Ivan Gazidis: “I think what’s the interesting thing I admire about my parents is that those people were able to do that with moral clarity even though it was against their interests.” (Photo courtesy of MLS)
With little or no soccer news available to the public, FrontRowSoccer.com has decided to run some of its memorable feature stories and some of editor Michael Lewis’ favorite columns and features over the past 16 years. This is a feature about former MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis and his father Costa that was posted on BigAppleSoccer.com on Dec. 2, 2009.
By Michael Lewis
CAPE TOWN, South Africa — As a white man, Costa Gazidis could have looked the other way when the South African government enforced its harsh apartheid policies in the middle 1960’s. He could have lived a regular life as a doctor with wife Dorothea and family.
But because he could not live with what he saw, Costa Gazidis decided to do something about it. It cost him two years of his life for something that he strongly believed in.
Costa, the father of Ivan Gazidis, the former Major League Soccer deputy commissioner, did not have to serve his time in the notorious Robben Island at the time. He wound up in a prison near Johannesburg. But being jailed in was bad enough for breaking apartheid laws in those days, regardless of the color of your skin.
With the FIFA Executive Committee scheduled to hold an historic meeting on Robben Island Thursday, Ivan Gazidis was asked to talk about his father’s experience and how it affected him.
“I think what’s the interesting thing I admire about my parents is that those people were able to do that with moral clarity even though it was against their interests,” Gazidis said by telephone during a recent interview from London, where he serves as CEO of the Arsenal Football Club.
“To recognize the evil of it, it was extremely difficult. I have admiration for people who not only recognized it was wrong, but took action against it.”
It makes you wonder if anyone would want to put their life and their family’s lives on the line, working passionately for a cause that really wasn’t theirs.
“I ask myself that question,” Gazidis said. “I find myself in awe of it. It’s something I’m very proud of my parents for. It dramatically affected their lives. They could have led comfortable lives. Instead . . . ”
Instead, the Gazidis put their lives on the brink and at times in misery.
A little background about the Gazidis. They are of Greek descent, although they wound up putting roots in several lands. Both of Gazidis’ father’s parents were Greek. His grandmother on his mother’s side was Dutch and father came from Cypress. They lived in Turkey. But his grandfather on his father side was exiled from Turkey. They went back to Greece, but they were thought of as Turks. They eventually emigrated to South Africa in the late 1920’s.
“My father, from a very early age, had a sense of the apartheid system,” Ivan said.
While a medical student at Wits University in Johannesburg, Costa Gazidis learned about healing people and the way people can hurt others.
Black students attended the college, but they did not have all the privileges of their white counterparts. For example, all students were allowed to participate or watch when a black person’s cadaver was dissected. However, when a white man’s or woman’s body, black students were not allowed in. There was a sign outside of the theater to remind students of that.
“Believe me, there were rules like this in South African society,” Ivan said.
One day, Costa Gazidis put his foot down after black students were not allowed in the theater.
“My father got up and left with them,” Ivan said. “It was a stand.”
And a beginning. Costa joined the African National Congress, which was a banned organization in those days — 1964.
“It was seen as a terrorist organization,” Ivan said. “It was an illegal organization. If you had a meeting with other members of the organization, you could be arrested and throw in jail.”
Nelson Mandela, a member of the organization who served time on Robben Island for 18 years, was a member of the ANC. He was smuggled into the country and a had a meeting with one of the cells. Costa attended the meeting.
One of the participants was an informer.
“My father stood out like a sort thumb,” Ivan said. “Not very many white members of the ANC. My mother had a similar sort of mind.”
The South African police came to Costa’s office, raid the house and searched for books that were considered subversive. He was put on trial and jailed for two years, the first six in solitary confinement. Costa doesn’t talk about it much.
“The incredible [things] solitary confinement does to you,” Ivan said.
But Costa quickly learned. The first night in his cell, he heard a strange noise. He put his head down to the pipes and began to decipher a unique language. One tap was the letter A, two for B and so on.
“They communicated,” Ivan said about the other prisoners in solitary. “Very quickly he became fluent in it. That effectively kept my father sane during the six-month period.”
The South African authorities, who were white and 10 percent of the population, did everything they could to stay in power and put down their opposition, regardless of their race and background. They played mind games with the prisoners in those days.
“When I was born, they had told him that I had died, that the birth was not successful,” said Ivan, who added that Costa eventually discovered that he had, indeed, survived.
However, when Costa’s father died, he was not allowed out of the jail.
Costa decided to try on his own as he planned to escape, thanks to a train that ran close to the stadium. Because of the noise the train made, he figured he 30 seconds to pull off an escape. Four times a night the train came on the hour and Costa had 30 seconds to get out of his cell and onto the train, Ivan said.
He never was successful, although after serving his time, Costa was released. Throughout her husband’s imprisonment, Dorothea took care of the family.
As an ex-con in an apartheid society, Costa Gazidis was blacklisted. He wound up becoming a mine doctor.
“It was one of the last jobs you were to get as a doctor,” Ivan said. “The safety conditions were really terrible.”
So Costa was forced to live a nomadic lifestyle, going from job to job for the first few years of Ivan’s life.
“It was difficult to find employment,” Ivan said. “Incredibly, everywhere my father went, a letter would come through. He would be blacklisted.”
The family eventually moved to Edinburgh, Scotland — they had to surrender their passports to South African officials and could not return — to start over. It worked out because Costa became an area health doctor, who was in charge of a region of health and made policy.
Eventually, Ivan’s parents divorced after they moved to England.
Years later, when Mandela was released from prison, Costa finally was allowed to return to his country.
Due to “positive discrimination,” Costa “actually found it difficult getting a job . . . because he was white,” Ivan said.
Costa became an area health commissioner. His two years in prisoner certainly did not squash the fire in his belly as he passionate Costa’s became an advocate in stopping AIDS. He began prescribing AZT to his patients. The ANC, the same ANC that got him arrested and imprisoned some 33 years prior, claimed it was against government policy in 1997.
“My father used all of his own money to step up a charitable organization to do it,” Ivan said. “When he ran out of money, he accused the minister of health of manslaughter.”
The government and ANC bought charges against him.
“What is the duty of a civil servant?” Ivan asked. “What was my father’s duty? Was it to follow government policy or was it to be a doctor? Was the freedom enshrined in the South African constitution — would that protect him as a civil servant?”
Ivan, 45, said it became a well-publicized case. Costa became known as Dr. Gaczi, which means blood in Afrikaner.
After a long court battle, Costa was acquitted of those charges. Ironically, he lives in a town called East London, situated between Durban and Cape Town.
Needless to say, Ivan, who is Oxford-educated, was grateful to his both his parents for instilling in him certain values he follows to this day.
“My parents taught me that more than important than recognizing wrong is the conviction to do something about it, even if that is to your own personal disadvantage,” he said. “They also have an extraordinary global perspective and depth of intellectual and emotional understanding that I have tried to learn from. I’m afraid I will never be able to live up to my parents’ clear moral stands, but I always strive to.”
While Costa Gazidis name won’t be mentioned, FIFA will recognize and remember the prisoners of Robben Island Thursday. Those men sued soccer as a lifeline during their years exiled on the island off of Cape Town. FIFA president Sepp Blatter called it “an historical moment.”
Ivan Gazidis gave a thumb’s up to the symbolism of the meeting, but he hoped that the World Cup would leave a legacy for future generations.
“I am delighted FIFA decided to hold the World Cup in South Africa,” he said. “It was the right decision to recognize an often-ignored continent. Holding its Executive Committee meeting on Robben Island has great symbolism of course, but the real challenge for FIFa and for South Africa will be to ensure that the World Cup leaves a lasting legacy for the country and in particular for its poorest and most disadvantaged citizens.
“While the Green Point stadium [a World Cup stadium] overlooking Robben Island is spectacularly situated and will make for dramatic television images, I can’t help feeling that a stadium solution could have been found that adds more lasting value to less privileged areas of Cape Town.”
Sounds something just like a child of Dorothea and Costa Gazidis would say.