Soccer and Nationalism

Euro 2012 LogoYesterday in Kiev, Spain routed Italy 4-0 to win the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship, a tournament that (for many Europeans and no small number of non-Europeans) is only slightly less significant than the other international sporting competition with which it shares a quadrennium. As I wrote about early in Euro 2012, one match between Poland and Russia was preceded by violence between rabid fans on both sides. Neither team made it out of group play, but as the quarterfinals narrowed to the semis and then to yesterday’s finale, those of us watching on TV saw image after image of Europeans clustering by nationality — in stadiums by the thousands, in city squares by the tens of thousands, and in pubs and homes and other smaller venues — to fervently cheer their teams’ successes and bemoan their failures. (Sorry, England.) That this all happened while the European Union seemed to be on the verge of unraveling — leaders like German chancellor Angela Merkel shuttled back and forth between financial negotiations and soccer matches — seemed to underscore that nationalism, even in cosmopolitan, post-Maastricht Europe, was alive and well.

That’s what Atlantic contributor Suhrith Parthasarathy celebrated, in a piece published a few days before the final. He began with a Spanish expat named Paz, watching La Roja defeat France in the quarters at a soccer bar in Manhattan: “I feel even more Spanish when I’m watching soccer…. There is no greater bond than sport, particularly soccer.” It’s an especially remarkable claim when applied to a country that has at least three regions (Catalonia, Galicia, and the Basque Country) with strong separatist traditions, as Paz recognized: “There are now three Basque players in the national team… They play at their best when they put on the Spain shirt. It brings the different regions of the country together, and I just feel really privileged watching the team.” Soccer journalist Sean Brown agrees: “You have people from different regions coming together to support Spain, and that can only be good. This is the classical justification for sport at a national level.”

Of course, given the earlier fracas between Poland and Russia (fraught with all sorts of historical and political overtones), one might wonder if soccer-fueled national unity is all that healthy. All the more so when the favorite of the tournament (knocked out by Italy in a semifinal upset) was Germany, whose own history with nationalism has been, let’s say, problematic. For decades after World War II, (West) German fans were extraordinarily hesitant to fuse football and politics.

That reticence started to erode in 2006, when observer after observer commented on the resurgence of patriotism — e.g., German fans, for the first time in ages, waved their flag exuberantly. However, even as he documented this shift, German journalist Martin Wachtelborn reassured his non-German readers (e.g., in this San Francisco Chronicle article) that they need not worry (note the phrase I italicized):

German Flags at the 2006 World Cup
German flags in Munich, 2006 – Licensed by Creative Commons (Cameron Parkins)

Hundreds of thousands of flags in black, red and gold are flying over town squares across Germany, where crowds of Germans are enthusiastically cheering, “Deutschland! Deutschland!” In the past, such a sight would be greeted by the rest of the world with anxiousness, even fear….

But that has all changed. The past four weeks of the just-concluded World Cup soccer tournament has changed Germany’s self-perception. Not only did the German team cruise into third place — beyond almost everyone’s expectations — to end up with the bronze medal, but German patriotism has experienced a surprising and remarkably peaceful resurrection. Millions of cars bearing never-seen-before little black, red and gold-flags dominate the streets and autobahns. In the former East Germany, where I live, young people, especially, seemed to like the idea of a united nation.

To Wachtelborn, the way that sport had birthed a national revival was a healthy thing, worthy of celebration, by German and non-German alike:

Even the Dutch and the English — traditionally Germany’s fiercest opponents on the soccer pitch — noted that Germany was a different land: The almost-legendary clinically depressed typical German had disappeared, transformed by exuberant patriotism into an emotional and outgoing globalist….

The world community has celebrated the vital role Germany has played in the democratic world since 1945. Now, Germans themselves have cast off their dark past and, finally, feel free to take civic pride in their own democratic accomplishments.

Parthasarathy doesn’t address German nationalism in his piece, but he would likely agree. He cites the findings of sports psychologist Daniel L. Wann that “in the case of the highly identified fans, the social connections that are formed through their fandom—the camaraderie that comes out of following games with a group of people—plays a significant and positive role in their lives.” It’s all the more true, he believes, when people root not just for a local team but a national side. He quotes Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World: “Humans crave identifying with a group… It is an unavoidable, immemorial, hardwired instinct. Since modern life has knocked the family and tribe from their central positions, the nation has become the only viable vessel for this impulse. To deny this craving is to deny human nature and human dignity.”

I think Foer is going a bit overboard (and utterly ignoring the viability of religious “vessels” for group identification), but I’m willing to believe that — silly as it should sound — cheering eleven men as they try to kick a ball into a net can serve to strengthen the bonds of national unity.

Italian Fan, Euro 2012
Licensed by Creative Commons (Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Benedict Anderson famously called the nation an “imagined community,” but also attached great importance to rituals and language that made imagined ties (briefly, fleetingly) concrete. In my series on national anthems last fall, I quoted Anderson’s description of the power of coming together to sing such songs: “At precisely such moments, people wholly unknown to each other utter the same verses to the same melody. The image: unisonance. Singing the Marseillaise, Waltzing Matilda, and Indonesia Raya provide occasions for unisonality, for the echoed physical realization of the imagined community” (Imagined Communities, p. 149).

Of course, such songs are most often sung at the beginning of sporting matches, but Anderson’s “unisonance” might not end with the final note (even if he pays little attention to sport itself). Sports like soccer provide hours-long “moments” in which people wholly unknown to each other come together — often in close physical proximity that features plenty of sweat and tears (hopefully not blood…) — to experience intense emotions centered on the performance of a team they regard as their own. There are few better examples of Anderson’s “physical realization of the imagined community.”

Hopefully, Parthasathary, Wachtelborn, Wann, Foer, and Paz are right, and this ritual — which is not new, but seems stronger than ever — forms a different kind of nationalist than the one we saw so often take to a different kind of field for a different kind of contest in the twentieth century.


One thought on “Soccer and Nationalism

  1. I think it’s really cool. I love my sports teams, but the nationalism displayed at soccer games is unreal. How did they learn all those chants and do them at exactly the right time? It blows my mind.

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