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Friday, March 26, 2004

Book Reviews

Goaaaaaaaaaal!

Oidipous Senter Bak (Oedipus, Center-Back) by Kônstantinos Kamaras. Athens, Okeanida, 2003, 468 pages, €16.




European soccer generates a great deal of fanatical, obsessive, and occasionally violence-prone support among its followers on a scale quite unlike most other sports around the world, even those that attract a wide following. No one has come up with a satisfactory explanation of why this is. Nor is anyone quite sure why, despite its diehard loyalists (including the baseball fans in Boston), the US doesn’t spawn fans whose collective fanaticism crosses over into hooliganism.

It’s up to sociologists of sport to contemplate the causes for these phenomena, as well as to speculate on the significance of soccer’s hegemonic place in the European sporting world, the coincidental emergence of professional soccer and urban culture in nineteenth-century England, and, finally, the tendency of Europeans to eschew North American individualism in favor of group identity. Meanwhile, we can enjoy the stream of books that have appeared in Europe over the past years, beginning with Nick Hornby’s acclaimed Fever Pitch (1992), that describe, rather than interpret, soccer “fandom.” Hornby’s book recounts his growing obsession — through childhood, adolescence, and manhood — with the English soccer club, Arsenal; his passion eventually takes over his life and overshadows everything else, including relationships with girlfriends. After Fever Pitch’s publication, the sports-fanatic genre has not only grown but also produced a few classics, among them Tim Parks’s A Season with Verona, an expatriate Briton’s account of his obsession with an Italian soccer club.

There is, however, one hard sociological fact that soccer-culture outsiders need to grasp in order to appreciate the depth and intensity of European soccer fanaticism. Professional teams in Europe are city-based “clubs” and not the free-floating business entities known and aptly described in the US as “franchises.” As Andrei S. Markovits and Steven L. Hellerman explain in Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism, while European clubs are capitalist enterprises, they operate in a world in which the state’s role balances that of the market. The clubs are therefore private businesses with a public function, and “belong” as much to their fans as to their owners. Indeed the former are represented by local authorities that regulate and, in many instances, aid the team. The bottom line is that every European team is closely associated with urban or other social identities — hence, the collective fanaticism.

Kônstantinos Kamaras, who openly acknowledges his indebtedness to Hornby’s pioneering book, has produced a Greek version of Fever Pitch, with a twist. He chronicles (through childhood, adolescence, and early manhood) his obsession with the Greek soccer team, Panathênaikos, and his evolving relationship with his father, Aristeidês, who stopped playing for the team before Kônstantinos was old enough to admire his exploits on the field. (Aristeidês was a defender — a “back” in English soccer parlance — hence, the book’s title.)

Remaining true to the Hornbian genre of narrating rather than explaining his soccer obsession, Kamaras junior treats his relationship with his father as yet another complication created by his fanaticism: despite its title, the book is not a complicated analysis of how father-son relationships are shaped by sport. Nor is it a sociocultural analysis, although the author makes frequent, very thoughtful attempts to analyze Greece’s soccer culture. The tale told is, instead, one of growing up in Athens in the 1970s and of being a teenager in the 1980s, followed by Kamaras’s experiences studying abroad, doing military service, and thereafter beginning a career in electronic journalism. The account of this trajectory is spiced up by ample data, particularly on a succession of amorous encounters and an incessant consumption of espresso and wine. Encompassing about 30 years — soccer seasons, that is — the book ends with Kamaras meeting his future wife, Nargis, who becomes Panathênaikos’s first fanatical Iranian fan. Above all, Oedipus, Center-Back is a story of obsession with the fluctuating fortunes of the Panathênaikos soccer team — and, when it’s doing really badly, with those of the comparably much more successful Panathênaikos basketball team.

Kamaras’s book has been very well received in Greece, where soccer has long been considered the “king” of sports in terms of its wide following, but where also, precisely for that reason, soccer fandom has been a taboo subject. Other than deploring the corruption that permeates Greek soccer, the authorities’ apparent inability to control handfuls of soccer hooligans, and the atrocious conditions of soccer stadiums, sportswriters have shied away from writing about fan culture. Indeed, the level of sportswriting in Greece falls well short of the high level of interest in soccer. Newspaper sports sections, along with several daily sports newspapers, offer a dull staple of uninspired description of the games written by journalists careful not to offend powerful teams or their star players and fans.

Kamaras legitimizes soccer fanaticism merely by acknowledging it. Still, his book is an adroit melding of skillful prose, lively descriptions, and self-deprecating humor; he also refuses to pull his punches in the many instances where he thinks a particular player useless. He shows the uninitiated what it is to belong to a soccer tribe, and he reveals how fandom can offer structure and organization to one’s life and guarantee companionship with both eponymous and anonymous fanatics, which, when the highs of victory are followed by the lows of defeat, allows fans at least to suffer collectively within a close circle of fellow mourners.

For the already-initiated, Kamaras affirms their experiences and, above all, the enormous difficulty of reconciling team loyalty (which means attending matches at the stadium or being glued to the TV during games) with life’s minor nuisances, including family obligations, amorous relationships, and the dolce vita of bachelorhood. And, in a move that many team fanatics will applaud, Kamaras explodes the myth that good fans root for their rival when the latter is playing a foreign team. The fact is, if you love Panathênaikos, you hate Olympiakos — and vice versa — and the enemy’s loss is valued way over the so-called national interest.

Unintentionally perhaps, Kamaras offers a brief, between-the-lines, sociocultural critique of Greek soccer’s evolution since 1980, when the sport turned fully professional. Aristeidês stopped playing in Panathênaikos’s green-and-white before that turning-point and belongs, therefore, to an earlier, heroic age of semi-professional ball. Aristeidês, in fact, was a member of the Panathênaikos team that dominated Greek soccer in the 1960s and became the first and only Greek team to reach a European Cup final in 1971. The young Kamaras, however, seriously immersed himself in fandom when the new professional era came into being (and when he realized that he had no future beyond high school as a player). At that moment, the Kamaras father-son relationship went through its rockiest stage, but recovered when old-fashioned Aristeidês’s loyalty to Panathênaikos ultimately prevailed over his alienation with the sport’s new reality.

Having watched soccer during the tail end of the older era (the book’s cover shows Kônstantinos on the field at a very young age), Kamaras contrasts the two eras with a couple of telling anecdotes. One involves a Panathênaikos player who scores and then, rather than running over to the fans, races to the VIP section and salutes the team owner — a sign, Kamaras speculates, of newly minted corporate loyalty. The other anecdote describes how the fans’ singing — a European soccer staple — turned into vulgar, sexually explicit taunting in the new professional order. Kamaras believes that this might have something to do with the fans’ feelings of alienation when “their” players do the unthinkable and join their team’s great rival when the money is right.

Kamaras chooses not to pursue these hypotheses, modestly disclaiming the expertise to do so and deploring the simplistic theories that others have applied to Greek soccer. Kamaras is absolutely right, of course: theories come cheap, soccer culture is a tricky topic, and, in any case, his is a different, Hornbian kind of book. By way of illustrating how difficult it is to analyze the relationship between soccer and society, for example, Kamaras criticizes the view that Panathênaikos is the club of the Athenian bourgeoisie, while its rival, Piraeus-based Olympiakos, is the team of “the people.” (The status of AEK-Athens and PAOK-Thessalonikê as “refugee” teams is more readily accepted because it corresponds to their post-Asia Minor Disaster origins.) Yet, inadvertently, Kamaras bolsters the “bourgeois Panathênaikos” label as his autobiographical account of his obsession with Panathênaikos is set against the backdrop of growing up in the wealthy Athens suburb of Psychiko, attending Athens College (an elite private school), playing a lot of tennis, studying abroad, learning to appreciate good wine, and vacationing in Mykonos. No one with such a social background and set of sophisticated tastes could write so evocatively, and persuasively, about being anything other than a diehard Panathênaikos fan.

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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