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Saturday, December 15, 2001

Balkans

Feet Across the Aegean


The governments of Greece and Turkey recently united in a bid to co-host Euro 2008, the quadrennial European soccer championship. In view of the negative reactions from within the Greek soccer world, one can appreciate why the thaw between the United States and China was initiated in 1971 through ping-pong. The sport is blessed with an absence of superstars whose high salaries do not correspond to the level of their intelligence or common sense. Ping-pong is also mercifully unburdened by a broad fan base, which, in the case of Greek soccer, includes a large proportion of Neanderthal nationalists.

The idea of a joint Greco-Turkish bid in soccer is the latest in a string of efforts to maintain the rapprochement that the two neighbors initiated after earthquakes struck both countries in 1999. Since that time, there has been cooperation on several secondary issues, but Greece and Turkey remain apart with regard to the real sources of tension, the disputes over the Aegean and Cyprus. Soccer diplomacy may be a way of reinvigorating what has been a roller coaster of on-again/off-again attempts to negotiate these major stumbling blocks in relations.

Sporting contacts have always been considered good diplomatic icebreakers. The aforementioned ping-pong diplomacy paved the way for Richard Nixon’s visit to China. The Sino-American thaw prefigured by table tennis did not require public approval, however – at least not in the eyes of the thaw’s prime movers. Nixon and Henry Kissinger – or, for that matter, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai – were not exactly beholden to the democratic process.

In contrast, the Greek-Turkish attempt at reconciliation will depend on public support. The Greek foreign minister, George Papandreou, and his Turkish counterpart, Ismail Cem, are risking their political careers by trying to bring the two countries together. Soccer is the “king of sports” in both countries, and using it as the vehicle for pushing the process along will require tacit, if not active, support from fans, players, and administrators.

Greco-Turkish relations have been strained since 1974, when a Greek-instigated coup on Cyprus led Turkey to invade the island and occupy a third of its territory. Talks between all sides on these problems have been mired in a stalemate. Worse still, Greece and Turkey have almost gone to war with each other over disputes in the Aegean Sea at least twice since the mid-1980s.

Enmity gave way to amity suddenly in 1999, when the two rivals offered each other assistance in dealing with the destruction caused by earthquakes that hit each country within the space of two months. In the wake of this mutual Greek-Turkish solidarity, government contacts were followed up by a variety of non-governmental meetings between public figures and citizens of both countries. These included soccer fundraisers between the top clubs of Athens and Thessaloniki and those in Istanbul. But 1974 still casts a long shadow across the Aegean.

The spirit of good will promoted by the soccer games evaporated in April 2001 when news of a planned joint Greco-Turkish bid for the European championship in 2008 became public. As far as Greece was concerned, the idea came from the government, not the soccer federation. Indeed, that same month, Greece narrowly escaped being banned from international competition by FIFA, the international soccer federation, because of government interference in the Greek soccer federation’s affairs.

In the event, the Greek government knew that the soccer federation would go along with its initiative, since the federation is, after all, under the government’s unofficial control. The government, however, had not anticipated a range of negative reactions by everyone else in the Greek soccer world. This was especially true after a Greek delegation traveled to Turkey in late August to put the final touches on the deal – which had been kept under wraps until then.

The Greek national team’s goalkeeper, Antonis Nikopolidis, was one of several superstars who were opposed to the joint bid on political grounds. He told Sportline, a web-based Greek sports agency that “it is not prudent to forget our history, especially when we have a vivid example from the recent past. Four years ago we were ready to go to war but now we want cooperation?” Aside from the crisis over the Imia islets in the Aegean in 1997, the Panathinaikos goalkeeper also referred to the situation in Cyprus as an obstacle. He did not explain, however, why reaching the brink of war should not be followed by attempts at cooperation.

Spyros Livathinos, a former Panathinaikos player with coaching experience in Greece and Cyprus, was a little more specific about why he opposed the idea of Greece and Turkey sharing Euro 2008. “I’ve spent four years in Cyprus and I have played in Turkey. Soccer players, administrators, and fans [in Turkey] have no argument with Greece and our mutual relations are good….However, the issue here are the goals of the Turkish government….I believe they are not honest.” He concluded, for emphasis, that, “The Turks are smarter than us.”

Alexis Alexandris, the talented Olympiakos striker, was one of the bid’s opponents whose super-patriotic response got him into trouble. Alexandris dismissed the proposed joint bid by saying, “...let the Turks leave Cyprus free first before we co-organize a sporting event.” He was promptly taken to task by a Greek sports daily, which questioned why, if he was such a patriot, he had managed to evade paying import duties on his brand-new Ferrari.

Sincere or not, these criticisms of the Greco-Turkish project on the part of players resonate with fans and many sportswriters. A “no” vote against the joint bid accounted for 74% of the responses in a web-based poll held by Sportline. In a similar poll by a US-based Greek sports website, the “no” vote was 53%. The Greek sports press seems to be leaning against the joint bid; in any case, it has given the critical voices great publicity, even though this has included a good dose of narrow-minded commentary.

For example, as the Greek and Turkish soccer federations held a string of consultations in late August, one critic accused the president of the Greek organization, Vasilis Gagatzis, of traveling to Istanbul for an important meeting on the anniversary of the burning of Smyrna in 1922. The writer in question, however, had reckoned the date as August 28, according to the defunct Julian calendar, even though the anniversary is traditionally marked on September 9, according to the Gregorian calendar. Suffice it to say that only the Orthodox Church observed the Julian calendar back in 1922.

The opposition to the joint bid from within the Greek soccer world should not be discounted even though it appears biased, illogical, or mean-spirited. The initiative is, after all, a patently top-down affair, with the Greek soccer federation being an instrument in the hands of the government. This, in many ways, is typical of the Greek-Turkish rapprochement. Members of the political, business, and intellectual elite are genuinely committed to building close relations with Turkey, but a very large part of public opinion remains skeptical or uneasy. And that is not counting traditionally diehard nationalists, who are fresh from their dubious success in provoking the ill-fated mobilization over Greece’s copyright of the name “Macedonia.”

Despite all this opposition, however, the government seems unwilling to back up the attempted thaw with Turkey by launching a public-information campaign, or initiating some kind of open debate, or reviewing the content of Greek schoolbooks and the ways teachers use them in classrooms. This obviously might be politically too costly a proposition. It is probably easier to produce a fait accompli and dress it up in whatever rhetoric is popular at the time.

Yet by not engaging in a broader debate, the government is not taking advantage of all those who are, in principle, in agreement with its approach toward Turkey, although they would prefer to reserve their judgment on the possible outcome. The opening to Turkey even has supporters in the soccer world. Nikos Machlas, the Greek striker who plays for Ajax Amsterdam, Kostas Konstantinidis, who plays for Hertha Berlin, and Vasilis Lakis, the AEK Athens attacker, have all applauded the initiative. Rather than just have their statements juxtaposed to the players opposed to the joint bid, someone in officialdom could perhaps think of organizing a public debate among the players.

Finally, a couple of players declined to go into the political or cultural pros and cons of staging a joint tournament and focused instead on Greece’s infrastructural inadequacy. “But we barely have soccer stadiums and we want to organize the European championship?” responded AEK Athens midfield star Vasilis Tsartas. He was, in effect, being diplomatic. It is not only proper soccer stadiums that Greece is lacking.

Greek soccer is, in fact, rotten to the core. Over the past half decade, a chain of mind-boggling refereeing decisions has decided the championship, while player punishments are rescinded behind the scenes. Fans have reacted by registering a spectacular drop in attendance every successive season. Clearly, Greek soccer will have to clean up its Augean stables if its joint bid to stage Euro 2008 will have any chance of being approved by the European federation.

Stage a public debate in the soccer world and put an end to corruption so that soccer diplomacy works? This sounds like too much work. Maybe Greece should send its ping-pong team across the Aegean instead.

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to greekworks.com, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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