Letter from Rome

This January my appetite for cheap flights has already been satisfied by Olympic Airlines special offers. In this weeklong period of stability, in days free from any fresh turbulence, it is possible to travel from Thessaloniki or Athens to Rome – and back – for less than 170 euros, taxes included. Way back, I lived for seven full years in the aforementioned, and amazing, city. We do strange things when we’re 26. We stay up all night strolling between Piazza Navona, and Campo di Fiori and the Trastevere bars. We see just how far a cocktail of booze (grappa, tequila, vodka and chianti) and caffeine (stretti, capuccini and machiatti) can take us. We become passionate about art, politics and… soccer. Maybe it was something about the Vatican. About the pomp of the Catholic Church and the seductive power of bishops and cardinals also seen on TV playing football, as we European call soccer. Sundays are holy in many parts of the world, but even more so here in Italy. One reason is that Italy, a primarily Catholic country, worships in church during that day. Yet Sundays are even more sacred here because of another national passion, which most people are busy watching on TV and listening to on the radio – that is soccer. A good way for previous and current Italian governments to gain voters’ support was, and still is, through this sport. A hugely successful businessman, Silvio Berlusconi – right! the prime minister of Italy, something of a Ross Perot figure, remember him? – got involved in electoral politics after virtually the whole political establishment of Italy was found to have engaged in corrupt activity. Apart from being prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi is also the owner of the very popular football team AC Milan. When he created his party, instead of calling it something mundane like New Social Equality, he chose to name it «Forza Italia» – the slogan heard at matches when the Italian national team is playing (something like «Go Italy»). Football is also embroiled in «Europe’s Enron,» as the Parmalat affair is being called – Parmalat being one of Europe’s biggest food firms which lately admitted to an enormous black hole in its accounts. Last week, the son of the founder of stricken Parmalat, Stefano Tanzi, who chaired the Serie A football club Parma, was said to be resigning. That happened just after the Tanzi family went bankrupt. And as my longtime friend and soccer fan Antonio Federici instructed me: «The club has some top-quality players to sell, including five members of the Italian under-21 team. They’ll make a lot of money again!» One cannot help wondering: Is there no virtue whatsoever in politics, business and sport in this – oh, so very, very – competitive world of ours? An answer to these issues of virtue might eventually be found within Greek borders, where soccer is also closely associated with big money, big names and sometimes with petty politics as well. Can those who rise through their performance on the field be denied the spoils of victory? One only has to mention one of Greece’s major clubs, Olympiakos – managed by Greek powerful entrepreneur Socratis Kokkalis – a first cousin of Mimi Papandreou’s first husband. Some time ago, the Greek State intervened to ensure that the Pireaus club reached a deal with the Karaiskaki Stadium’s owner, the Greek Olympic Committee, which initially opposed the idea of handing over the finished stadium to the club on a long-term lease. The country’s other major football club, Olympiakos’s archrival Panathinaikos, managed by another money magnate, Vardis Vardinoyiannis, is now pressing for equal treatment as well. For better or worse, when one talks about international soccer, politics is usually lurking in the nearby background. Everybody is part of the game. Yet, like the good tourists we were this time round, it’s better to indulge in Rome’s modern dolce vita and sights. Edoardo’s homey, honest style of Italian cooking resonates and acquires character in Ristorante Edoardo – located appropriately in Via Lucullo 2, near the American Embassy. As with food, Edoardo sets a relaxed tone when it comes to service. The owner of this out-of-the-ordinary place – since 1974 – will linger long enough for a short conversation, and at times even sit a while, before springing up to continue his rounds. Should you be looking for a really sophisticated, elegant, new hotel in Rome, try the four-star Rose Garden Palace just a few steps from Via Veneto, a neoclassical 20th century building. Sadly, I found about it too late, so I could not stay there. Perhaps some other time. In this competitive world of ours, there are two issues that really count: One is business, the other politics. Soccer, a billion-euro affair and a bridge between people, is inextricably involved in both.

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