Nepali Times
Football is war


AMSTERDAM- 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.

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 Catalans, Castilians, 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 colours, the speed, the physical aggression. As a famous Dutch football 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, was for a long time associated with mass slaughter. The English, who escaped occupation by a hostile power and 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 ritualised 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.

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. 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.

When France won the World Cup in 1998, the French liked to point out the ethnic diversity of their team. Their main star, Zinedine Zidane, was of Algerian stock. Others had ancestral roots in various parts of Africa. 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.

Who would have predicted 30 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 England 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, but 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.

Project Syndicate

Ian Buruma is Professor of human rights at Bard College. His most recent book is Murder in Amsterdam: The Killing of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)