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Football Nationalism

By Ian Buruma | Project Syndicate | July 14, 2008

CREDIT: U.S. Army Africa (CC).

The late Arthur Koestler, born in Budapest, resident of many countries, and writer in several languages, once said that there is nationalism, and there is football nationalism. The feelings inspired by the latter are by far the stronger. Koestler himself, a proud and loyal British citizen, remained a lifelong Hungarian soccer nationalist.

It is hard for Americans, whose "world series" are essentially domestic affairs, to understand the emotions engendered in European citizens when their nations compete for the European soccer championship every four years. For several weeks this summer, the stadiums in Austria and Switzerland, not to mention the streets of European capitals, from Madrid to Moscow, were given to an orgy of flag-waving, anthem-singing, drum-beating patriotism. Spain's victory was one of the rare occasions that Catalonians, Castillians, Basques, and Andalusians erupted together in an explosion of patriotic delight.

Football, more than most sports, lends itself to tribal feelings: the collective effort, the team colors, the speed, the physical aggression. As a famous Dutch soccer coach once said, not in jest: "Soccer is war."

It was not supposed to be like this. After two world wars, displays of national fervor became more or less taboo in Europe. Nationalism was blamed for almost destroying the old continent twice in the 20th century. The kind of exalted patriotism, especially when combined with warrior pride, that is still entirely normal in the United States, was for a long time associated with mass slaughter. The English, who escaped occupation by a hostile power, and still believe they won World War II alone (well, with a little help from the Yanks), still have a militaristic streak. They are exceptional. Hence, perhaps, the notorious belligerence of English soccer fans.

And yet, even as nationalistic emotions were suppressed in polite society all over Europe, the soccer stadiums remained stubbornly in the pre-WWII world. Just as killing continues to be celebrated in ritualized form in Spanish bull rings, illicit tribal feelings are given full vent in the soccer arenas.

These feelings can be festive, even carnival-like, as they were in Euro 2008. But they can contain something darker, more aggressive, too, especially when sporting combat is loaded with historical memory. Games between Holland and Germany, for example, or Germany and Poland, tended, until very recently, to be reenactments of the war; either—and most commonly—as melancholy replays of wartime defeat, or as sweet revenge.

When Holland beat Germany in the semi-finals of the 1988 European Championship, it was as though justice finally had been done. More Dutch people turned out in the streets of Amsterdam for a night and day of celebration than when the country was actually liberated in May, 1945. (Sometimes football history gets mixed up with "real" history; the defeat of a superior Dutch team by Germany in the World Cup final of 1974 also needed to be redressed.)

The tribal feelings of Germans were considered, for obvious reasons, to be particularly toxic after Hitler's Reich, which is why German flag-waving, until recently, was exercised with a slight air of shame-faced restraint that was entirely absent in surrounding countries. Yet Germans, too, are unable to suppress such feelings. Older Germans can still remember their famous victory over a superb Hungarian team in 1954. It was the first time since their ruinous wartime defeat that Germans were able to feel proud of themselves. Here was a victory they could celebrate. After years of guilt and deprivation, the Germans were back, as it were.

Like everything else, forms of patriotism change over time. Reasons for national pride are varied. When France won the World Cup in 1998, the French liked to point out the ethnic diversity of their team. Their main star, Zinédine Zidane, was of Algerian stock. Others had ancestral roots in various parts of Africa. The multi-ethnic nature of the 1998 champion was widely touted as a mark, not of a long and often bloody colonial past, but of national superiority born from the tolerance of the French Enlightenment and the fraternity of the French Revolution.

In fact, the French were harbingers of a kind. For something profound is changing in Europe, slowly, painfully, but surely. If ethnic diversity is more and more common in national sides, it is even more marked in clubs.

Clubs, too, often used to command tribal loyalty along ethnic or religious lines, depending on their location in large industrial cities: Irish clubs versus Jewish clubs in London, for example, or Protestants versus Catholics in Glasgow. Who would have predicted thirty years ago that British soccer fans would have cheered for a London team full of Africans, Latin Americans, and Spaniards, coached by a Frenchman? Or that the national English team would be managed by an Italian?

But ethnic and cultural diversity is not all that has changed the face of European football. I have never seen such harmony between the supporters of different nations as in this year's championship. Perhaps it was due to the absence of England, whose fans include the last bands of amateur warriors. But the peaceful, carnival spirit that prevailed, the flying of Turkish and German flags side by side in German streets, when the two nations met in the semi-finals, the joint Spanish-German celebrations after the final, all this suggests something fresh.

Not that national feeling is dying, even as a new European spirit is being born. But at the very least national identities in Europe are no longer quite so colored by memories of war. No one much minds any more when Germany wins, as it so often does. The Germans are now much too nice for that. Yet I have to admit that I still could not suppress a tiny, keenly felt pleasure when Germany lost to Spain. Perhaps because Spain played more beautiful football. Or perhaps it just shows my age.

© 2008 Project Syndicate. Republished with kind permission.

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