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April 20, 2014

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Fascism’s nascent comeback

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I’m going way out on a limb here: Delivering a “Heil Hitler” salute after scoring a game-winning soccer goal is never a good idea. In fact, it’s a horrible idea, so horrible that on Sunday, Greece booted the offending 20-year-old Giorgos Katidis from ever again playing on its national team.

Ever. In a world of maybes, such certitude is welcome.

Katidis is a reflection of a troubling global trend: the rise of neo-fascist politics amid the economic tumult in Europe. Fortunately, the Greek national soccer team’s response shows what social institutions can do to fight back against extremism, even when governments fail in their own responsibilities.

The austerity measures enacted in response to the Greek economic crisis have propelled the rise of right-wing politics; nationalist groups are gaining footholds throughout the country. One far-right party, Golden Dawn, has embraced the language and ideology of German fascism, focusing its ire on immigrants. Greece sits at the crossroads of Europe, Africa and Asia, and shares a porous border with Turkey. The mass migration of refugees from Africa and the Middle East, in particular Syria with its 1 million displaced citizens, has led to increased violence against real and perceived outsiders in Greece.

While political distress causes people to leave their homelands, economic distress causes them to turn their frustration on their newest neighbors. Greece is now wrestling with this problem, and extreme anti-immigrant parties are also rising in France, Italy, the Netherlands and Hungary.

These nations are trying to steady their fiscal hands, well aware that economic desperation historically has led to scapegoating of minorities. The far-right parties prey (as they always do) on young people, unemployed and energetic, who are convinced that their societies are collapsing at just the moment that they themselves are reaching maturity. Neo-Nazi elements have made inroads into soccer teams throughout the continent: Fascism appeals to the competitive nature in too many athletes.

Economists tend to view Europe’s woes solely in fiscal terms, which means they too easily ignore the social impact of austerity measures. And nothing is more social than sports. Unable to nip fascism at the voting booth, Greece’s leaders are trying to silence it whenever it raises its ugly head. Katidis’ salute was a “deep insult to all victims of Nazi brutality,” Greece’s soccer federation declared in announcing the end of his career. Less than a year earlier, Greece’s Olympic committee punished athlete Voula Papachristou for her racist and anti-immigrant tweets by sending her home from London’s summer games.

Katidis now claims he is just a stupid kid and he had no idea what, in fact, he was doing. He might have wondered why, in video footage, his teammates look at him in horror as he, shirtless and covered in tattoos, delivers the fascist salute while an older gentleman tries to bring his hand down. Even if he had known little about World War II, Katidis certainly was aware of Golden Dawn’s appropriation of Nazi imagery.

Back in 2005, an Italian player was banned for only one game after delivering a similar salute. But the decision by Greece’s national league to come down so hard on Katidis reflects a growing awareness of the dangers of far-right politics in sports.

The traditional notion of sports as a haven for people of all backgrounds, a level playing field, is lost if there is any institutional tolerance of racism. In addition to political extremism, European soccer leagues are contending with fan violence, hooliganism, and an ongoing investigation that is looking into the possible fixing of as many as 680 matches between 2008 and 2011. The most recognized game in the world is struggling under a corrosive narrative.

Greece’s national league is trying to change that. It may not be able to solve austerity or immigrant bashing. It can’t stop the Syrian civil war or Africa’s poverty. But in one swift and conclusive move, it took a stand against glorifying the worst of mankind. It may not be much, but, in the process, the league elevated the rest of us.

Juliette Kayyem is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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