“I am not a fascist” said Giorgos Katidis following the outrage which greeted his controversial goal celebration last weekend.
Having scored a late winner for his side AEK Athens, Katidis wheeled away, ripped off his shirt and raised his right arm in the manner of the infamous Hitlergruß. The whole thing lasted only a few seconds, but it sparked a wave of disapproval and disgust across Europe, and earned the 20 year old Katidis a lifetime ban from representing his country.
Katidis' defence may seem a little threadbare. After all, not being a fascist does not excuse using a fascist gesture in a moment of euphoria. Just as the fact that John Terry has friends of varied ethnicities does not excuse him from using racist terminology on the football field. The Greek player's insistence that he did not know the meaning of the gesture, moreover, seems even more ridiculous. Nazism and the Holocaust remain, for good reason, among the most widely discussed historical subjects in modern society. On the day in question, indeed, Greece was marking the 70 anniversary of the beginning of transportation of Greek Jews by the Nazis.
And yet, we should not be too quick to label Katidis as a raving fascist. As current German President Joachim Gauck found out to his embarrassment at the Olympics, the Hitlergruß is very easy to imitate without noticing that one is doing so. It involves, after all, little more than the raising of an arm, which is a common enough reflex in goal celebrations. A few more degrees, and Katidis would have gone from Nazi apologist to Alan Shearer impersonator.
Katidis, of course, was not caught at the wrong moment like Gauck. His “salute” was a lot more defined. He stopped running, stood up straight in somewhat military fashion, and jabbed the offending arm into the air. Pointing at a team mate he may have been (though what that team mate was doing in the stands behind the goal, you will have to ask a Greek football expert), but it certainly looked like the Hitlergruß. To make that gesture as a political statement on a day of Holocaust remembrance though, is still one step beyond making it because you fail to understand its significance. Katidis is probably not a fascist. But he is certainly an idiot.
That is what his manager Ewald Lienen was getting at when he said that Katidis “has no idea about politics, so we shouldn't condemn him”. Lienen is a better judge than most when it comes to the line between sport and politics. He stood for regional elections as part of the left wing group Die Friedensliste in the 1980s, and was known as one of Germany's most politically active footballers.
Indeed, in all the outrage and accusations surrounding this bizarre case, it is Lienen who offers the most reasonable contribution. He was unforgiving but understanding in his judgement on Katidis: “The boy has acted very very stupidly and immaturely,” he said, “it's essentially unforgiveable, particularly at a club like AEK with anti-fascist roots. I don't think he's got much of a chance here anymore”.
And so it is. Katidis is not a fascist. Whether he really knew what he was doing or not, whether his team mate really was in the stands, though, doesn't really matter. He has acted stupidly. More often than not, acts of casual racism, casual sexism and indeed casual fascism are done more out of ignorance than malice. But it does not render them excusable. A harsh punishment is only fitting for as idiotic an action as Katidis'. We can only hope that the deterrent serves its purpose, and that the strange case of Giorgos Katidis discourages any more calculated, more malicious attempts to bring fascism to the football field.