In the earlier pages of his book ‘Demian’, German writer Hermann Hesse, in the voice of the novel’s eponymous character, eloquently wrote: “My story is not a pleasant one; it is neither sweet nor harmonious, as invented stories are; it has the taste of nonsense and chaos, of madness and dreams – like the lives of all men who stop deceiving themselves.”
These words come to mind when haunted by the niggling feeling of self-deception, once again calling for a prolongation of our relationship. You see, self-deception is a necessary tool in the arsenal of a football fan in Cyprus. In fact, one could argue it’s applied by every single citizen of this island regardless of field and industry, but that’s a different conversation best saved for another day.
Like in the excerpt from ‘Demian’, the story of Cypriot football is indeed not a pleasant one. We’ve seen the ugliest elements of society filter themselves through football. Some reemerging polished and shining, despite the fact that if one were to trace a finger on their visage it would soon feel the flimsy veil of sports-washing, the faintest of prods threatening to shatter it. Others reemerging emboldened and more vicious than ever before, their most malicious traits amplified and sharpened.
It can be sweet at times, yes, depending on your club of choice. A domestic cup to satiate the proverbial thirst for a week or two, perhaps. Maybe a qualification to the Europa League group stage, igniting dreams of lively away trips to France or Germany, possibly even taking a famous scalp in the process, regardless of the potentially casual approach to the competition by the prospective opposition.
It is unquestionably not harmonious. Indeed its almost comical discord is one of its more entertaining aspects, so long as it doesn’t manifest in violence. While that has been quelled in recent years, it hasn’t gone away from the game completely. There are fewer brawls between fans, fewer instances of rock-throwing and other ranged weapon-related instances of hooliganism.
This is partly a byproduct of the vast majority of fans being driven away from the game for a variety of reasons, but the decrease in attendance is mostly attributed to a recent government scheme requiring prior registration for all fans who wish to watch a live game. Club estimates put the decrease in ticket sales to just above half of where they previously used to be before the implementation of the blandly-named ‘fan card‘.
The analogy between Hesse’s monologue on self-deception and Cypriot football continues in his next adjective of choice: ‘invented’. I do not propose that the entirety of football on this island is constructed or that its every detail is scripted. However, neither is most fiction, perhaps excluding the sci-fi genre.
Yet even in that most speculative of genres, there are countless elements rooted in reality, whether they are exaggerated or not. While stories can indeed pour out of one’s head in totality, persons, incidents, specific sections of action and dialogue, can merely be distorted versions of lived experiences. So too is Cypriot football. A distorted version of reality. No less than some of the time anyway.
It must be noted that the love for the sport is entirely real, as it is in so many parts of the world. However, match-fixing is also entirely real. I’ve been aware of the concept of match-fixing in Cyprus for as long as I can remember. I recall it mentioned in passing comments, in conspiratorial breakdowns, in humourous anecdotes, in inquisitive suggestions, in esoteric and supposedly accurate retellings, in allegedly accurate match predictions, and so on.
Since the ’90s, club chairmen have been unofficially praised for their ability to ‘guide’ their clubs to a title win. That is not an assessment of their player scouting abilities or their project management credentials. It blatantly includes the skill and connections necessary for a team to navigate the system, the jungle-like environment of the football pyramid in Cyprus.
Yes, nonsense and chaos are also present. Examples include a coaching staff member audibly advising the manager to throw two more players on the pitch, for a total of twelve players since while their team was down to ten men, during an incident of dense fog midgame.
They include the division of television rights and allocating them to three distinct channels. In contrast, the Premier League, with more teams and games per season, and a vastly larger fanbase, was broadcasted by two channels until very recently before a third broadcaster was added, and even there the division is not club-based like it is in Cyprus, where channels bid for individual club broadcasting rights.
They include an alleged member of the criminal underworld being allowed to become chairman of a club and purportedly use it for money-laundering and match-fixing. They include agents and player managers being able to become involved with the running of football clubs, even at club chairman level. I could carry on listing examples of nonsense and chaos until my fingers creaked and moaned like rusty door hinges.
And through all of this, sports journalists are expected to provide earnest analysis and commentary. We’re supposed to break down, with a straight face, why a club has had a turnover of upwards of fourty (40) players in a single season (including loans) and delve into the sporting reasons why this phenomenon takes place.
We’re supposed to find sporting justification in a club having three or four managers in a calendar year without mentioning more unpalatable reasons that are reportedly involved.
We’re supposed to break down why seemingly successful players don’t stick around or are moved on or aren’t renewed and why seemingly unsuccessful ones seem to stick around and receive renewal after renewal without mentioning player agents and their relationship with club chairmen.
Hesse himself concludes the story and its accompanying description with the common ground-seeking qualifier “like the lives of all men who stop deceiving themselves”. This is where the mirror starts to crack and the key difference in this drawn-out analogy becomes starkly apparent. The realization of self-deception has not yet taken place. Not in any meaningful way.
While disillusionment and cynicism are rampant in Cypriot football and society in general, they are, sadly, not a catalyst for change. Indeed they have quite the opposite effect. We have become inured to it all. There is a general acceptance that justice will never truly prevail; that shameless profiteering through corrupt means will always be present; that Cypriot football will forever be tarnished by an incidental remark jokingly proposing that the result had already been determined.
With all of this in mind, perhaps a more accurate adaptation of the excerpt would read: “My story is not a pleasant one; it is neither sweet nor harmonious, as invented stories are; it has the taste of nonsense and chaos, of madness and dreams – like the lives of all men who consciously delude themselves without end.”
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