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.