The thin white line
We must scrap the offside rule or play without a rival team. The choice is harsh and absolute and will come at great cost. In the first instance, each player will do as he pleases on the pitch; in the second, when every team plays on its own, then it is its own players and fans who will be at war with each other continually. We have a hard time playing inside a predetermined framework, between the stadium’s white lines and according to the game’s rules, so why not institutionalize a game in which each player, official and fan can do as he or she wishes and then declare victory? We’ve being doing this in our student elections for years. The fact that no one will want to play against us means only that we will always win.
We all know that reality is fickle. The greatest virtue of the Greeks is their ability to improvise when in a sea of dangers, using every means available to survive in an unjust and arbitrary universe. Tricky Odysseus achieves the impossible – returning home – while heroic Ajax pays with his life for his naive belief that there is justice in the world of humans.
Thin white lines are not for us. There is no place where the rules can be different to those of the real world. There is no ideal space where each team, each player, each supporter enjoys equal rights, obeys the same obligations, has the same opportunities, where justice reigns through the whistle of objective demigod referees. When there is no trust in an agreed-upon framework, every dividing line can be considered arbitrary and subject to the will of the strong and wiles of the crafty.
This feeling that the world is against us feeds the self-righteous rage that burns in our chests; it is our spear, our shield, our madness, our glory and our curse. It, however, mainly our excuse. We are not alone in this. Our neighboring team – Turkey – bleats the same complaint. “We’re always the victims of injustice and the whole world owes us,” one of their popular sayings goes. However, what transforms us from victims to perpetrators of crimes, and then back to victims, in an eternal cycle, is our haste and hyperbole. PAOK owner Ivan Savvidis’s recent armed intervention on the playing field in Thessaloniki makes him the personification of our inability to respect limits. In his mind, the referee (and whichever dark forces lurked behind him) had crossed the line by disallowing a goal because of an alleged offside violation by Savvidis’s team. According to our rules of the game, a violation such as the ref’s must be met by our own trampling of any limits. And so, a mistake – in this case both the referee’s and the tobacco tycoon’s – leads inevitably to tragedy. If the laws of the fake world of soccer were valid – if we considered them valid – the ref would have consulted with his colleagues and corrected his mistake, allowing the goal (as he did), Savvidis would have remained in his luxury suite, no matter how furious he was. He would not have become an internationally known symbol of the Greek malaise of arbitrary behavior and irresponsibility, nor would his team, while innocent of any offense, be in danger of a variety of serious penalties. In a normal world, Savvidis would have given in to the pleas of team captain Vieirinha and would have stayed off the field, allowing the players to deal with the situation. In a normal world, Savvidis would not expect hymns of praise from fans who are always angry at real or imagined injustices from the past.
What is normal for us, though, is crystallized in our soccer, at all levels of the game: It is the suspicion of others and the unquenchable rage which feeds off selected slights from the past to prove today’s injustices and to justify wild reactions. The offside rule concentrates all the attention of players and fans, as the violation is committed in the rush and confusion of the game, challenging all the talents of observation and interpretation of those on the field and off it. We all demand justice – but our sense of justice changes, from moment to moment. The only valid dividing line is not that which determines whether a player was on- or offside, but whether he was our player or the other team’s and whether enforcing the rule is good or bad for our team.
In this and in so much else, the game does not unite us; it ratifies our differences. Essentially, the lines do not exist: Blinded by our indignation, on both sides we are the same.