Sporting feast, financial famine
It seems to be a great time to be in Europe if you are not from Europe. But for those who are, the harsh realities are overwhelming. Unemployment is through the roof. In Spain, Greece and Turkey over 50 per cent of the people under the age of 25 are without a job. That is beyond staggering, that's a lost generation with zero hope. The economies have all but collapsed in debt-ridden countries like Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Italy and Spain. Austerity measures proposed by the European Union have been met with defiance and rage in some countries. It's a messy and potentially volatile scene.
For those of us who are somewhat detached and not in Europe it can be hard to watch. If you are any kind of sports fan though, it will be pretty much impossible not to watch Europe over the next few months. It's kind of invasive and perverse that, as the continent is falling apart, we will likely be glued to watching it.
This weekend Euro 2012 kicked off in Poland and Ukraine and by the time that ends Wimbledon will be getting started, followed by the British Open golf tournament and then the cat daddy of them all as the Summer Olympics invades London in late July. Mind you, the economy in the UK is in better shape than most of its continental kin, but not by much.
However, the pervasive feeling among many sports fans seems to be one of crossing our fingers and hoping all the civil strife and reactionary violence that inevitably comes with having absolutely no hope will wait to rear its ugly head sometime in mid-August when the Olympic Games are officially over.
I mean, if we can get through the next few months unscathed it will be an incredible sporting feast, right? What a load of rubbish. For all the talk of what sports is supposed to be - unifying, redemptive, inspiring - in its purest form sports is a distraction, no more, no less. Why should the games we play and watch be exempt from the realities of life?
Sports is big business and no different than Wall Street or the political arena. It's a multi billion-dollar industry rife with cynicism, hypocrisy and greed. It's true today and it will be just as true in a little over two months when the Olympics end.
Of course, I will still be watching because I find the performances of elite athletes on the biggest stage mesmerising theatre. But the rest of the corporate circus and the bevy of self-serving, hypocritical sporting officials makes me ill and always will. If someone could show me how the billions in revenue that will be made in European sports this summer will help to shrink the unemployment numbers in places like Greece, Ireland and Spain then I would be happy to extol the redemptive power of sports.
Obviously Euro 2012 is a big deal. After the World Cup, the European Championship is the biggest and most prestigious international soccer competition of any kind. Thirteen of the 32 teams in the 2010 World Cup were from Europe. Professionally, the big-money talent and the big-money leagues are all in Europe. But the irony of that is overwhelming. The Spanish banking system is on the verge of collapsing with some of the country's largest banks insolvent and unemployment at an all-time high of 25 per cent. And yet Barcelona had the highest payroll of any team in world sports this year at US$217 million, followed closely by Real Madrid at US$195 million. I guess it doesn't matter how broke the country is, there is always money for soccer.
As the defending European and world champions, things have never been better for the Spanish national team, if not for their country. Beleaguered Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy met the team this week before they left for Poland. His message was simple. 'We could do with some joy,' he said. But Spain coach Vicente del Bosque seemed to have a better perspective on things. 'Winning the Euros won't solve Spain's problems,' he said.
Regardless, every ounce of Spain's mettle will be tested if they hope to defend their European title from 2008. Only two teams will advance in a group that features the No 1-ranked team in the world in Spain, No 8 in Croatia, No 12 in Italy and No 18 in Ireland. Nicknamed the group of death, it has recently been renamed the group of debt for obvious reasons.
When Ireland play Spain on Thursday in Gdansk, those without any Spanish or Irish ancestry may be basing their allegiances on which country's morale needs the biggest boost. Which of these two feeble economies needs to be distracted from reality a little while longer by advancing to the second round of the tournament?
But it doesn't matter who wins that match. In fact it doesn't matter who wins the tournament. Both countries will still be in dire shape when Euro 2102 ends. There is only so much that sports can do.