Dodging The Law Just To Play
Winning games is usually the route to playing on the biggest stages. But one team at the Rugby League World Cup had to overcome the police too.
Why would a government criminalise sport? Exercise keeps people’s spirits up whilst maintaining physical and mental health. It also helps foster important skills which can be beneficial in other scenarios, including the workplace. Fiscally speaking, it has the added bonus of taking pressure off governmental budgets. A fitter population needs less medical attention. Prevention is better than cure... and cheaper.
On the world stage, athletic achievement provides a focal point the whole country can get behind. Citizens find real pride in seeing their nation do well at major sporting events. Success can also be relative. Like most of my compatriots, I’m very excited that Wales will be playing at the FIFA World Cup this year. It will be the first time in my life. Are we going to win the tournament? No, barring a major miracle. It doesn’t matter, though. We’ll be there on the same stage as Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Spain, France. Simply by qualifying we’ve done better, at least in this edition, than some nations who are synonymous with soccer, Italy for example. The whole of Wales will be hanging out the flags and bunting and rallying together as one come November.
This month, another World Cup is happening. As with the round ball version, there are teams which are contenders and others making up the numbers. Australia, New Zealand or England. One of those three will emerge triumphant at the climax. Some harbour ambitions of making it to the quarters or semis but for a chunk of sides, it’s more about simply being there.
There is perhaps one team more deserving of their place than any other when you consider what they have had to contend with. Merely performing on the field was far from enough. Subterfuge and cunning were more important. That team is Greece.
None of the opposition teams was as tough an adversary as the Greek team’s own government. Rugby league has a long history of rubbing authorities up the wrong way. It is perhaps the original rebel game. When the Northern Union in England broke away from the RFU in 1895, forming their own competitions which would pay players for ‘broken time’ (time they had to take off from work to play – rugby union at the time was strictly amateur), it set a precedent. Players who went over from the latter to the former were essentially banned from ever returning, sometimes even as spectators. Painful as that was for many men who simply needed to earn a bit of extra money, their liberty was never threatened. Unlike Greek rugby league players in recent decades.
Cutting a long story short, the Greek government takes a very hands-on approach to sport. Anything approaching organised sporting activity has to be regulated by Athens and rugby league found itself on the wrong side of this system. Team sports have to have at least 20 different clubs to be eligible for recognition in Greece. The 13-man code didn’t and so it wasn’t permitted.
As a result, anyone playing the game in the country was liable for arrest and arrested they were. Court appearances occurred too. In an attempt to avoid detection for the illicit activity of chucking an egg-shaped ball around, matches were played at midnight far away from peering eyes. Officials would declare fake match venues on social media to divert authorities. Malta, who Greece played in qualifying, were only notified of the location for their contest moments before kick off in order to evade prosecution. With that level of pre-game effort and the added stress of worrying whether a police officer would show up, it’s a wonder Greece had enough energy to be competitive, nevermind win most of their matches. However, win they did, and their place in the tournament is a testament to their determination to pursue their passion.
No, Greece isn’t going to win the World Cup. The chances of them winning a game at all are extremely slender. They’ve played their easiest game, against France, and lost. Heavyweights England and Samoa await, and future games are likely to bring heavy defeats. However, simply being there is far more important to a team which has battled against such adversity. As a cherry on that cake, they scored two tries in their first match and after what they’ve been through to get to this stage, that must have felt like winning the World Cup itself.