Football as Nationalism, as Religion

For those of you who live outside the “Old World” and so who may fail to grasp the fact: Yes, the currently on-going “Euro2004” European football championship is a big deal over here, routinely re-directing daily life with its schedule of football broadcasts and calling forth floods of uniformly-colored crowds in central cities throughout the continent. So it should be no surprise when press coverage takes a step back from the “trees” of the action and results of individual games to contemplate the wider “forest” of what it all means. Often this stepping-back goes no further than attempts to find a secret formula to unlock football-championship success, which are interesting enough in themselves. But lately some analysts have gone even further than that.

Two recent New York Times articles have picked up on the “sad paradox” (as one of them quotes from the French newspaper Libération) between the underwhelming levels of participation in the recent EU Euro-MP elections and the Euro2004 mania that kicked off soon afterward. And both make the point that, in painting their faces the colors of their respective flags and cheering on their teams (as well as often mocking teams and fans from fellow Euro-countries), perhaps Europeans are not quite as “post-nationalist” as they may claim to be. Alan Cowell, asking What Kicks the Continent to Life?, writes from Rome and so takes thing primarily from an Italian view, where supposedly the sense of nation is even at the beginning of the 21st century still not so developed compared to most European countries, but where nevertheless the fortunes of the national squad are covered with great attention and emotion. This is on the whole a good thing in Cowell’s eyes; he quotes the noted Italian expert on Italy, Beppe Severgnini, that the quadrennial European championships have become “a most beautiful, peaceful allegory for the wars that, thanks be to God, no longer exist in Europe.”

Or else all this is not such a good thing, according to Edward Rothstein, in his review of Franklin Foer’s soon-to-be-published book How Soccer Explains the World. Yes, Europe shows its undying nationalistic side when it comes to football, Rothstein writes, and it also shows its racist and even tribalistic side, in the insults and abuse still often meted out to black players and supporters of opposing teams, respectively. Strangely, the US is very different in this respect: football doesn’t get ugly there, mainly because football (known as “soccer,” of course) is not so important. It is mainly something for middle- and upper-class youth, and Rothstein reports that Foer even associates US soccer with “with an ideal of globalization.”


One could be forgiven for attributing to these American reporters a sublimated mocking intent in these pieces: “Haha, you’re all not so ‘post-national’ and peace-loving after all!” So it’s appropriate to go on to consider the treatments of the “larger meaning” of football in general and Euro2004 in particular that have appeared in the European press. For one, there’s Eckhard Fuhr’s The National as Ironic Ethno-Quote in Die Welt. Yes, as you can gather from the title, this piece strains a bit in its sociological reaching. With his German perspective, Fuhr notes how truly remarkable the displays of German patriotism are at events such as the European championships – the face-painting, the loud and serious singing of the national anthem (but, properly, only of the third stanza of Deutschland Über Alles – that’s the peaceful one that is politically correct for post-WWII Germany). For Germans have for some time otherwise been among Europeans least concerned with, or proud of, their nationality.

But things have softened over the years when it comes to football fanaticism, Fuhr reports. For a long time that German national anthem would elicit a chorus of whistles at international football competitions (this due to historical reasons, of course), but in Portugal the whistles have merely been sporadic. One has to think that, if this is true, it’s only because the Germans never got the chance to play England. But they did play – and lose to – the Czech Republic, and Fuhr reports Czech and German fans sharing beers together at the stadium, all wrapped now in a EU-friendliness that would have been unthinkable during such occasions in the past.

Fuhr draws a strange conclusion from all of this – that, as the fanaticism has waned, football has been ruined! (Damit hat Europa dem Fußball den Garaus gemacht.) Football, he writes, has become like non-alcoholic beer: “well-meant and unable to be enjoyed.” He even seems to savor those instances of throw-back behavior (throw-back to past fanaticism, that is) exhibited in Portugal by the fans from Croatia (who raised a stink with their racists chants; yes, that’s indeed what Fuhr is writing about!) and from England (and you know very well what they did: bust some heads).


Going on to something completely different, the article in the Dutch newspaper Trouw (in that paper’s “Religion & Philosophy” section, of course) by Ton Crijnen and Peter Henk Steenhuis sees in football not so much nationalistic fanaticism – but religion (The Football-Church Counts More Converts). After all, the game determines how we allocate our time – certain blocs of ninety minutes on Saturdays, Sundays, and often on weekday nights, too, during the season, are reserved for sitting in front of the set. For many, it simplifies the complexities of modern life, and even provides a meaning for existence. What’s more, it has done this for more and more people over recent years.

Crijnen and Steenhuis bring up in this connection a real-life “church of football” in Argentina, the “Church of Maradona” in the city of Rosario (Maradona was a past Argentine football legend), which claims to have 20,000 members and whose high-holy-day is 30 October, the birthday of their football-playing god. In the Netherlands things have not (yet?) gone to such extremes, but the authors do credit football with an important role of enabling the Dutch to re-discover and confirm their own national identity. “Pim Fortuyn opened wide the sluices of uncertainty [over national identity, but] the Dutch football team closes them shut again.” Victory against the German team is still of crucial importance, but not any longer to differentiate Dutch identity from the Germans, but instead to to confirm their own identity to themselves.

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