Letter from Thessaloniki

A memorable quote from the unremarkable 1932 Marx Brothers film «Horse Feathers» got me thinking about today’s current affairs. In Greece right now, two of the biggest ongoing news items involve the World Cup and the incendiary issue of higher education reform. In «Horse Feathers,» Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff (Groucho) marries these two perennially hot-button issues adroitly. «And I say to you gentlemen that this college is a failure,» says Professor Wagstaff, who has been installed as the new president of Huxley College. «The trouble is we’re neglecting football for education.» Now is this something Marietta Giannakou, our perturbed education minister who is battling so desperately for change in education, should eventually consider? Or does its slapstick nature remind you, just a little bit, of something Sports Minister Giorgos Orfanos recently said: «Those are my principles and if you don’t like them, well, I have others.» Last week, Orfanos tabled yet another amendment to a new draft sports law in a bid to persuade soccer’s world governing body FIFA to lift a ban barring Greece from international competition for allowing government interference in the running of the sport. Remember that last September, Greece was given a July 15 deadline to amend a national law on sports to safeguard the Hellenic Soccer Federation’s autonomy. However, no such change has been forthcoming. «In fact, the recently presented draft of a new law… constitutes another example of government interference in football affairs,» according to FIFA’s statement. Which brings me to yet another Groucho Marx quote (the last one, I promise): «Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.» This bit of observation fits both Giannakou’s and Orfanos’s cases so well. For those who follow the glamorous side of football, last night’s World Cup final between Italy and France was admittedly one of the greatest TV shows in 2006. Also, there was enough material for everybody, mainly for politicians, to take lessons. Until now, the manipulation of soccer by politicians (Silvio Berlusconi), authoritarian military regimes (Cuba) as well as entrepreneurs (Socrates Kokkalis) and a Church crippled by the loss of mass supporters and the rise of alternative secular lords has been legendary. After the 1998 World Cup in France, with 32 countries participating and an estimated 2.5 billion fans watching the matches in the stadiums and on television, an International French Evangelical Alliance, called «Sport et Foi Mondial 98» (Sport and Faith World Cup 98) used the event to try to preach to a large audience. (It didn’t work.) «The world of the soccer fields is closely connected with religion, war, death, political organization, education, language, culture that is naive and offhand, vulgar and highbrow,» wrote Christos Zachopoulos, general secretary to the Ministry of Culture, in his recent book. Zachopoulos should know. Just as activist politicians make up the law, so-called activist referees buzz in the background, making up theories to deprive a player (a political opponent) of possession. A couple of other observations as to why soccer is better than politics: First, soccer players look much better than most politicians. And second, in soccer, players don’t switch sides during the game.