Monday, July 19, 2004


Now that the hype has somewhat died down, it is time to take stock of the achievement that touched the hearts of Greeks throughout the world recently and view it in perspective. The more cynical among us would point out that all Greece did, was to win a series of soccer matches. This doesn't change anything. It does not wipe away thousands of years of history, nor does it alleviate the daily frustration of Greeks going about their business in an often chaotic Athens. Nor indeed it does it wipe out the fact that while Greece celebrated, Parnitha burned and people lost their homes or their lives. Or should it?
The fact of the matter is that Greece's win in the Euro 2004 was much more than about soccer. Indeed one could argue that it had very little to do with soccer, given that the vast majority of those who sat glued to their televisions or radios, grandmothers and great-grandmothers included, have no idea about the Game. Instead, the significance of the event is two-fold. The first is that it was one of those rare moments when the entire Greek people, wherever situated, were chanting in the same voice, hoping the same hope and dreaming the same dream. Erstwhile enemies were reconciled. From the Patriarch in Constantinople who prayed for a Greek victory (who said that the Orthodox weren't right?) to the Archbishop Christodoulos who strutted his stuff at the victory gathering afterwards, from the Turkish fans who celebrated with the Greeks in Constantinople, from President of the Hellenic Republic to all the leaders of the political parties, from the cutthroat Greek soccer team fans to the average Mitso on the street, a Euro2004ic truce was proclaimed. No more hostilities till the outcome of the match. Only the warring members of the GOCMV did not desist from their internecine sparring but lately the whole world has questioned their Hellenism at any rate…. One of the most moving moments in the whole game for me was receiving a phone call from a friend in Argyrokastro in Albania. In the background I could hear cheering and chanting. "The whole city is covered in Greek flags," he told me. "All the Greeks are on the streets. Nothing like this has ever happened to us since the Greek army liberated us in 1940." On the obverse side of the coin, Albanian nationalists, threatened by the soccer match, decided to burn some of the Greek fans' cars, as a reprisal. A typical Balkan response….
Secondly and most importantly, the Greek success at the Euro 2004 is a prime example of history repeating itself. It would not be a generalization to claim that historically the Greeks have had a knack for astounding the world when they least expect it. Take the Persian Wars for example. A tiny, disorganized, impoverished and at the time, primitive conglomeration of tribes, was able not only to defeat the expansionist world power of the time, Persia, but also, years later, to actually conquer its entire empire. Regardless of the fact that the whole enterprise collapsed into endless civil wars between Greeks, both in the Peloponnesian Wars and those of the epigonoi, the Greek achievement as recorded in Herodotus and Arrian still astounds the world today.
Similarly, the Greek Revolution of 1821, where a small group of disorganized and poorly provision fighters was able to throw off the yoke of a world power, sparking off nationalist revolutions left, right and center is another remarkable and improbable achievement, regardless of the fact that the whole effort also degenerated into a civil war and the western powers had to come in and bail us out. The Greek achievement in defeating the Italians and totally terrorizing the Nazi occupiers on the mainland and in Crete so that they were never able to completely control the whole country is again one of those impossible achievements that exemplify the occasional indomitability of the Greek spirit, again despite the fact that the whole enterprise degenerated into a civil war.
Just when the world press was mocking our attempts to organize the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, just as horde after horde of journalists lampooned our slothful ways, our backward infrastructure and made us feel that perhaps we are all as worthless and incompetent as the rest of the world portrays us, the victory of the Greek soccer team was a much needed self-esteem injection. It reinforced the notion that it is when one least expects it, that we can achieve the impossible. A small nation in size but a vast nation in historical depth has ample reserves of strength to draw upon. Last week, we stood up to be counted not as a nation of soccer players, but as a nation that demands respect.
For we are a great nation. Our recent history has been one of violence and poverty yet through sheer willpower, Greece has transformed itself into a modern, European and peaceful nation, an example to be emulated by the rest of Eastern Europe. Western media tend to forget that their countries have not suffered the same depredations that the Greeks have and the fact that we survived in any shape at all, both physically and culturally is a supreme achievement.
While for a week it was 'cool to be Greek' and the Australian media in typical sycophantic style lauded the same people a week earlier it was trashing, the latent tendency to put Greeks down is still there. The presenters of the Fox FM morning show were quick to exhort their listeners to "never forget that Melbourne is the football capital of the world," other FM radio stations warned their Greek listeners not to use the Greek soccer team poster in the Age to "wrap up their fish and chips," while later in the week, Nick Giannopoulos attempted to capitalize on the whole affair by making his usual and by now threadbare comments about Greeks in general on FM radio.
At the end of the day then, the Euro 2004 triumph was not really about stopping malicious tongues. Rather it served to remind us that we deserve respect, though we do not always get it and that we are capable of anything, given the right amount of perseverance. This is something that we would do well to remember during our 'slump' times and not lose heart.

First published in NKEE on 19 July 2004