When Novara’s bid to bounce straight back to Serie A ended in defeat to Empoli in the play-off semi-finals, various members of the team began to consider their future.
One of them was Bruno Fernandes, a richly talented 18-year-old midfielder from Portugal. So impressive had he been that Udinese came in for him. As their new director of sport Cristiano Giaretta had just left Novara to take up the role it perhaps shouldn’t be too surprising that he wanted to take one of their players with him and he picked Fernandes.
Which meant Novara now had a hole to fill in midfield ahead of next season. Infrastructure-wise, they are one of the best clubs in Italy and their scouting department received a lot of the credit for their return to Serie A for the first time in 55 years in 2011.
Replacing Fernandes wouldn’t be a problem then. Indeed, Novara thought they’d found just the player for the position.
He was 20 and had captained his country at Under-19 level during the 2012 European Championships in Estonia. He scored three goals en route to the final where his team lost, as nearly everyone does these days, to Spain.
It was clear and not just to Novara that this kid had a very bright future ahead of him. His name was Giorgos Katidis. And he’d make headlines around the world, though not for his talent, nor for the right reasons.
Playing for AEK Athens on March 16, Katidis scored an 83rd minute winning goal against Veria. He then ran towards the fans, taking off his shirt before making what appeared to be a fascist salute. His actions caused outrage.
The AEK supporters group Original called for the club to terminate Katidis’ contract. AEK didn’t go that far. They suspended him for the rest of the season instead. But the Greek Football Federation went further.
They described Katidis’ act as “a severe provocation” that insulted “all the victims of Nazi bestiality.” After a disciplinary hearing, he was banned for life from representing Greece at all levels of international football.
Throughout Katidis claimed: “I’m not a Nazi or fascist. I did not know what I was doing. I thought that my celebration means respect. Do you know any footballer at the age of 20 who would knowingly want to put an end to his career?”
No. But then nor do many people reach the age of 20 without becoming aware of the significance of the gesture Katidis made particularly at a time when the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party is on the rise and now has 18 seats in Greece’s 300-seat parliament.
To him the raised-arm salute might not have had a political meaning. But to the rest of the world it did, which is why it was wrong.
Think of the bad influence it might have had on impressionable kids who tempted by far right extremism see a player they look up to make a gesture associated with it. It could be the tipping point in their political orientation.
Katidis was remorseful. “I feel terrible for those I upset with the stupidity of my act,” he said. “I also understand fully the reasons for the decision made by the Greek Football Federation to which I owe a huge apology as it has helped me to get where I am in the professional game.”
AEK promised to review his future.
A statement read: “Whether the player will remain at the club beyond this season will be judged in the summer after which time he will, firstly, have been given the opportunity to demonstrate in practice his behaviour was the result of immaturity and, secondly, whether or not his possible reinstatement to the squad does not cause any negative effects within the club.”
While serving his suspension, AEK were relegated for the first time in their history. Docked three points after the abandonment of their match against Panathinaikos in April and unsuccessful on appeal, the club, already financially stricken, was in trouble.
Some of the blame was apportioned to Katidis. He revealed he was considering a move abroad because “in Greece they’d massacre me on making my first mistake. And besides, I wouldn’t be able to play with a light heart hearing myself taken for a fascist.”
Novara have offered Katidis an escape but his anticipated arrival in Italy hasn’t gone without protest. No, far from it. There has been uproar. The issue has even been raised in parliament with calls for the Lega Calcio and the FIGC to intervene.
“Everyone has a right to a second chance,” Novara’s chief executive Massimo De Salvo said. Not everyone agreed. “They want to give him a second chance?” mused Vittorio Pavoncello, the president of Italy’s Jewish sports association Maccabi. “My grandfather who died at Auschwitz didn’t get this second chance.”
From a PR perspective it has been a disaster for Novara.
Efforts are apparently being made to rescue the situation. Some have suggested Katidis be taken to the see the plaques at San Siro and the Renato dall’Ara in memory of Arpad Weisz, the great coach and former Scudetto winner with Inter and Bologna, whose family was deported to Auschwitz where they all perished.
What Katidis’ proposed move to Novara tells us is that while he may be able to leave Greece behind, he can’t escape his past. He made a mistake and will carry it with him for the rest of his life. It’s something he must learn to live with.