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Post-national football?

By Ian Buruma

The contest of devoted nationalism and enlightened self-interest is what made the European Championships so beautiful to watch

Some of the more hysterical German newspapers blamed Germany’s defeat against Italy in the semi-finals of the European championship on the fact that few players bothered to sing the national anthem. Contrast that with the Italian players, all of whom belted out the words of Il Canto degli Italiani (The Song of the Italians). Indeed, the captain, Gigi Buffon, sang with his eyes closed, as though in prayer.

But the Italians had no chance in the final against Spain, the best team in the world, none of whose players opened their mouths during the Spanish anthem, Marcha Real – which stands to reason, given that the “Royal March” has no lyrics. And, besides, the Catalonian players feel uncomfortable with the national anthem, which was much promoted under the late dictator Francisco Franco, who hated Catalan nationalism.

We know that in football, the most successful teams are not always those with the greatest stars. Champions operate as teams – cohesive, untroubled by the egotism of prima donnas, each player prepared to work for the others. Is patriotism really the key to this kind of spirit for national teams, as the German critics of their team believe?

Football has often been called a substitute for war – a symbolic, more or less peaceful, way to fight out international rivalries. The fans of national sides are actors in a kind of patriotic carnival, dressed in the costumes of their national stereotypes: English fans as medieval knights, the Dutch in clogs, the Spanish as bullfighters. Germans, understandably, have a problem with national symbolism, but I spotted a few fans in quasi-Bavarian dress. The prize for the most humorous masquerade must go to the Italians dressed as popes and cardinals.

In the past, English fans – but they were not the only ones – took the war metaphor too far and acted more like invading armies on the continent of Europe, terrorizing towns unlucky enough to stage an England game. But players, too, sometimes have failed to conceal national animosities: when Holland beat Germany in a memorable European semi-final in 1988, one of the Dutch players ostentatiously wiped his bottom with a German shirt.

Given the strength of national feeling in these contests, it is not surprising that people like to project national characteristics onto the style of play. On the rare occasion that England wins a big match these days, victory is attributed to a “typically” English fighting spirit, coupled with “fair play.” The Germans play with “discipline,” the Italians with the defensive strength of Roman warriors, the Dutch with free-spirited individualism, the Spanish with the elegance of toreadors, and so on. When the French won the World Cup in 1998, they ascribed it to their team’s multi-ethnicity – the embodiment of France’s commitment to liberté, égalité, fraternité.

But, when teams lose, these stereotypical virtues are damned with equal conviction as characteristic defects: German lack of imagination, Italian fear of attack, Dutch selfishness, the absence of national feeling among ethnic minorities in France, and so on.

In fact, the reality of football styles is rather more complicated. The provenance of the great Spanish game of today is not the bullring, but the Barcelona team built by Johan Cruyff in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The origin of his “total football” philosophy of keeping possession of the ball with quick, short passes and lighting switches from defense to offense was Ajax, Amsterdam, in the late 1960’s.

As often happens with innovative models, others adopt them, and, as in the Spanish case, improve and refine them. Now everyone tries to play “total football” – except the English, who “typically” remain aloof from foreign ideas. Italians have abandoned their defensive tactics. Even the Germans play the passing game with flair and imagination. The difference between Spain and the others is that the Spaniards do it better.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the Franco-German former student leader of 1968 and Green member of the European parliament, argued in a recent article that modern football stars don’t really play for their countries. As hardened professionals, they primarily play for themselves. They are, to use his phrase, “mercenaries.”

That is perhaps a little too cynical. The tears streaming down the cheeks of Andrea Pirlo and Mario Balotelli after Italy’s defeat were not those of hardened pros. They wanted to win, not just for the money or for the sake of their careers, but for the glory. It still must feel good to be a national hero, hailed in the streets of Rome, Madrid, London, or Berlin as a returning warrior from a successful campaign.

And yet Cohn-Bendit is not entirely wrong. What was striking during this European championship was the intimate collegiality between opposing players. They consoled and congratulated each other, embracing like the old friends and colleagues that they often are. Most of the top players play for the same clubs in Spain, Germany, England, or Italy. Many speak several European languages with the fluency of the international businessmen that they also are.

The best European clubs are all multinational now. Players follow the money. And the top clubs also happen to be the richest: Real Madrid, Chelsea, Barcelona, Manchester City, Bayern Munich, etc. Some of the most difficult and demanding prima donnas often cause less friction in these multinational outfits than they do on their national teams.

If there is a moral to this story, it is this: a common flag, language, or national history can certainly help to induce people to work together in harmony for a shared cause. But so can enlightened self-interest. At the highest levels of human achievement – whether in art, science, or football – it might actually be the more important factor. – Project Syndicate

Ian Buruma is Professor of Democracy and Human Rights at Bard College, and the author of Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents.


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