Some Thoughts on Football – and links to chariot-racing in Constantinople

Football is a game that comes in many guises – and a word that arouses strong emotions. In much of the world it is played with a round ball, propelled, as the name suggests, with the foot; and rules that seek (at least) to prevent players engaging in bodily contact and injuring each other. In American football by contrast, the primary aim seems to be exactly that – launching yourself deliberately and with maximum force at an opponent so that players only survive by suiting themselves in helmets and body armour – and activity involving the egg-shaped ball seems largely incidental. In between these extremes are varieties of rugby football, union and league, preferred in outposts of the British Empire such as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, former industrial regions of Wales and Northern England, and the playing fields of public school purveyors of education to English aristocracy and sons of Arabian sheikhs. Here pretty much any part of the body can be employed for pretty much any purpose, but rules of fair play demand that you don’t deliberately set out to maim someone who doesn’t actually have the ball in hand. Then there is Gaelic Football; and that peculiar mix of basketball, football and pro wrestling played almost exclusively in the Australian State of Victoria.

Was he fouled or did he dive?

Was he fouled or did he dive?

In my school days in New Zealand, ‘footie’ was very definitely rugby, and the round ball game was for ‘girls’ – by which was meant, not the female of the species, but males whose actual manhood was open to question. A common feature of the ‘girls’ game seemed to be players throwing themselves to the ground for no apparent reason and carrying on as though some medieval Spanish inquisitor was applying hot coals to the soles of their feet. In rugby, on the other hand, it is considered bad form to show any emotion whatsoever even when suffering the effects of the most heinous foul by an opponent. Correct protocol requires that you store the memory and exact on-field vengeance when opportunity arises – thereafter repairing to the nearest pub and forging lifetime bonds of brotherhood over oceanic quantities of ale.

Well, boys will be boys, and violence in one form or another seems to be an integral part of our biological makeup. Perhaps one of the advantages of the semi-licensed in-match carnage of rugby is that it lessens the need for off-field acts of aggression. Soccer football has always seemed more prone to post-match riots, mass tramplings of spectators and street hooliganism – for the very reason, perhaps, that the game itself offers so little opportunity for that kind of masculine self-expression.

I recall being mildly shocked at my first experience of a football match in Istanbul. It was a derby between two of the city’s big three clubs, and squads of police were ensuring that supporters of the two sides were ushered to viewing areas separated by high walls and razor wire. When all were seated and the match began, police in riot gear armed with automatic rifles ringed the pitch with eyes focused on the crowd. I was impressed, truth to tell, by the fact that, far as I could see, not one turned at any stage to see what was happening on-field. After the final whistle, joyous fans of the victorious local lads were obliged to remain in their area while visitors were escorted safely off the premises and sent mourning and rampaging on their way.

 Just a few football fans meeting in the marketplace

Just a few football fans meeting in the marketplace?

More recently, in the street demonstrations that continued for a month or two after the Gezi Park incident of May/June 2013, many of the participants identified themselves as followers of one or other of the Big Three Istanbul football clubs, perhaps the most prominent being the Beşiktaş group calling themselves Çarşı. It’s an innocuous enough name, meaning ‘market’ in Turkish, referring, I guess to the retail shopping precinct near the Bosporus waterfront where supporters congregate en masse on match days in club colours, knocking back cans of Efes Pilsen and psyching themselves up for the big event. The apparent innocuousness of the name Çarşı belies the intent of its members: the stylised version seen on banners having the ‘A’ of Anarchy as its second letter, accompanied by the slogan, ‘Çarşı, her şeye karşı’ (‘We’re against everything’). Over the summer holiday period, of course, players get a break from their weekly grind of night clubs, fast cars, beautiful women and football – leaving hordes of loyal supporters at a loose end.

The Gezi Park business, it might be said, erupted at a fortuitous time, providing off-season training opportunities for sports fans who joined forces with battle-hardened left-wingers, middle-class youth and head-scarved aunties, united by a common hatred of Prime Minister (now President) Tayyip Erdoğan. There was much talk in news media, at home and abroad, of peaceful tree-huggers confronted, gassed and beaten by faceless hordes of government enforcers. Undoubtedly there were a few genuine nature-lovers amongst the protesters – but political demonstrations in Turkey are rarely peaceful, and it’s not easy in the heat of the moment to distinguish a peacenik from a Molotov cocktail-hurling anarchist. I have just received another of the regular mailings sent out by my compatriots in the NZ Embassy in Ankara reminding me: New Zealanders in Turkey are advised to avoid all political gatherings, protests and demonstrations as even those intended to be peaceful have the potential to turn violent. Police may use tear gas and/or water cannons to disperse demonstrations.’

And you’d better believe it. I’ve been living in this country for a few years now, and I can tell you, those ‘Gezi Park’ protests were no new phenomenon. I remember George W Bush visiting Istanbul for a NATO summit in 2004. The whole city came to a standstill; public transport including Bosporus ferries was put on hold, and the waterfront at Kadıköy turned into a battlefield. The first ever ‘May Day’ rally held in Taksim Square in 1977 became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’ after around 40 demonstrators were killed and up to 200 injured by security forces.

Violent public demonstrations against the government have a long pedigree in Istanbul. In fact, the tradition can be traced back to ancient times when the city then known as Constantinople was capital of the Roman Empire. Interestingly, the connection between sports fans and political protest was a factor in those days too.

Re-creation of Constantinople with its hippodrome

A major feature of ancient Roman cities

Visitors to Istanbul these days inevitably gravitate to the Sultanahmet area within the walls of the ancient city where many of the most famous tourist attractions are to be found: the cathedral/museum of Hagia Sophia, Topkapı Palace, the Basilica Cistern and several of the important museums. Just in front of the main gate of Sultan Ahmet’s mosque can be seen three intriguing columns that once stood in the centre of the hippodrome – an immense stadium where up to 30,000 singing, chanting, screaming supporters urged on their favourite teams in the chariot races that were one of the main forms of entertainment. Where the Blue Mosque now stands was the Great Imperial Palace with a connecting passage to the kathisma or viewing box where the emperor and his retinue sat to observe proceedings.

Emperor Theodosius watching the sports from his royal box

Emperor Theodosius watching the sports from his royal box

In Rome itself there had been four teams competing in the races, identified by their colours, the Blues, Greens, Reds and Whites – but when Constantinople became the centre of empire, just two remained. The Blue and Green charioteers divided the city into two mutually antagonistic bands of fanatical supporters drawn from all walks of life, extending their influence far beyond the confines of the hippodrome into activities normally associated with street gangs and political parties. Betting was, of course, an important feature of the competitions. Drivers, though their lives might be short, could also make good money, and the most successful were enviably wealthy.

Members of the aristocracy generally took an interest in one or other of the teams, and were not above manipulating supporters to exert pressure on an unpopular emperor by street demonstrations and riots. Such activities seem to have been fairly common, but by far the most famous is the event known as the Nika Riots of January 532 CE.

Chariot racing in the hippodrome

Chariot racing in the hippodrome

Emperor at the time (from 527 to 565 CE) was Justinian I, who seems to have been a somewhat controversial figure. Most of our knowledge of this period comes from the writings of a scholar known as Procopius of Caesarea. His official works on the wars and the buildings of Justinian depict an emperor deserving the epithet ‘Great’, despite his humble peasant origins. Justinian, with his general Belisarius, recovered some of the western territories lost to ‘barbarians’ in the previous century. His ambitious building projects included reconstruction of the Hagia Sophia cathedral which still stands today. He is renowned for his complete revision of Roman Law and for being the last Latin-speaking Roman Emperor; is venerated as a saint by the Eastern Orthodox Church; and Procopius was fulsome in praising the beauty of his wife, the Empress Theodora.

In addition to his official histories, however, Procopius also produced a work known as the Secret History, discovered centuries later in the Vatican Library. Here, the historian tells a different story. Justinian and Belisarius were hen-pecked and incompetent, manipulated by ruthless and ambitious wives. The Emperor himself is described as cruel and amoral, fleecing his citizens rich and poor alike, and killing without hesitation any who opposed him. His wife Theodora may have been beautiful, but in her previous life she had been one of the city’s more spectacular harlots, engaging in public displays of obscene exhibitionism, and entertaining a significant sampling of the male population. Which may go some way towards explaining why Justinian missed out on beatification by the Roman Church.

Emperor Justinian I and his wife Theodora

Emperor Justinian I and his wife Theodora

But back to the Nika Riots. In an attempt to curtail the political activities of the Blues and Greens, the Emperor had arrested several of the ringleaders and had them sentenced to death, much to the chagrin of supporters who demanded their release and Justinian’s resignation. Rioting broke out in the hippodrome and spilled out on to the streets, with rioters holding the Imperial Palace in a state of siege for five days. Fires were lit and much of the city was burned to the ground, including the previous church of Hagia Sophia. Members of the Senate joined in the anarchic activities and declared a replacement for Justinian, Hypatius, nephew of a former emperor.

Justinian, apparently, had pretty much given up hope of hanging on to his throne, and was getting ready to abandon ship. His good lady Theodora, however, was not ready to give up the life of power and luxury she had worked so hard to attain, saying she would prefer to die. Shamed into action, her husband, by a cunning mixture of double-dealing and brute force, turned the tables on the would-be usurpers. His generals, Belisarius and Mundus led a company or two of regular soldiers into the hippodrome and the resulting punitive slaughter left some 30,000 rioters dead.

Justinian ruled for a further 33 years, rebuilt the city and secured his reputation – at least in the eyes of the Eastern Church. But as far as we know he never played football.


Rugby in Turkey – Update

Back in September 2010 I wrote a piece about the emergence of rugby football as a sport in Turkey and the potential threat this could pose to the existing world order. I have to confess, I may have been a trifle premature. Three years have passed without the Turkish national team making the slightest ripple on the established pond of international rugby.
Well, these things take time. New Zealand selected its first national side in 1884, sending the lads on an eight-match tour of Australia. The sport’s overseeing body, the NZ Rugby Union, was formed in 1892, and the country’s reputation as an international powerhouse in the sport was established by the ‘All Black Originals’ team that toured the United Kingdom, France and North America in 1905-06 and won 34 of the 35 matches played.
The Turkish Rugby federation, in contrast, was founded in 2011, and the national team played its first match in 2012. Since, then, according to Wikipedia, the boys have played four matches for four victories, against Azerbaijan, Estonia and Slovakia (twice). Admittedly the opposition has not been of the strongest, but the victories have been convincing: 31-5 and 49-5, for example, in away matches against Slovakia and Estonia respectively.
Perhaps the best indication, however, that rugby is about to break into the field of serious sports in Turkey is the team’s appearance on the front page of the glamour supplement of our local newspaper ‘Hürriyet’. Soccer football is the national obsession, exceeding religion and politics in terms of media coverage. Footie of the round-ball variety is found, not only on the sports pages of newspapers, but in the economics section as well. Its stars (and their latest trophy girlfriends) are photographed by armies of paparazzis and published for the titillation of supporters and opponents alike. Ballots for controlling bodies such as the present maneuverings to choose a president for the Fenerbahçe Club arguably generate more excitement than political elections.
So, today’s article in the Hürriyet’s ‘Kelebek’ supplement is a recognition that something is going on. The piece is accompanied by a photograph showing eight of the national side baring their physiques in a photo op in the team dressing room. The writer goes on to say that there are now thirty-five teams around the country, not including women’s rugby, which is apparently also becoming popular. A national competition is due to start on 30 November. Organisers are planning to publish a calendar (along the lines of the French ‘Dieux du Stade’) featuring the flower of Turkish manhood wearing jockstraps or less in their search for sponsorship.

Well, getting back to New Zealand for a moment, no player or supporter of the All Black rugby team would give the national soccer squad the remotest chance of out-physique-ing them on a beefcake calendar – so I’m picking this could be the start of big things for rugby football in Turkey.

Turkish Wine – Rediscovering an ancient art

I come from a beer-drinking country. Well, we’re not as mono-cultural as we once were, thank God. When I was a kid, New Zealand culture could be pretty much summed up by the three words: Rugby, Racing, and Beer. There was an institution known as ‘The 6 O’clock Swill’. This phenomenon owed its existence to the fact that pubs in NZ used to close their doors at 6 pm, or shortly thereafter. Those who had built up a thirst during their working day (mostly men at that period of our history) had one hour to get to the nearest watering hole and quaff as much ale as they could before the law of the land decreed that they should get out and head home to their loving wives and/or families. As you may imagine, this was not conducive to the development of civilised drinking habits – and the effects are still felt, a generation or two on.
A selection of Turkish wines
Of course, other alcoholic beverages were available. The more sophisticated or perhaps feminine might sip sherry, or something euphemistically labelled ‘Pimms’. Continental tastes were provided for by immigrants from Eastern Europe, who produced something distantly akin to red wine, commonly referred to as ‘Dally Plonk’. Unshaven gentlemen of no fixed abode were sometimes to be seen on park benches sampling this brew from bottles concealed in plain brown paper bags.
I’m happy to say, we are a more civilised nation these days. A referendum in 1967 extended bar hours to 10 pm – allowing for less frenetic speed drinking. Somewhere around the late 1970s, a wine culture started to gain a foothold. Citizens began to discover the surprising fact that moderate consumption of alcohol could accompany a meal and intelligent conversation. The drinks themselves could become a topic for discussion: “Well, I’d say this full-bodied red shows dark rich berry, chocolate and spice characters enhanced by subtle toasty oak nuances, what would you say darling?” “Oh do shut up, Charles, and pass the bottle, won’t you?”
These days, teachers and civil servants nearing retirement age aspire to establishing a boutique winery in Hawkes Bay or Marlborough, or some other location where the micro-climate is conducive and the real estate prices more affordable. New Zealand wines have a well-earned reputation abroad, winning medals at international events, and wine exports are a nice little earner for our humble economy. New Zealanders of a certain class pride themselves, not only on knowing the difference between a Chardonnay and a Sauvignon Blanc, but also on what vintages of which particular vineyards produced the best ones.  
What I want to say here is, though, this didn’t happen over night. An increasingly wealthy society and an expanding middle class availed themselves of greater opportunities to travel abroad and see for themselves the older oenophile cultures of Europe. Organisations of wine producers brought together like-minded entrepreneurs who exerted persuasive pressure on governments to create a favourable climate for growth, and on the media to help in educating the populace and building a potential market. Another factor has undoubtedly been a hard-line approach by authorities to drivers who drink, such that it is a brave soul who gets behind the steering wheel after even one beer or glass of wine.
Two generations, then, have seen radical changes in drinking patterns of New Zealanders (and our Australian cousins, though I have to confess, they were always a little ahead of us). These days, executives and other high-flyers watch rugby matches while sipping quality wines in corporate boxes with their spouses or paramours. Of course, remnants of the old ways live on in footie clubs and suburban beer barns – but as a nation, we have diversified in many fields, and alcohol consumption is one measure of this.
So, what about Turkey, you’re asking. Weren’t you going to say something about that? And so I am. The land occupied by the modern Republic of Turkey is one of the birthplaces of human civilisation. Asia Minor and the plains between the two rivers, whose waters rise in south-eastern Turkey, witnessed the first domestication of animals and the growing of crops for food, the moulding and firing of clay to make pots, and the early stages of metallurgy. Hand in hand with the march of civilisation went the production and consumption of alcoholic beverages. It seems likely that the first wild grapes were cultivated here, and the first hesitant steps taken on the road to producing an award-winning pinot noir. The classical civilisations of Greece and Rome enjoyed their wine. They even assigned responsibility for it to a junior member of their divine pantheon – the Romans, Bacchus, and the Greeks, Dionysus. After the Imperial authorities gave up massacring and otherwise persecuting Christians, and Romans and Greeks joined the ranks of the Saved, apparently they didn’t let their new faith stand in the way of imbibing an amphora or two of Bacchus’s nectar.
Grape cultivation and wine production in Asia Minor continued in good heart until the Muslim Ottomans took over. The Prophet Muhammed was, I understand, quite specific in his proscription of wine for true believers. Why didn’t he mention beer, cider, Pimms and other spirituous liquors (if, in fact, he didn’t. My Arabic is not up to checking the original text to see what his exact words were)? Well, one reason very likely is that, in the evolution of alcoholic beverages, distillation arrived relatively late on the scene. Scotch whisky may now be regarded as a traditional tipple North o’ the Border, but most of the great whisky houses in fact date from the 19th century, as by the way, do most of the clan tartans. Anyway, the Prophet’s lack of omniscience on this one left an alcoholic loophole for Turks to slip through. For some at least, obeying the letter of Koranic law and abstaining from wine is enough – and the considerably more powerful rakı, with an alcohol content of 45%, is readily accepted.
It also helped that the Ottomans adopted a tolerant approach to religious minorities within their borders. Jews, Orthodox Greeks and Armenians were not only permitted to observe their religious customs, speak their own languages and educate their children relatively unmolested, they were also allowed to grow their grapes, trample the vintage, ferment, bottle, sell and imbibe the fruit of the vine pretty much according to established practice. More than a few Sultans, most of whom anyway were born to Christian mothers, are reputed to have liked a drop from time to time – and no doubt some of their Muslim subjects saw little harm, occasionally, in joining their Brothers-of-the-Book in a glass or two for friendship’s sake.
Nevertheless, it must be true that, for a considerable period, at a time when European civilization was making great strides towards modern alcoholic sophistication (and in other fields too for all I know), wine production within the Ottoman domains failed to keep pace with developments in France, Italy, Germany and so on. When the Ottoman Empire breathed its last and the Turkish Republic came into existence in 1923, its first president, among a host of better known reforms, freed up the production and consumption of spirituous and fermented liquors. While tobacco and spirits were under state monopoly, wine, probably in deference to the status quo, was left in the hands of private producers – though the state did also establish its own vineyards and wineries.
Tezcan Gürkan, owner of Ganoswineries in Mürefte, began his career with the state Tekel organisation. His vines produce a range of boutique wines, red and white, under the Krater, and the more up-market Ganos label. Tezcan Bey has mixed feelings about the current state of the wine industry in Turkey. He is passionate about its long history, and its potential to compete in world markets, owing to the country’s congenial climate and fertile soils.  In terms of human health, he points out, the benefits of moderate wine consumption, especially red wine, in reducing the risk of heart attack, diabetes and even some forms of cancer, have been well publicized. Tezcan Bey further notes that, in the past ten years, during the tenure of the present AK Party government, locally produced wines have improved markedly, both in variety and quality. He is enthusiastic about wines produced from local grape varieties such as boğazkere, öküzgözü and kalecik karası. While accepting that Turkey’s climate is more conducive to the production of red wines, he also mentions the potential of narince and other white varieties in certain microclimates. On the other hand, he is less sanguine about the future, given the punitive level of taxation targeting alcohol in Turkey. I can attest to this from my own experience, having seen the cost of a mid-price red wine at the supermarket checkout almost double in the past five years.
Still, it’s not government policy alone that is impeding the industry’s growth. That same bottle of Angora or Villa Doluca, selling for 20 Turkish liras at Migros, will probably add sixty to eighty liras to your bill at a restaurant. The Ministry of Tourism would do well to take a look at the effects of such pricing on visitors to the country. It may be that Turks themselves, weighing up relative value for money, will go for a bottle of rakı with four times the alcohol content – but foreign visitors are more likely to drink one bottle of wine instead of two, and feel scalped into the bargain.
Nevertheless, the younger Gürkan generation seems more optimistic. Tezcan Bey’s son, Doruk, recognizes the potential of a growing, and increasingly sophisticated middle class in Turkish cities. One measure of this is the regular appearance these days, of articles in Turkish newspapers and magazines discussing wine, local and imported, and the industry itself. As was the case in my own home country, the twin processes of increasing awareness, and growing demand feed off each other.
Still it is evident that the Turkish wine industry is nowhere near to achieving its potential as an export earner for the nation. A recent article in Hürriyet newspaper examined and compared the state of play in a number of comparable countries, in terms of grape vine acreage and wine production. According to their figures, Turkey has the fourth largest area of vines measured by hectares. Only Spain, France and Italy have more grapes under cultivation. In contrast, however, Turkey’s comparative wine production is minuscule, at 75 million litres, ranking it way below even New Zealand, with a fraction of the vine acreage. NZ’s wine exports, incidentally, generated 868 million dollars of income, and clearly Turkey has the potential to surpass that.
The big problem, as I see it, and Gürkan ‘pere et fils’ among others, apparently agree, is the lack of a large and knowledgeable local market. Whatever the sector, economies of scale determine whether an enterprise will succeed or fail. New Zealand has been able to develop its wine exports because locals drank enough of the stuff to get the business up and running. Turkey, with a population approaching eighty million, had a large enough local market to support the establishment of car manufacturing, electronics and whiteware factories, and a large textile industry – which have then been able to move out into more competitive global markets. New Zealand, unfortunately, with its four-and-a-half million people, lacks this major advantage. Clearly what Turkish wine producers need and seem to lack, is an umbrella organisation that will speak for them, arguing the case for government support of the industry, and engaging in general campaigns to raise public awareness.
As one who enjoys a glass of wine, and appreciates the local product, I’m following developments in the sector with interest.

UK Riots and the Istanbul Grand Prix – The End of the Golden Rapture?

Faith and belief are marvellous things, aren’t they? I’ve never been one for millenarianism or doomsday predictions. I never doubted for a moment that my Apple Mac would see me through to the 21st century. I’m content to meet my Maker when He (or She) decides the time has come, and I’d sooner not know the date in advance, though I can see how some might want to. I don’t have a great deal of faith in politicians – but I do have some sympathy for the impossible situations democracy puts them in. They have to promise heaven and earth to get elected, then have to back-pedal rapidly when post-election reality bites. Hands up who really thought Barack Obama would be allowed to close Guantanamo and stop the water-boarding.
So I’m not generally one to point the finger at politicians and accuse them of breaking promises. I was pretty sceptical in the first place. And I’m certainly not generally given to laughing at the misfortunes of others. Those recent riots in cities across the UK looked pretty scary, and nothing can excuse the burning of property and looting of businesses large or small. David Cameron’s government re-established the rule of law, and good on him, you have to say. However, I couldn’t help noticing that he pre-empted criticism by referring to his own pre-election promise to mend Britain’s ‘broken society’. It seems that ‘There are pockets of . . . society that are not just broken but frankly sick’ which seemed to suggest that mending society might be just a tad trickier than British voters had been led to believe. We need a medical professional rather than a simple repairman. But then most of us knew that already, right?
I’m not going to join the ranks of those who suggest that inequalities of wealth distribution are the root cause of these riots, and other forms of violent social unrest. I certainly do not intend to suggest that burning and looting are understandable or acceptable responses to social injustice. In fact, I want to agree 100% with Dave Cameron in his belief that pockets of modern society are sick. On the other hand, I’m not sure he and I would agree totally on which ‘pockets’.
Istanbul Park – former home
of Turkey’s Grand Prix
My work-place is located on the southern outskirts of Istanbul, on the Asian side of the city. It’s a pleasantly green spot still, despite the building of airports, industrial complexes, monstrous shopping centres and acres of two-storey villas with private swimming pools. A kilometre or so across the fields from our campus stands Istanbul Park, the venue for the Turkish Formula One Grand Prix. Most of the time it sits there, in patient torpor, waiting for the one weekend a year when it will spring to life, and the hills will echo to the whine of high performance engines operating at rpms that would cause our Honda Jazz to melt down to a blob of metal and plastic.
I couldn’t help wondering what sort of money went into this project, so I checked it out, and I can tell you that Istanbul Park was built in 2005 at a cost of €80 million (about 200 million Turkish Liras at today’s rates). I went to the Grand Prix in Auckland once. We didn’t see any spectacular crashes, and we weren’t sitting in a corporate box being served chilled Dom Perignon and crab claws, so maybe I didn’t get the full effect, but honestly, I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Still, I’m not one to spoil other people’s fun. Sadly for those other people, however, it seems that the 2011 Turkish Grand Prix may actually be the last one to take place at Istanbul Park. Apparently Bernie Ecclestone, head honcho of international Formula One racing, decided to double the fees Turkey would be charged for hosting the race. The Turks said ‘%&$#?@ off!’ or words to that effect, and that, it seems, is that.
Well, of course, running a business like Formula One racing costs money, and no one would begrudge Bernie his right to make a living – but this spat did come to mind when I saw a news item in July that the most expensive house in the USA had just been sold to . . . Bernie’s 22-year-old daughter Petra. Reports say the 5600 m2 house in Bel Air, Los Angeles had been on the market for two years for $150 million, but some tough negotiating got the sellers down to $85 million. I just hope Petra’s making a generous donation to help those starving kids in Somalia. By the way, for the sake of comparison, I read that Mr and Mrs Brad Pitt have just put their California mansion on the market for a relatively modest $13.75 million. I guess at that level, the 0.75 is still important.
Nevertheless, one swallow doesn’t make a summer – and one sick billionaire doesn’t make a sick society, right? But did you see that film, ‘Inside Job’ that won the 2010 Oscar for best documentary? As the Timereviewers said: ‘If you’re not enraged by the end of the movie, you weren’t paying attention.’ I’ve read a number of articles about a gentleman by the name of Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of the Blackstone Group. Most sources agree that he is a major player in the world of finance, and he has been quoted as saying in a speech in March 2009, that 45% of the world’s wealth had been destroyed by the global credit crisis. However, he took heart that the US government was committed to the preservation of financial institutions (like his, one assumes) and would do whatever it took to restart the economy. It’s hard to establish exactly how much money Mr Schwarzman earns. Some sources say he made $5.1 billion in 2007, down to $702.4 million in 2008. Some say he took a 99% pay cut in 2009 down to a paltry $350,000. Whatever the truth of it, it’s a fair bet that a good chunk of that missing wealth ended up in his pocket. But somehow, I suspect that’s not one of the ‘pockets’ David Cameron was referring to.
Getting back to Petra Ecclestone, and her generosity to the kids in Somalia, don’t you find it interesting how a girl (or a guy) can make mega-tanker-loads of money from some dodgy enterprise, then, at some later date, donate large sums to a pet charity, and suddenly she’s on the fast track to benefactor’s heaven? Back in 1992 a Hungarian born gentleman of Jewish parentage by the name of George Soros achieved fame (or notoriety) as ‘the Man who broke the Bank of England.’ Surprisingly, the ‘breakage’ didn’t involve safe-cracking, ripping ATM machines from walls, armed holdups, or, in fact, any violence at all. The technique is known in the trade as ‘short-selling’, and, according to well-informed sources, it allowed George to pocket a cool $1.1 billion (whatever that was in sterling at the time).
Well, Wikipedia tells me that Mr Soros is ‘a financier, businessman and notable philanthropist focused on supporting liberal ideals and causes’, but it hasn’t always been so. Back in 1997, when Asian economies suddenly began to crash, the Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir bin Mohamad, went public with his opinion that the crash of Asian currencies had in fact been caused by Mr Soros and his short-selling ilk. To be fair, it seems George didn’t actually invent this dubious financial activity. That honour goes to a Dutch merchant named Isaac le Maire, who, it seems, came up with the scheme in 1609. Subsequently, the British Government banned it totally in the 18th century, but more recently un-banned it. Some economists blame short-sellers for the Wall Street Crash of 1929, and the US Government passed regulations controlling it – which, apparently, were also repealed in July 2007. Any significance in that date, I wonder? Still, you can’t blame a guy for making a buck any way he can – but again, I feel pretty sure that Dave Cameron wasn’t referring to George Soros’s pockets when he sought the cause of the UK riots. Interestingly, one of united Europe’s attempts to save their common currency has recently involved the banning of short-selling in Belgium, France, Italy and Spain.
If you don’t live in the Southern Hemisphere, you probably don’t care overmuch, but New Zealand is about to play host to the 2011 Rugby World Cup Tournament. Old guys like me can actually remember when rugby was still an amateur sport, but these days, it sure as hell isn’t. Professionalism, as you know, means a whole lot more than merely paying the players to play. Commercial sponsors are the life-blood of professional sport – but there are times when they seem to lose sight of the fact that, without the nameless millions of supporters, blood wouldn’t flow. Sportswear giant Adidas is one of the major sponsors of the Rugby World Cup, and they have recently upset rugby fans in New Zealand by offering to sell replica ‘All Black’ uniform jerseys for $NZ220. Quite steep, you might think, especially with the current strength of the NZ dollar – and most NZ rugby fans thought so too, more so when they found the jerseys were available online for about half the price . . . until, that is, Adidasmanaged to close the sites to purchasers in New Zealand.
Still, manufacturers are entitled to earn a fair living too, and, as the Adidas people have pointed out, they invest a good deal of money in New Zealand rugby. On the other hand, most Adidas products are produced in Asian factories where workers typically earn around $1 an hour. It’s been estimated that the cost of producing the replica All Black jerseys in a Chinese factory is approximately $8 – which leaves a tidy profit for the owners and shareholders of Adidas to pocket. But I don’t suppose David Cameron was referring to those ‘pockets’ either.
Back when I was a lad, science fiction was a popular literary genre. There were some prophets of doom, but, on the whole, there was a strong feeling around in those days that science had, or would soon have, the answers to most of the world’s problems. Labour-saving devices would remove the drudgery from human existence, the green revolution would do away with famine and starvation, and anyway, if by chance we weren’t able to solve all the problems on earth, such as over-population, it wouldn’t be long before we set up colonies on the Moon, Mars, or other extra-terrestrial real estate. The future was generally expected to be Utopian.
Well, somehow, it doesn’t seem to have worked out that way. A recent Timemagazine article[1] on rapidly increasing global food prices suggests that the only way for prices from here is further up. Increasing population, climate change, the channeling of food-growing land to bio-fuel production and falling water tables will all contribute to a continuing rise of demand over supply. ‘Enjoy your dinner tonight,’ the writer concludes. ‘While you can still afford it.’
So it seems that technology isn’t going to save us after all, and you’d have to think that most of the major techno-companies in the world have figured that out. Make your buck while you still can, they seem to have decided. Get cell phones into the hands of the Somalian public, and at least they’ll be able to keep in touch while they’re dying of starvation. I guess it’ll be a while before they can afford self-driving cars, but the rest of us have that to look forward to – once the automobile industry gets the bugs ironed out. Despite the entry of Google into the market, I’m backing the Germans to sort out that technology first. Apparently Google’s self-drivers are still tail-ending each other on the testing circuit.
Well, if technology hasn’t got the answers after all, what’s a person to do? Surely there must be hope somewhere. Luckily, there is, and, according to another recent Time article [2], a lady by the name of Michele Bachmann has the matter in hand. Michele has stormed on to the scene as the possible Republican nominee to contest the US Presidency, and she’s hot! Apparently God Himself thinks so, because, so she says, ‘She’s hot for Jesus Christ.’ This divine support has clearly struck a chord with Middle America – probably some of those recently disappointed by the failed doomsday predictions of Harold Camping. The Time writer quotes one of Ms Bachmann’s supporters, a certain Becky Magee, as saying, ‘I think Jesus is coming to get us. I think we’ll be raptured soon.’
Now I’m going to make a confession here, and confide in you that, until May 22, the day after Harold Camping and his flock attracted media attention because the world didn’t end as they had expected, I had always thought rapture had something to do with sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. But the world has changed in many ways, and even my MS Word dictionary hasn’t caught up with the new usage, as evidenced by the squiggly red line underneath the word when I typed it. Microsoft’s best suggestion was, in fact ‘ruptured’, which may not be far from the truth. My trusty old Chambers lexicon at least provided a range of options:
Rapture: a seizing and carrying away [it says], extreme delight, transport, ecstasy, a paroxysm (a fit of extreme pain, laughter, passion, coughing, etc)
From Latin – to seize and carry off [3]
Well, much as I’d like to think Jesus or some other omnipotent immortal would come and save the world from the consequences of our greed and stupidity, I just can’t seem to get my head around the concept. I have to say, it seems more likely to me that we’ve had the ‘Rapture’; the good old days are over, and we’d better start figuring out ways to save ourselves and Planet Earth, because time, I reckon, is running out.
[1] Time, July 25, 2011
[2] ibid.
[3] Chambers English Dictionary, 1990)

The Turks are Coming! Another force in world rugby?

I come from a rugby-mad country. New Zealanders love sport in general. We are lucky to be born in a country where nature is kind – the weather is mild and there is plenty of open space. Children have the opportunity to choose from an unlimited range of physical activities, but the Number One choice is, and always has been, rugby football.

When I was a kid at primary school, there were two choices for a boy: play rugby, or be a ‘poofter’ (if you don’t know the word, look it up). These days, there are far more options available, and NZ has produced champions in almost every kind of sport, from lawn bowls to boxing; from speedway racing to yachting; from field hockey to middle distance running, rowing, kayaking and putting the shot. The NZ men’s soccer team competed in the 2010 FIFA World Cup, finishing unbeaten in their group, ahead of Italy. The men’s basketball team performed creditably in the recent World Basketball Championships in Turkey.

However, NZ has a small population, and it is not possible to compete consistently with the top countries in the world in every sport. From time to time a world-beating player or team appears, but we may have to wait many years to achieve the same success again. This is true in every sport – except rugby. Rugby is king of sports in New Zealand, and the honour of the nation is carried on the broad shoulders of our national rugby team, the All Blacks. When the All Blacks play against another country, it is far more than a mere sporting event – the result may be the cause of nationwide rejoicing or mourning.

Bleeding for his country –
and the William Webb Ellis Trophy
But not all matches are of equal importance. Apart from New Zealand, there is one other country for which rugby is the number one sport. And I use the word ‘sport’ here advisedly. The other country is South Africa, and the rivalry between these two countries can be compared to the televised bouts of ‘World Wrestling Entertainment’, except rather more serious and infinitely less theatrical. When the All Blacks emerged victorious from their most recent match with the South African Springboks, the NZ coach, Graham Henry, had this to say about his team: ‘These are the guys I would want to have beside me in a war!’ And I’m sure he wasn’t joking. When it comes to smiling, Henry would make the Turkish football coach, Fatih Terim, look like a stand-up comic.

Speaking of the ‘Imperator’ and the Turkish national football team brings me, in fact to the point of this blog. I read an article in my Turkish newspaper the other day, in which the president of the Youth and Sports Development Council announced that they were intending to introduce rugby to Turkish youth – and my heart skipped a beat. The rugby-playing nations of the world have managed to keep their game out of the hands of the Turks – until now! It could be the beginning of the end. My pick is that, if the Turks really get into the game, they’ll have a fair chance of getting their name on that William Webb Ellis trophy by 2019. ‘Yeah, sure!’ I hear you say. But listen up . . .

If there’s one nation on Earth that knows about war, it’s the Turks. If you had to choose a group of guys to have on your side in the event of one, you could do a lot worse than pick a bunch of Turks. Look at a list of the largest empires in world history. The Ottoman Empire comes in at No. 5. If you’re prepared to relax your definition of ‘Turk’ a little to include the Mongols, they’re actually at No. 2; and pretty obviously you don’t build an empire of that size without doing a fair amount of fighting. In fact, if it hadn’t been for some pretty desperate resistance by Hapsburg forces in 1529 and 1683, the Ottomans might well have conquered Vienna and made major inroads into the heartland of Europe.

A glance back further into history reveals that this Ottoman threat to Europe was no surprise. Before the Turkish emir Osman founded the Ottoman dynasty in 1299, Turks had been fighting as hired warriors in the armies of most major regional powers for several centuries. The Persians, Egyptians, Byzantines, Venetians, and even, interestingly (and, of course, more recently), the United States of America, have all availed themselves of Turkish mercenaries at one time or another.

In the 70 years from 1853 to 1923, as the Ottoman Empire collapsed and finally disintegrated, its people fought no fewer than seven major wars, beginning with the Crimean War, and ending with the War of Independence, out of which emerged the modern republic of Turkey. Of course, apart from the last named war, there weren’t a lot of successes for the Turks to boast of in that period – but for sure, they weren’t short of fighting practice. If the British hadn’t swallowed their own rhetoric in the 19th Century about the Ottoman Empire being the ’Sick Man of Europe’, they might have been a little less sanguine about their chances of success in the Gallipoli invasion of 1915. The Turks may have been short of technology, but they remained dangerous foes when backed into a corner.

Coming up to the present day, there is still universal compulsory military service for all male citizens of Turkey. Furthermore, it is not a mere token training. The majority of young men serve fifteen months in the armed forces, and many of them see action in the east of the country in the on-going struggle with Kurdish insurgents.

However, Graham Henry’s remarks notwithstanding, rugby is a sport – a fact attested to by the intention of the International Olympic Committee to include it in the Games from 2016. So let me return to my other reasons for thinking that Turkey may well become a force to be reckoned with.

Turks love football. In fact, the word ‘love’ doesn’t really do justice to the emotions that football arouses in the Turkish breast. It’s my opinion that the rivalries between supporters of Turkish football clubs have their roots in the factional riots originating in the chariot races of Ancient Rome, which periodically laid waste the city of Constantinople (old Istanbul, of course). Not only do the supporters of competing Turkish clubs not mingle during a match, but large numbers of uniformed, seriously armed police stand guard to ensure they do not come to blows, or worse.

However, the football that inspires this fanaticism is not rugby. It is, of course, the ‘poofter’ variety played with a round ball, indulged in by the misguided majority of the world’s nations, in which players hurl themselves to the turf in paroxysms of agony when an opponent approaches within spitting distance. Turks are, actually, quite good at this pansy version of football, though their results on the world stage tend to be somewhat erratic. It’s my opinion that one of the chief reasons for this is that Turks are not very good at feigning injury, and are more likely to stoically refrain from showing weakness in competitive situations.

Nevertheless, the Turkish national soccer/football team did finish 3rd in the 2002 FIFA World Cup – a creditable performance which put them in the same company as international powerhouses, Brazil and Germany. According to that newspaper article I mentioned earlier, the Turkish Sports Development people have recognised the need for large skilful athletes in fielding a rugby team. Wrestling and handball are two important sports in Turkey, and they suggest that similar talents are useful in rugby too. Further, they are focusing on the recruitment of players two metres in height, 110 kg in weight, capable of running 100 metres in around 13 seconds.

One thing that struck me when I first came to Turkey was how many short men there were. However, in a country of 70 million people, there is a wide range of body shapes and sizes, and a Turk by the name of Sultan Kösen recently entered the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s tallest man. In the World Basketball Championships (a sport unsympathetic to normal-sized human beings), held last month, the Turkish Men’s team finished runners-up to the USA. We may safely assume that they won’t have a problem finding fifteen guys large enough to foot it with the man-monsters of the other rugby-playing nations.

I want to finish with a brief anecdote from my early days in Turkey. When I first came to this country, I took up a position teaching English in a high school in a suburb of Istanbul. My students were of no great intellectual stature, but they were cheerful, outgoing and enthusiastic, keen to initiate a ‘green’ foreigner into the intricacies of Turkish culture. One morning, after our lesson ended and we broke for lunch, a group of 16 year-old lads offered to demonstrate for me a popular playground game known as ‘Long Donkey’. Later, of course, I understood that this ‘game’ is totally off-limits in Turkish schools, but at the time I was keen to learn about local customs, and reluctant to hurt the feelings of my pupils. So the lads proceeded to clear a space in the classroom by moving the desks and chairs around, and the game began.

Let me explain how ‘Long Donkey’ is played. Two teams are chosen. The numbers don’t really matter, but let’s say, on this particular day, there were seven a-side. A coin is tossed and one team becomes the ‘donkey’. The leader of the team braces himself in a standing position facing a wall, and the rest of his team bend over and grasp the player in front in a long, scrum-like formation. The other team, meanwhile, withdraw themselves as far away from the ‘donkey’ as possible, and conduct themselves as follows: the first player takes a running jump, aiming to land himself, with as much force as possible, on the back of the ‘donkey’. The object, as you may guess, is to collapse the ‘donkey’, or, failing that, to remain on its back so that, when the next player follows, the combined weight is increased. 

All players in the jumping team take their turn, and, if the ‘donkey’ is collapsed, a point is scored, or not, as the case may be. Team roles are then reversed, and the game continues until the players tire of it, someone is seriously injured, or the police are called, whichever comes first.

Well, luckily I was able to put a stop to my first experience of ‘Long Donkey’ before we went that far – and, fortunately, before any of my Turkish teaching colleagues came on the scene. But ever since that day, I have been wondering what would happen when and if Turks were able to combine their love of football with their enthusiasm for ‘Long Donkey’. It seems that the rugby world is about to find out.