Nationalism Gets Its Kicks

Myself, I was rooting for Spain in the finals: The Spanish economy is in the doldrums at the moment, and I thought a win might cheer up the Spaniards — which it did, judging by Sunday’s post-victory all-night street party. My son, however, was rooting for Germany: This, paradoxically, is because he is half-Polish, and two of the German players are actually Poles, born in Poland, who speak Polish to one another on the field. One of them — Lukas Podolski — scored both of the goals during the Poland-Germany game three weeks ago. Germany won that game, 2-0.

But then, that was fairly typical of this year’s European championships in the sport that Americans call soccer and the rest of the world calls football (or futbol, or futebol, or pilka nozna, and so on). This year’s tournament proceeded more or less as usual, and all the nationalistic rituals were observed. Everybody dressed in their national colors, sang their anthems and chanted their chants. The Dutch dyed their hair orange; German girls wore red, black and yellow bikini tops; and the Poles — who didn’t used to go for this sort of thing, as far as I remember — painted their faces half red and half white. Everybody does it now, and, generally speaking, it’s a benign phenomenon, as I’ve written before. Most European countries don’t have a Fourth of July, and most Europeans don’t have flag poles in front of their houses, so soccer tournaments are really the only chance they have to scream their national anthems and chants without being thought fascist.

Nevertheless, this year’s festivities made me wonder whether these sweetly atavistic rituals are not merely over the top but also increasingly off-target. I first noticed the problem when Polish and German journalists swarmed over Podolski, after Germany’s victory over Poland, demanding to know “how he felt” about scoring against his own country. He didn’t have any terribly edifying answers, being a 23-year-old soccer player, though his garbled comments about his mixed feelings did produce a national lament in Poland, along the lines of, “Why do all the really talented Poles end up leaving the country?” Yet it turns out that he was not at all unusual. In this Euro tournament, something like a third of the goals were scored by people who were not born in the countries for which they were playing, thanks either to horse-trading with passports or — and this is perhaps more interesting — to the ever-higher levels of migration both into Europe from abroad and within Europe itself.

Thus Poland’s single goal in the tournament was scored by Roger Guerreiro, who was born in Brazil. One of the Austrian stars was Ivica Vastic, a Croat. The Turkish team had five foreign-born players, Portugal had five, and Croatia and France each have seven. Nowadays even the coaches are foreigners. Both Poland and Russia have Dutch coaches — though the former is in the doghouse while the latter became a national hero when Russia’s team, against improbable odds, made it to the semifinals. Apparently there are also calls to make him an honorary Russian citizen.

Perhaps because of the increasingly multinational nature of these supposedly national teams, there was also a certain circumspectness on the part of fans this year, and even of their governments, which I don’t recall seeing before. The Germany-Turkey semifinal last week, for example, was a veritable model of anxious, ostentatiously multicultural goodwill. When it was played, I happened to be in Berlin, home to a couple of hundred thousand Turks (there are 2.6 million in all of Germany) not all of whom feel like natives or are treated as such, most of the time. Nevertheless, on game day, Berliners celebrated with something like forced good humor. Cars flew the Turkish and German flags, Berliners ostentatiously wore T-shirts featuring a German eagle and a Turkish crescent moon, and the Berliner Morgenpost put a studiously cheerful article about good sportsmanship on its front page — in German and Turkish. After the Germans won, everybody, up to and including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, immediately agreed that the German victory was very nice — but of course it was crystal clear that the Turks had played better and had deserved to win. Phew!

But then, that is part of the charm of soccer — which is, let’s face it, a fundamentally unjust sport: Since it is often the case that the wrong team wins, or that the team that has dominated the game doesn’t manage to score, or that the referee has made an arbitrary call and awarded an unfair penalty kick, you can always be gracious about your opponents, if you want to be. And perhaps that helps explain soccer’s enduring appeal in Europe, where the ethnic composition of the teams is nowadays as fluid as the ethnic composition of the nations they claim to represent.

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