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American Soft Power in Greece

I have always wondered what soft power looks like in international relations. It is a vague notion that indicates a non-coercive way of building bridges across nations. But how does it work exactly? I get what gunboat diplomacy is because I can easily imagine a scenario that entails a display of military might. And presumably an ambassador can deliver a threatening message behind closed doors.

I will always remember looking through the Foreign Office archives in London and coming across the word ‘démarche’ which British diplomats used to indicate a strongly worded communication. British diplomats writing in the era I was studying tended to use French words for emphasis and went they reported that they sent a démarche they were indicating they meant business.

I may have discovered what soft power looks like, however, while scrolling through Instagram the other day. There was picture of basketball player Dwayne Bacon spotting a sign a young boy was holding up courtside at Athens’ OAKA stadium, asking him for a photo. Bacon stopped and was photographed with the boy, making his young fan’s day. The photograph soon went viral.

We are are used to different images. Spectators at Greek basketball games – young boys and girls excepted – can get very rowdy. Rick Pitino, the American who coached Greek team Panathinaikos as well as the Greek national team, remarked on the passion shown by all Greek fans during big games but lamented the lack of respect shown towards the opposing team. The Greek media tries to present the nicer face of basketball fandom in Greece when it can. Cameras are always clicking when players interact with young fans. Such images convey an aura of joy and innocence that offsets the vehement intensity among many of the older fans.

Dwayne Bacon arrived in Athens only a few weeks ago. After an impressive start of his career playing for Florida State University, he went on to play for two seasons in the National Basketball Association (NBA). But last year, like many other Americans he realized his career prospects would be better in Europe where there is plenty to do. Top teams compete not only in their domestic leagues but also the EuroLeague. This is a European-wide league whose tournament runs from October to May. It is widely popular and considered the second-highest of any professional basketball league in the world second only to the NBA.

Bacon, who played one season for France’s Monaco team before moving to Panathinaikos at the beginning of the current season, is one of 55 American players listed on the rosters of the twelve teams that make up the Greek ‘Basket League’. There is no team with less than three Americans, and a few teams have as many as six. It would be possible for all five team players on the court at any given moment to be Americans.

It is in the Greek domestic games where fans can become excessively raucous because any misbehavior in a EuroLeague can bring heavy penalties. The legendary fanaticism of Greek soccer spills over onto basketball arenas, with the use of flares, flags, the booing of the opponents, and the occasional use of plastic water bottles as missiles. The most heated occasions are games between the so-called eternal enemies Panathinaikos Athens and Olympiacos Piraeus, the two biggest and most successful teams not only in the Greek league but also in the Euroleague tournament.

Pitino is on record as saying that compared to the fiery rivalry between Panathinaikos and Olympiacos the one between the University of North Carolina and Duke University is like a church league rivalry. But he and several American players involved in this rivalry have expressed respect for their opponents, something unheard of among the fans of the two eternal enemy teams.

Like Pitino, the American basketball players have the ability to stand above the fray, as hard as they play on the basketball court. They are already admired for the athleticism and skill that they bring to the game in Greece. Fans respect them, especially those who like Bacon have played in the NBA, the “magical world of the NBA” as it is referred to in Greek sports radio programs. The respect they show their opponents, and the fans, young and old, has a positive effect of the culture of Greek basketball. And if we consider that the Greek league includes teams based not only in Athens and Piraeus but also in the towns of Karditsa, Lavrio, Patras, and the island of Rhodes we can appreciate their impact is on a national scale. Especially if we consider basketball is the second most popular sport in Greece second only to soccer. This is American soft power diplomacy in Greece that can go a long way.


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