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Greece’s Football Issues on the Field Parallel the Economic Issues Off the Field

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“Europe is self-destructing,” said Polyxeni Konstantinou, a 56-year-old public-sector worker voting in central Athens. “I voted for Syriza because I hope that it will help change the tragic circumstances that now govern Europe. Will Syriza be able to achieve everything it says? Probably not. But whatever it does achieve, then that will be good for Europe.”

The Wall Street Journal quoted Mr. Konstantinou after the leftist party Syriza won national elections in Greece almost a month ago, sweeping to power behind the promise of ending austerity measures. Now the party is facing one of its first concrete decisions, and it involves…football. The “derby of eternal enemies” between Athens rivals Panathinaikos and Olympiakos on Sunday, February 22nd featured riots and a pitch invasion in addition to flares, fireworks, and chairs being thrown onto the field. Indeed, it gave the image of a Greece self-destructing. In the wake of the violent match (Panathinaikos won 2-1, by the way) a board meeting among the presidents of Super League clubs on Tuesday came to a premature ending, with Olympiakos president Evangelos Marinakis engaging his Panathinaikos counterpart Giannis Alafouzos in a verbal argument before it descended into violence. Apparently, Panathinaikos’ deputy president “Vasilis Konstantinou suffered a cut lip from a blow by one of [Mr.] Marinakis’s bodyguards” according to the Financial Times. Following the unprecedented off the field violence Super League president Giorgos Borovilos announced Wednesday, February 25 that the league would be suspended indefinitely.

That “indefinite” suspension—the third suspension for Greek football this year—did not last long, however. On Thursday 26 February, deputy sports minister Stavros Kontonis met with Syriza Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras for a second time and backed down, announcing just a one week suspension: “Under the current circumstances, it is impossible to have Super League games played this weekend. The decision of the government regarding the combatting of violence is definitive and irrevocable. If the situation remains the same, there will be another suspension”. Of course many—including Greek football journalist Panos Polyzoidis—do not think the suspension will have any effect. As Mr. Polyzoidis said such violence has been common for the last 40 years in Greek football; it is more of an indication that the government has not—and still does not have—any concrete solution in mind. One cursory look at the history of football violence in Greece seems to confirm Mr. Polyzoidis’ opinion. Eight years ago in 2007 the league was suspended for two weeks following the murder of a Panathinaikos fan during an organized brawl with rival Olympiakos supporters in Athens involving 500 supporters. Back then the goal was to separate fan clubs—ultras, in a sense—from the teams. Clearly those security measures that were to be implemented had no real effect, and the onus will now be on the new Syriza government to prove concretely that they are the party with solutions, as was their platform while campaigning in the run up to elections. This won’t be easy when the government has more immediate economic problems to deal with: On the same day that the government backtracked from the indefinite suspension Syriza had to face their first anti government protests when 450 far-left protestors took to the streets and some clashed with police.

Stavros Kontonis, the deputy minister for sports, implied in comments to ANT1 TV that an electronic ticket scheme may be set up to combat violence in the stands. In Turkey this system has come under fire for being a tool to control political minded fans. In Greece, such a system would ostensibly be used to deter fan violence. But since the violence is not only confined to the stands—with even team presidents unable to control themselves—it seems that the problem is more deep-seated; fan groups have not been separated from the teams in the eight years since it was stated as a goal by then Sports Minister Giorgos Orfanos.

Due to Greece’s ongoing economic problems and high unemployment rate (hovering around 25%) it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some men vent their frustrations in (and around) the stands during football matches. But it is important to note that high unemployment rates are not the main thing to blame for increased violence in the stadiums. As Eurostat confirms Greece’s unemployment rate was only 8.4 percent in 2007, the last time the government focused on eliminating stadium violence. This leads me to believe that endemic problems are at the root of Greece’s football violence (and economic issues). When the system is characterized by cronyism and governed by who one knows, it means that—more often than not—a blind eye is turned to the damaging actions of the real culprits. The fan groups are close to the teams who have no incentive to punish them for creating atmospheres that intimidate their opponents, just as many politicians are weary to punish tax-evaders who support them in elections. At the end of the day it comes down to winning at any cost. It will be up to the new government to face this head on but, as they saw Thursday, it may prove to be harder than expected both on and off the field.

 

The Fans Put on a Show Sunday–But How Much Longer Will the Show Go On? Olympiakos Manager Vitor Pereira Seems to be Wondering Himself in the Last Image:

Images Courtesy of: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-2964899/Panathinaikos-vs-Olympiacos-overshadowed-riots-fireworks-flares-chairs-thrown-pitch-bitter-Greek-rivalry.html

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic: Love Him or Hate Him, He Gets in the Headlines Either Way

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Paris St. Germain’s Swedish striker often elicits strong emotions from fans—some love him for his explosive play, others for his quotable sound bites. On the flip side some are rubbed the wrong way by his cocky attitude both on and off the field. For me, he’s a character in the world of football—an individual among the sea of homogenizing commercialism that the professional game has become.

A simple Google search for “Zlatan Quotes” will present you with a plethora of websites. For fun, I will present my top five here:

5. On being misused at Barcelona: “You bought a Ferrari but you drive it like a Fiat”

4. On being marked by then Liverpool defender Stephane Henchoz: “First I went left, he did too. Then I went right, and he did too. Then I went left again, and he went to buy a hot dog.”

3. Reporter – “Do you think it’s even possible for Ajax to lose nine points in nine games?”

Zlatan – “According to my calculations it is possible to lose nine points in only three games.”

2. Reporter – “You’ve got some scars on your face, Zlatan. What has happened?”

Zlatan – “Well…I don’t know…you’ll have to ask your wife about that”

1. When asked by a female reporter about rumors he is gay following a picture with Pique while at                                 Barcelona: “Come over to my house with your sister, baby, and I’ll show you who’s gay!”

 

 

Don’t like these picks? Please see the following sites for more options: http://www.givemesport.com/404705-11-greatest-quotes-from-zlatan-ibrahimovic, http://footballspeak.com/post/2013/03/28/ZLATANISM-Top-25.aspx, and http://www.mirror.co.uk/sport/football/zlatan-ibrahimovic-quotes-best-outspoken-2331210.

 

Redgardless of what you think of the man, his move after scoring a goal against Caen during a French League match on February 16 is worth noting. Like many strikers after scoring a goal he took of his shirt to reveal a tattooed body. But these were not just any tattoos—they were the names of fifty starving people from all over the world. In comments to the Paris Saint Germain football club’s website Mr. Ibrahimovic explained his stunt: “I had 50 names temporarily tattooed on my body. They are the names of real people who are suffering from hunger around the world. The tattoos have gone, but the people are still out there. There are 805 million people who are suffering from hunger around the world. I want you to see them, via me, to help the World Food Programme. This is the first time I have publicly engaged with a charity. If we can reach out to the world leaders, I am sure that together, we can solve the problem of hunger throughout the world.”

 

While his decision to team up with the World Food Programme is commendable, there is obviously much more that remains to be done. Still, for me, it is a nice gesture from a footballer who is so often getting in the headlines for controversial reasons. When football players use their immense fame—and influence—in the world for positive causes it deserves recognition.

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Image Courtesy Of: http://www.psg.fr/en/News/112002/Article-Club-s-Side/69998/Ibrahimovic-fights-world-hunger

Stampede at Cairo Football Match: What Was It and What Does It Mean?

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On Sunday February 8 2014 anywhere between 19 and 28 people were killed in a stampede outside of Cairo’s Air Defense Stadium. This grisly stadium disaster occurred almost three years to the day of another riot in Port Said Stadium on February 1 2012 that killed 72. On that day it was a match between Al Masry and Al Ahly, on Sunday it was Al Ahly’s rivals Zamalek against ENPPI. After the 2012 events the Egyptian Premier League was suspended and no fans were allowed into matches until December of last year. Since then limited numbers of fans have been allowed into matches and just 5,000 tickets where made available in the 30,000 capacity Air Defense Stadium–the Interior Ministry had planned on allowing just 10,000 into the stadium. For me, this raises the obvious question: If some fans can be let in, then why not all? Either allow no fans in…or allow all the fans in. This odd discrepancy signals to me that some members of the state security forces where expecting this.

For now, let us look at the facts. Security officials said that Zamalek fans attempting to enter the stadium without tickets sparked the clashes. As someone who has witnessed first hand small scale crushes at stadium entrances due to ticketless fans this is certainly plausible. The Zamalek fan group “Ultras White Knights” (UWK) announced on their Facebook page that only one small barbed-wire door (about 3.7 meters or 12 feet wide) was opened for them which sparked pushing, leading to the police firing tear gas at the crowds. As someone who has seen first hand the ways that police sometimes orchestrate chaos, this explanation is, also, not out of the question. Following the deaths the Egyptian football League has been suspended indefinitely as the blame game starts.

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Images Courtesy Of: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-31252429

“Because of the stampede, some choked and died from asphyxiation, while the rest died from being trampled,” a police official told the state-run newspaper, al-Ahram, according to the BBC. The Ultras White Knights say that birdshot and tear gas were fired, contradicting the emergency services’ statement, but such reports were corroborated by eye-witnesses. The President of the Zamalek club Mortada Mansour “said in an interview with a private TV station that police had not opened fire on the club’s fans, and that the violence was ‘orchestrated’ to undermine the upcoming parliamentary elections.” According to the BBC, Mansour is a supporter of President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi who overthrew former President Mohammed Morsi in 2013.

The Ultras White Knights and even a Muslim Brotherhood activist who took to Twitter are claiming that the violence was set up, “a planned massacre, premeditated murder and a conspiracy plotted by mean people” according to the UWK Facebook page. Just a groups from opposite ends of the political spectrum came together to express such views, so too did political figures. Leader of the liberal Al-Ghad Party Ayman Nur predicted that no one will be held responsible while the leader of the Islamic Group’s Building and Development Party, Tariq al-Zumur, tweeted that “the massacre” of Zamalek fans “is new evidence for how the gang [in reference to the authorities] allows the shedding of Egyptian blood”. Meanwhile state media outlets such as newspapers Al-Ahram al-Masa’i and Al-Jumhuriyah blamed the ultras for “rioting” and trying to enter the stadium without tickets. The executive editor of Eygpt’s state run Mena news agency went as far as saying that the security forces were “completely innocent”.

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Image Courtesy Of: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-31299125

 

 

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Image Courtesy Of: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-31252429

On Tuesday February 10 it was announced that the families of those who died would be compensated 25,000 Egyptian Pounds (3,280 USD). It was an interesting announcement since the death total is still not confirmed. A Health Ministry spokesman put the number at 19 while the Public Prosecutor’s office put the number at 22. UWK say they have “28 Martyrs”. While the exact numbers are not clear what is clear is that this should never have happened. For me, the fact that only some fans where let in—after the full ban was lifted—in leads me to believe that the state wanted some sort of confrontation in order to justify the harsh measures taken against football fans. We saw it in Turkey, after 2013’s Besiktas-Galatsaray derby, where members of the Besiktas Ultra group Çarşı were effectively framed following an ugly pitch invasion. In any case, it is important to note that this isn’t just your standard “soccer riot”, as US news outlet ESPN reported and that, unfortunately, some of the American readership believed; one even chose to ask why average Americans should like soccer?

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If one wants a standard “soccer riot” they need look no further than the scenes at the Africa Cup of Nations Semi Final match between Ghana and Equatorial Guinea. The host country’s fans started throwing foreign objects at their Ghanaian counterparts out of frustration at losing 3-0. Of course, there was some politics involved in that as well—after their quarterfinal exit at the hands of the hosts Tunisian officials accused the referee of bias, but, in my mind, this was still just disgruntled fans unable to stomach defeat on home soil.

Of course it is not all doom and gloom in Middle Eastern and North African football. It is worth noting that the January 23 Asian Cup match between bitter geopolitical rivals Iran and Iraq went off without a hitch, with Iraq winning on penalties 7-6 in a thriller that will certainly go down in history for all of the right reasons. Much is to be said for such a high profile match ending without issue—just recall the chaotic scenes from the Serbia-Albania European Championship qualifier from last October.

For more on Egyptian football and its political implications please see Professor James Dorsey’s blog here.