We Europeans

As a leading authority on nationalism, the Vienna-born historian Eric Hobsbawm recognised the rallying potential of the game. Speaking of his childhood in the 1920s he said that “the only thing that brought the Austrians together in those days was football.” Not much has changed since then.

Since WWII the sport has been marked by outbursts of raw nationalism, even racism – most notably by the British, French and Spanish and, more understandably, the countries of the old Yugoslavia. Eruptions by football rowdies at iconic clubs like Paris Saint Germain only show the nasty side of human nature. A so-called friendly match against an Israeli team turned into a vicious display of anti-Semitism. Nicolas Sarkozy, who was minister of the interior at the time, was reported by the British press to have said: “We no longer want racists, Nazi salutes, monkey noises in stadiums. Soccer is not war.” Soccer? He probably said futbol or something like it.

International football is a fine substitute for war but the motivation is often the same. Commenting a defeat of Germany by Russia in an international match, a football coach described it as a “revenge for Stalingrad”. In the run-up to the match with Spain in the Euro ’96 championships, British media evoked memories of the defeat of the Armada, the Spanish Inquisition and even the Spanish flu’. When England confronted the Germans in the semi-finals, the talk was of the Blitz, Spitfires and the like. One chant, to the tune of ‘The Camptown Lady’, ran: “Two World Wars and one World Cup, doo dah, doo dah, two World Wars and one World Cup, doo dah doo dah day.” When the Germans won, the English fans went berserk…

According to Dougie and Eddy Brimson, experts on the British hooligan’s mind (he does have one), “people fight because people like to fight. Soccer is the vehicle they use because they can justify violence as the defence of their team, town or reputation. They see their role as an extension of that of their teams: to beat the opposition. Violence is like smoking. If you try it once and hate it, you don’t do it again. But if you like it, it’s bloody hard to give it up.”

The Greeks, who tend to get xenophobic when they feel obliged to defend their own doctrine of racial purity – one of the biggest farces of recent times – also have football as a safety valve. The hubris (appropriately a Greek word) that preceded their national team’s defeat in the Albanian capital of Tirana quickly turned to a spirit of vengeance directed at immigrant Albanians living in Greece, a major if now largely hidden element of Greek society. The latter made the mistake of celebrating their team’s victory and the real Greeks, whoever they may be, took this as a provocation, urged on by the media who described the celebrants as ‘rebel-like’ and ‘criminals’.

The irony is that most teams recruit their best players from anywhere around the globe, while many of the best UK teams are now owned by foreigners: Manchester City by the ruling family of Abu Dhabi, Chelsea by a Russian oligarch, Fulham by an Egyptian mogul, and Manchester United by an American businessman.

Take a club like Cluj in Romania and you find its top players are Portuguese. Look at the French national team and you see Maghrebians and sub-Saharan Africans and you ask yourself “is there really a home-grown Frenchman in the team?” But that’s the way the French define nationality: get the numbers up!

Of course, the media add fuel to the flames of fan-worship. The Norwegian press runs headlines like “We won the second half”, when reporting a 2-1 defeat by Sweden, and “We beat England one-one!” when commenting on a draw.

At least the multinational complexion of many so-called ‘national’ teams has the advantage that most of the players don’t know the words of ‘their’ national anthems. There’s hope for human harmony yet!

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