Tales of triumph and tragedy

Football, someone said, is a religion without apostates. And a global religion at that. Of course, we are talking about the real thing, not the made-for-TV sporadic action game played in America and misnamed «football.» («Soccer» as the Americans call real football, is 19th century English slang for «association football,» so called back then to distinguish it from «rugby football» or «rugger.») Football fans love the game unconditionally (or almost). They love football lore even more. Even now, for example, you can hear some Panathinaikos fans gleefully recall the club’s 8-2 victory over hated rival Olympiakos even though it took place in 1930. Younger fans routinely invoke players they cannot have watched playing. They have either watched them from old black-and-white reels or, more likely, heard about them from their fathers and other elders. Sports journalists are, without exception, ardent fans themselves. Christos Haralambopoulos, the author of «The Halftime of Death» («To Imihrono tou Thanatou,» in Greek, Ellinika Grammata Publishers) is a sports journalist. His book is made up of 11 stories (the number of players on a football squad) plus a, rather lame, poem in praise of a former Greek footballer. Despite the fact that the book is subtitled «A Novel,» only the first four stories are fictional, or fictionalized, accounts. The other seven stories are straight historical accounts of, respectively, recently retired Algerian-French midfielder Zinedine Zidane, Holland’s Johan Cruyff, the legendary Hungarian forward Ferenc Puskas, the story of the Barcelona football club, England’s Charlton brothers, Brazilian winger Garrincha and the Ukrainian team FC Start whose players were sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in 1942 for having dared to repeatedly defeat the German occupying forces’ teams. Most died. It is this last, and by far most interesting, story that provides the title for the collection. There have been two movies shown in Greece under the same title: One was Yevgeny Karelov’s «Tretiy Taym» (English title: «The Last Game») from 1964 and the somewhat older «Ket Felido a Pokolban» («Two Half Times in Hell,» 1962) by Hungary’s Zoltan Fabri. Both were inspired by the same event, although they differ widely in details and location. Naming the collection after the most tragic story may seem an exaggeration, but is apt, because many of the stories recounted here contain both triumph and tragedy: Garrincha’s slow demise at 50 from alcohol; Bobby Charlton’s survival of the airplane crash that killed eight of his teammates; and the sufferings of Romanian goalkeeper Helmuth Ducadam – the unnamed hero of the first story – after his team, Steaua Bucharest, unexpectedly won the 1986 European club title, when he had his fingers crushed by the secret police. Recommended for fans only. They are enough to make the author rich.