Wednesday, 20 June 2012


About the time of the last World Cup, I finally got hold of a copy of Ed Horton’s book, ‘The Best World Cup Money Can Buy’. For those who aren’t familiar with him, Horton was a writer with a sharp polemical style who contributed to WSC, and apparently to the Socialist Worker, throughout the 90s. Sometime around 2000 he dropped off the radar. ‘Best World Cup’ was an excellent book which touched on almost everything we were writing about on Minus last time, but I didn’t finish the book in time to use any of it. This borrows heavily from his chapter on the Greek team of 1994.

Greece’s qualification for the 1994 World Cup was met with an upsurge of nationalist rhetoric at home, and some corresponding sabre-rattling against the newly independent FYR of Macedonia. National team manager Alketas Panagoulias (along with the chairman of the Greek FA) tried to ride the national team’s coat-tails to power, Berlusconi-style, by standing for parliament as a New Democracy candidate. He spent the build-up to the finals making statements like ‘We have undertaken an obligation to succeed in a national mission. Our purpose is holy. World Hellenism wants you to make them proud,’ and ‘(the tournament) is a big opportunity for Hellenism to promote its views.’

Things didn’t really pan out. Panagoulias and his boss failed to win seats; New Democracy were defeated by PASOK and remained in opposition for the rest of the decade; perhaps most painfully of all, Greece lost all three of their games at the tournament, failing to score any goals along the way. The representatives of World Hellenism were little more than bystanders as Batistuta, Lechkov, and Amokachi stroked the goals in. As Horton remarks, ‘they must have been dancing in the streets of Skopje’. The off-pitch rhetoric backfired – ‘if you make speeches of this colour, you can’t expect people to react as if only eleven players in white had been thrashed.’ 

The idea that Friday night’s Germany-Greece game could be about anything more than football is being carefully denied by both sides. The BBC and ITV tournament coverage has restricted itself to harmless platitudes – Greece’s progress is a fillip for a nation ‘that hasn’t had much to cheer about recently’ (that one’s normally wheeled out for countries ruled by dictators, but there you go). The less stuffy sections of the media haven’t been so cautious – ‘group of debt’/’grexit’ jokes have been a staple of the humour/‘Fanzone’ columns since the draw was first made. Everyone knows what it's really about - the profligate Greeks against their overindulgent EU creditors. I can’t quite bring myself to look into what the German papers might be writing about the game (but I’d hazard a guess that they’re not taking the usual uncomprehending and slightly embarrassed tone familiar from the one-sided rivalries with England and the Netherlands: this is something a lot closer to home*).

Greece has just had an election in which New Democracy (who no longer have to scrape around for football coaches to run as candidates) ghosted home ahead of the left-wing, anti-austerity Syriza grouping. Some of the ND support came not from conservatives but from wavering liberal and centrist types who might otherwise have voted for Labour-analogue PASOK (who themselves had long since drifted too far out to be credible challengers**). ND’s victory had European mainstream opinion breathing a sigh of relief – one Tory backbencher here commented that ‘when push came to shove, Greece opted for austerity and sanity’. Sanity? There’s certainly been enough scaremongering about the apocalyptic consequences of a Greek default and exit – it’s not entirely surprising to read a suggestion that anything other than the technocratic austerity consensus is not merely wrong but insane. As it goes, Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras has repeatedly insisted that he would not initiate any unilateral action on Greece’s part. Syriza’s mistake was to even entertain the notion that there might be an alternative to accepting the logic of austerity, apologising for the idleness of the Greek people, and humbly tugging the forelock in gratitude for another cartload of austerity measures. ND, supported by the ‘responsible’ left parties (PASOK, Democratic Left), will most likely form a working coalition and continue the debt-bailout-austerity cycle for a while longer.

Countries aren’t monolithic blocs; there are plenty of reasons why individual Greeks might take particular relish in victory over Germany. Syriza or Antarsya supporters might see it as a chance to uphold national pride against the austerity programme and the insulting narrative that comes with it. For the fascists and Europhobes, Greek progress would be a victory of the true Hellenic spirit over the malcontents, layabouts and outsiders – as the Independent Greek party rhetoric has it, a ‘renewal’ of the nation against the ‘international conspiracy’ that has brought Greece to this point (see also the Golden Dawn campaign slogan, ‘we can rid this land of filth’). Perhaps, though, the greatest volume of guilty, cold-comfort satisfaction might come from those nominal progressives who shied away from the unpredictable consequences of electing Syriza to cast reluctant votes for ND and the existing order this week. On paper Greece don't have much of a chance - but the appeal to realism has always been more effective at the ballot box than on the sports field.

*The war’s never far away at times like this - the right-wing group Independent Greeks repudiate the debt on the ingenious grounds that Germany still owes Greece considerable reparations for the occupation during WWII. 

**PASOK’s parliamentary support of austerity measures being a primary reason. Paul Mason writes of one crucial vote, witnessed by the Syntagma crowds on café television sets: ’As they watch the vote unfold, you can see in their eyes the intensity of people watching penalty shootouts at football finals.’

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