It’s Not Just A Game

So, England are sadly out of the world cup – and except for the minority who have no interest in football, for the majority of the nation the sentiment can be summed up in one word: “Gutted!”

From the minority who don’t understand why the rest of us are so disappointed, it’s common to hear those 4 words “It’s Just a Game!” But football / soccer is NOT just a game.

Football for many of us all over the globe, is part of our culture, part of our way of life, and whether you like football or not you can’t escape the fact that football has a real impact on the economy, being a multi billion pound industry which impacts on many other industries.

Uri Geller in 1996 holding the famous orange ball used when England won the 1966 World Cup!

I’m crazy about football, and have been ever since a family friend took me to watch a soccer game in Tel Aviv in 1951, when I was 5 years old. I don’t remember who was playing, and I can’t recall if there were goals. But I do know I saw the game through a mammoth pair of black binoculars, longer than my little arms, and so heavy that an adult had to hold them steady for me.

I felt like I was watching a game on another planet, through a telescope.

Ever since then, football has epitomised wizardry and wonder to me. When I heard about the other Uri Geller, who won his nickname for his ability to swerve round defenders as though he was bending the pitch, I knew I had to see him play.

The game was in Sao Paolo, with JCUG turning out in the red and black shirt of the away team, Flamengo. I’ve kept an eye on his career ever since, as he switched to clubs in Mexico and Argentina – I always hoped he’d be in a Brazilian World Cup squad, so I could hear the commentators scream, “GOAAALLL!!! URRRIII GGGEEELLLLLLLLLLLEEERRRRRR!!!!”

These days he’s a soccer professor at the Zico Center in Rio, helping 5,000 youngsters every year to develop their skills. There’s nothing I’d wish more for a namesake of mine.

My real involvement with the game began in Cyprus when I was 11 or 12. One of our lodgers was the Hungarian coach of a local team who happened to be bottom of the league.

When he saw me bending a spoon, he asked if I could work some magic on his players. I went into the dressing room at the Hassibi stadium before matches, and for the first time in my life I tried to deliver inspiration and self-belief.

I must have looked more like the mascot than the motivator. But something went right, because the team picked themselves up and fought their way to the top of the league. One of the earliest newspaper pictures I have of myself is also one of my most treasured, with the players holding the cup as they celebrate their championship season.

All these memories came flooding back as we drove to the match at Athens’ massive Karaiskaki stadium, to watch a high-tension match between the home team Olympiakos and their greatest rivals, Panathinaikos.

We were the guests of our friend George Glou, who owns the sports brand Puma Greece and who is a close friend of the Olympiakos chairman, Socratis Kokkalis. We had seats in the directors box, and George encouraged us to wear casual clothes.

When I was honorary co-chairman of Exeter City, I always wore a suit and tie. Formality was an inviolable part of the footballing culture, until Roman Abramovitch showed up at Chelsea in an open-necked shirt.

Now chairmen are just as likely to wear club shirts. The Greeks don’t get upset about such trifles – their passionate natures are focussed on much more intense displays of emotion, as we realised when we drove past our first burning motorcycle.

Even though the Pana fans had been barred from the stadium, they were thronging the streets, and there must have been 150 police buses barricading and cordoning the gates. Thousands of officers created a wall of uniforms between the opposing armies.

It was like slipping back in time to ancient Greece, and seeing the warring legions of Spartans and Persians.

We were worried when we realised that our car was immediately behind the Pana players’ bus. I thought the locals might take us for the enemy.

But we got into the stadium safely, and I was staggered by the noise and the exuberance of the supporters. The terraces behind the goal to our left were unlike anything I’ve seen in Britain, full of screaming, dancing, howling figures waving flares and flags. It was like a scene from a sci-fi movie.

I couldn’t understand why there were so many banners on display for the away team, including one 50m long, when none of their fans were allowed in… until I realised the flags were there to be burned. In a berserk ritual, they were destroyed in sheets of flame.

When the first goal went in, the stadium seemed to erupt into a full-scale riot. Smoke-bombs, fireworks on the pitch.. it was insanity. And that was a home goal.

My ears were ringing for hours after one fan hurled some kind of stun device at the Pana goalkeeper. It exploded with a bang like the crack of doom, and the player will be lucky if he ever hears again. But the ref shrugged off his complaints.

On the way back, our driver said he was delighted that Olympiakos had won. We asked if he was a fan. “Not really,” he said, “but if they had lost, my car might have been set on fire…”

All that energy is phenomenal. It’s a reminder of what we can achieve when we combine our minds. The crucial thing is that we direct that power to positive purposes. When we do that, we will always achieve our goals.

In next weeks article I will continue on the topic of football & the world cup disappointment, my theory about how the people of England had such an important part to play in the defeat and how you can help to ensure the country does much better next time!





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