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A Greek American World Cup Coach

I always think of Alketas Panagoulias when the soccer World Cup comes around. Since 1994 that is, when he coached the Greek national team at the World Cup finals that took place in the United States. The Greek team did not do well in what was its first appearance at what is considered the pinnacle of soccer tournaments globally. Greece lost all three of its qualifying games and did not manage to score a single goal. Yet merely getting to the finals that year was considered a big success, as was its appearance in the European-wide soccer tournament in 1980 again with Alketas as its coach.

The first time I saw Alketas in person I was too shy to speak to him. At the time he was coaching his hometown team Aris Thessaloniki, for which he had also played in the 1950s. When his playing career ended, he came to the United States to study and ever since divided his time and career between Greece and America. We were both going to take our seats at a mid-week pre-season game involving Panathinaikos. Nonetheless, thought it was better not to bother him. I said to myself, “the man is a soccer coach, with an impressive record, having coached the national teams of both Greece and the United States. He is here not only as a spectator, but he is working, figuring out strategies or maybe looking for a young talent in the visiting minor league team.”

The next time I saw Alketas in person was when we were both invited to speak at an event organized by The Hellenic Society Prometheas, a Greek American social and cultural organization in the Washington, DC area. The event was held a few weeks after the conclusion of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. Alketas had retired by then and had settled in Vienna, VA to be close to his two children Debbie and John. He came out of retirement briefly to take charge of coordinating the soccer games at the Athens Olympics, however.

The former coach was in great spirits, not least because he had done a good job in Athens and because Greece had shown the world how capable it was of successfully hosting the Games.

I was there because I had published a book on Greek identity and the Olympic Games six months before the Athens Games opened in August, 2004. Prometheas had hosted a book signing event earlier that year. At a time when many Greek-Americans were very concerned about whether Greece could manage the Games at all, let alone do that smoothly and effectively, I argued that Greek identity is tied up with its ancient heritage and the Olympics and it would pull all stops for the event to turn out more than well. My optimism, I remember, was taken seriously by the attentive Prometheas audience.

This time round however, with Alketas at my side, I am not sure how many people were really listening to what I had to say. The former coach was effusive, full of reflections based on his rich experiences, telling stories delivered with humor, all of this speaking in Greek. As I sat next to him, I imagined his half-time talks in locker rooms in Greece and the United States which must have been equally effective bearing in mind his achievements in both countries.

I wonder what Alketas would be thinking about this year’s World Cup tournament in Qatar if he were still around – he passed ten years ago, and his death was recorded in a Washington Post obituary. I cannot think he would have had nice things to say this time around. His attitude in 1994 was that the Greek team should enjoy being at the World Cup. Unfortunately, that was taken too literally by the Greek soccer authorities who allowed Greek-American fans too much access to the team and that proved a big distraction.

But this year’s World Cup in Qatar is taking place under a cloud of discontent. There are valid suspicions of bribery that led to FIFA, the international soccer body, of overlooking other countries in order to award the honor of hosting the World Cup finals to a tiny nation without a record of achievements and contributions to the sport. Worst of all, its climate meant the games could not be played in the summer as they are traditionally. They are being held in November and December, causing a major disruption in the calendar of domestic and international leagues.

The host country’s dismal record over working conditions in the hasty construction of the soccer stadiums the tournament needed and its negative stance over public expressions of LGBTQ identities have raised protests. Qatar’s prohibition of beer consumption in the stadiums has also deprived spectators of what is an integral part of soccer fandom. No fun in soccer? Alketas would have surely disapproved.

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