The Time Machine

The violence that followed the World Cup qualifier between Greece and Albania last weekend was a brutal reminder of how far our society still has to go before it frees itself of the inferiority complexes that make us see enemies everywhere. On the surface, it is inconceivable that a young man was killed in a fight that followed Albania’s defeat of Greece, less than a week after the end of the Athens Olympics. For the 16 days during which Greece hosted the most complicated and demanding event in the world, no one was hurt. On the other hand, it is just as incredible that only one person was killed in the fights that brought together the twin poisons of sports fanaticism and nationalistic fervor after the September 4 match. Hooliganism has been nurtured to such a monstrous level in the sick hothouse of our soccer leagues that the yardstick for our fans’ behavior is an incident that took place a few years ago when some soccer fans threw Molotov cocktails, rocks and planks at a train on the Kifissia-Piraeus railway line, setting it alight, because it was carrying the fans of a rival team (as well as other passengers) toward the harbor. The fact that scores were not killed is purely a fortunate accident. If we add to this the nationalism that accompanies the games of our national teams, the violence becomes self-justifying, as if the hotheads were warriors in a battle for the greater good of the nation – jihadis in team jerseys. Gramoz Palushi, a 20-year-old Albanian, was stabbed to death in a fight on the island of Zakynthos last Saturday and some 20 other people were hurt in fights across the country. A 22-year-old Greek is being held as a suspect in Palushi’s murder and the stabbing of two other Albanians. Greek news media have stressed that the suspect is «Greek American,» as if his alleged actions are something foreign to Greece. On the contrary, those who think of themselves as supremely Greek are very much at the forefront of such violence. Extreme right-wing groups, which have been actively trying to proselytize among the national team’s supporters, were involved in much of the fighting and in the ongoing efforts to cultivate a climate of fanaticism and violence. Although these groups are tiny compared to the far-right racist parties in other European countries, they may turn out to be a greater threat here because their ideas are not as isolated in Greece as their counterparts are in other countries. Where else could a provincial governor like Thessaloniki’s Panayiotis Psomiadis get away with making incendiary, anti-Albanian statements and calling for the border to be closed. No amount of so-called Albanian «provocation» can excuse someone in office from making such statements. In Greece’s noxious cocktail of sports and politics we have shown unbelievable and inexcusable tolerance for hooliganism. Legislation aimed at curbing violence and allowing true fans to reclaim the stadiums from a few thousand organized supporters (among whom lurk a significant number of sociopaths) have not come to much. The problem is that team owners have learned that they do not need to have fans filling the stadiums and their coffers because the government will always bail them out when their debts become insurmountable. The government does this because of the political cost of angering the teams’ fans, so it is in the interests of owners and management to have a fan base that may be small but is violent enough to create a problem for the government when necessary. It is as simple as that. It will take a very determined government to play this game of chicken with the teams and not blink. The violence will end only when the team owners realize that they will never see a cent of taxpayers’ money again unless they fill their stadiums with people who are prepared to buy season tickets without fearing for their lives. Until that time, the culture of violence that plagues our soccer will rage on, sustaining the primitive kill-or-be-killed instinct. Any government or state official who talks about sporting spirit and so on while this situation continues should be pilloried in the press and by the public wherever he or she appears. The Education Ministry has to ensure that children are taught the sporting spirit and fair play from a tender age. This will take some doing, because in the partisan atmosphere that exists at home, in the news media and which has been transmitted to the children without any filter, rival teams are enemies who have to be destroyed. It is normal to boo the players, fans, anthems and good moves of a rival team and it is unheard of to cheer for them, no matter what they do. We saw this attitude rear its embarrassing head frequently during the Olympics, which were otherwise the culmination of civility. Most of those booing and whistling whenever rivals of Greeks had the ball or made their move would probably have been shocked to be told that their behavior was unsporting. For them, the spirit of sport means to do everything to help your team – and intimidating its rivals is part of that. The hysterical outburst by a large part of the crowd that held up the start of the men’s 200m final was perhaps the most bizarre example of this national self-centeredness. The need of at least some people to vent their frustration at the absence of phantom sprinter-motorcyclist Costas Kenteris and their declaration that these were their Games and they would do whatever the hell they liked, showed complete disregard for the athletes who had not disgraced themselves by skipping a doping test. But they did not care. In their minds, their feelings were far more important than the race itself. Their shouts swamped the efforts of those who disagreed with them but could not stop them. Therefore, the very hostile atmosphere that the Albanian fans created in Tirana’s stadium last Saturday – with the support of their government and probably by their news media as well – was a wonderful lesson for all Greeks. Here we could see what our visitors are often subjected to. The nicest touch in the stadium was a giant banner proclaiming, in English, «This is not Portugal.» It certainly was not. Nor is Greece Portugal. The Greek soccer squad, which had never won a match in a major competition, started the Euro 2004 championship by beating hosts Portugal, one of the favorites. The Greeks and Portuguese then clawed their way through the tournament and met up in the final. Again the Greeks won, depriving the Portuguese team of its one last shot at glory as its best players prepared to retire. The Portuguese fans applauded the Greeks. That should have been a lesson to all of us. But too many Greeks have a terrible habit of taking for granted the civility of others while demanding the world indulge their own bad-temperedness. The Albanian fans acted in a way that is far more familiar to us. Instead of making us see ourselves for what we are, it triggered a sense of anger that these upstarts could upstage us in this way. The Albanians, more than the Portuguese, are close to the way we think and act, which makes the behavior of the racists who attacked Albanians in Greece even more ridiculous. The beautiful irony is that the Greeks are always going on about how they support the underdogs. This time the Albanian team did to the European champions what the underdog Greeks did to the Portuguese in Portugal – and we did not like it. So much for supporting the underdog. Added to this anger was the frustration that those gloating over our defeat felt they were taking revenge on a nation that has often acted in a humiliating way toward Albanian immigrants while also providing them with jobs, schools and a better life. Looking at the often provocative behavior of the Albanian fans – which included throwing stones at a bus carrying Greek fans to Tirana – it was as if we could see ourselves. Perhaps that, and the shock that a young man died because of all this, resulted in the Greek fans behaving very differently a few days later when the national team played against Turkey in the newly rebuilt Karaiskaki Stadium. Perhaps our national team’s seriousness and sportsmanship – which its players display even when they are not winning – is contagious. Perhaps our pride at having hosted a successful Olympic Games was making an effort to overcome the cannibalistic instinct that has driven gentler souls away from spectator sports. When, before the game, some Greeks began booing and whistling during the Turkish national anthem, the vast majority hissed them into silence. When one threw a water bottle at the pitch, he was beaten up by others. The goalless draw and the scrappy match might have played a role, but we came unsettlingly close to acting like the Portuguese, even while playing with a team that represented Greece’s age-old and bitter rival. Afterward there was a sense of pride and relief that resembled the emotions which follow a hard-earned victory. We were happy that we had not descended into barbarism. It was as if the whole nation suddenly felt the joy that one experiences when taking part in sport without fanaticism. It is time for everyone to realize that the gains of giving sport back to the broadest possible section of the public far outweigh the costs of confronting the hooligans and those who use them to their own ends. If this means that some teams will lose power and influence, or may even die, so be it. Their stadiums and facilities can be put to better use hosting games by school teams made up of the sons and daughters of Greeks and Albanian immigrants playing together – mixing it up until they become one. Within the space of a week, we have strayed into the abyss of hatred and violence (which is synonymous with the Balkans to many) after having soared to the top of the world in the joy of playing gracious host to the world. It is as if we are travelers in a time machine. Except that we still have the power to decide which will be our future and which our past.

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