans, especially the recent generation of English ones who have been brought up on the “spend, spend, spend” philosophy, will not necessarily be the wisest custodians of their clubs.

Soccer in England used to be about what Platini terms “identity.” It was about local people following their local team. It was about the club being a fulcrum of social activity, a unifying force in small communities and large cities. But the unquenchable thirst for success and greater spending has destroyed much of this. Reintroducing fans into the decision-making process will not — on its own — fix all this.

In Greece, 10 percent of a club’s shares must be owned by its amateur arm but this in effect does little to give supporters a stake in the administration of their team since it’s the all-powerful fan clubs, which are feted by chairmen, that exercise all the influence. One exception is Thessaloniki club Aris, where fans now hold a majority stake.

Even in Spain, where giants like Real Madrid and Barcelona are owned by thousands of members, the formula is not necessarily more successful. For example, the election of the Barcelona president by 170,000 members, or socios, sounds like a wonderful exercise in democracy but these polls are often plagued by local politics and economic interests. Both of these clubs spend extravagantly and are heavily in debt — Barcelona owes some 350 million euros and Real about 700 million. They only keep from being dragged under because of the influence they hold over banks and local authorities in their cities. A number of top-flight and lower-division Spanish clubs are now struggling with their finances and players are threatening to strike next weekend after seeing several of their colleagues go unpaid.

Spain’s example underlines that fan ownership must be accompanied by a framework which ensures clubs are treated as institutions that exist for social benefit, not short-term glory. Germany has struck on a much sounder formula where members must own 50 percent of the soccer club but also have an extra vote (known as the 50+1 model) that prevents private investors, including wealthy foreigners, from taking over. Rather than owners, these members are the administrators of the club, running it for the benefit of all its supporters and the local community. There is full transparency and elections are held to appoint the executive board.

Crucially, soccer authorities have much greater powers of oversight in Germany than they do in England or Spain. Clubs must submit information about their budgets and prove that their finances are in order to be allowed to compete in the league. They are also inspected during the season and can lose their licenses if they do not comply.

The system is not without its critics, especially those who feel German clubs are not competing on a level playing field in European competition. But the decision not to pursue success at all costs is actually what has brought soccer in Germany much closer to the true essence of the sport: Fans have a greater stake in the sensible management of their clubs, which in turn provide great stadiums at affordable prices and a good standard of play on the field. Under these circumstances, clubs can be the beating hearts of their communities — hearts which the fans have an incentive to keep ticking healthily.

Watching your team play in the knowledge that it has not sold its soul is worth more to genuine supporters than any trophy could ever be. It is always much easier to appreciate art when there isn’t a price tag obscuring your view. Hopefully, the pressures of the economic crisis will open the eyes and minds of administrators, owners and shortsighted fans, otherwise when the money has disappeared, only the game’s true believers will be left.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and appeared in Athens Plus on April 9.

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.