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9 July, 2012

Is Football just Another Name for Politics?

Bon ton for every fan is to rise and give his or her respect to the defeated team as if to say that they love and respect their team not only when it wins. Loyalty and fidelity is not about success; nor is it about reward.

Euro 2012 is over. “The winner takes it all, the loser is standing small” – this is what we learned from the good old ABBA hit. And the winner is Spain. That same Spain whose summer now is the summer of its discontents. Silver winner Italy is another hero of the Euro 2012 Cup whose political and economic lot seems anything but serene and happy now.

What did we learn from this Euro Cup? First and foremost, we learned that football is not politics. That’s the best news we could possibly get from the tournament. Teams that took delight in the play, rather than in barbarity and brutality disguised as football, displayed a wonderful lesson for their fans who felt pride or sorrow for their team but who never projected an imperial sentiment or power politics onto the play.

The two teams whose entire entourages and fans did play politics failed – those were Poland and Russia. Regrettably, Poland proved a mediocre team that has yet to return to the days of its glory associated with the 1974 golden generation of Włodzimierz Lubański, Grzegorz Lato, Andrzej Szarmach, Kazimierz Deyna, Robert Gadocha, and Jan Tomaszewski, or with less powerful, though ambitious and good, 1982 team led by Zbigniew Boniek. Robert Lewandowski is a good scorer, but he was unable to make history. Not now, not this time, alas.

Russiawas just a shadow of the team it was when it, under the guidance of Guus Hiddink, dealt a blow to the grandees, defeating the Magnificent Orange and entering the European football elite. This time another Dutch magician, Dick Advocaat, could not do anything to save Russia from a humiliating and astonishing defeat to Greece. Yet the real and rather painful problem of Russian football lies elsewhere.

After this surprise victory of Greece, Russian football fans went as far as to demand an apology from their team for the wound and pain that they supposedly inflicted on the great nation. They must have been under the influence of Robert Lewandowski who offered an apology to the Polish fans for the failure of the team that the Russian fans decided to take an action.

Adding insult to injury, they began insinuating to the Russian football team that their fellow countrymen should feel bad after the defeat inflicted on them by Greece. Russian celebrity striker and top scorer Andrei Arshavin replied with little diplomacy, simply saying the team had nothing for which to apologize.

This moral cacophony was later joined by the manager of the Ukrainian football team Oleg Blokhin who implied that the Russian team should have offered an apology for their failure to live up to the expectations of their fans.

Blokhin, who had long been my own hero since those unforgettable days when he and the incomparable Dinamo Kiev of 1975 smashed PSV Eindhoven and Ferencváros winning the European Cup and qualifying for the Super Cup final against Bayern Munich which left no chances for the legendary team of “Kaiser” Franz Beckenbauer, missed a good opportunity to remain silent after the fresh incident during which he physically challenged a journalist who dared criticize his team. The temperature rose …

Needless to say, a talented striker of one of the best football teams ever, Blokhin must have been bitterly disappointed after his team's chances to qualify for the quarterfinal were ruined by England (in fact, by France). Yet his angry remarks and harsh words, not to mention his failure to contain himself and behave as an historic personality of European football, exposed an unfortunate grimace of the past when sports were just a chambermaid of politics.

No loyal and loving fan of his or her team would ever require an apology for lack of favour from Lady Fortune which always comes to torment every team and professional athlete. What happened this time was lack of respect shown by Russian football fans not only for their team but for the Euro 2012 tournament, and ultimately for football as well. Bon ton for every fan is to rise and give his or her respect to the defeated team as if to say that they love and respect their team not only when it wins. Loyalty and fidelity is not about success; nor is it about reward.

What surfaced here was not a bitter sentiment about this sporting life, but instead poorly camouflaged political hysteria over the supposed humiliation of a great nation. Déjà vu. As if Russia were the former Soviet Union which was expected to defeat the rotten and decadent West. As if other teams were not colleagues and brothers-in-football, and as if their fans were not soul mates.

I will never forget how astonished I was to find that before the second leg of the 1975 final of the above-mentioned Super Cup of Europe between Dinamo Kiev and Bayern Munich, Ukrainian war veterans kept asking Dinamo not to let them down playing against a German team. This is something that is difficult to accept now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century and especially in the context of the EU, but it made sense then when folks truly felt strongly about that.

I learned about this incident from an interview with Vladimir Veremeyev, a virtuoso master of the corner kick, an incarnation of the legendary coach and manager Valery Lobanovsky who was a master of the corner kick himself. And yet it was not the team’s fidelity and loyalty to the war veterans (with all due respect!) that won the historic game. Instead, it was the genius of that team.


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