Euro 2012: Soccer Gets its War On, But Players Can’t Take the Patriotism Seriously

How international tournaments remain an opportunity for nostalgic but usually harmless pantomime jingoism.

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England fans at the England vs. Belgium International Friendly, at Wembley Stadium, London, England, June 2, 2012

You might not know it standing in the home stadium at the start of an international football match against an old rival, but most Europeans really aren’t into the whole patriotism thing. It’s rare, in this era when Europe rarely fights wars, that you’d catch most of them waving the national flag and singing the national anthem outside of a football stadium or a pub showing the game on TV. Perhaps the disdain for patriotism is a function of the continent’s blood-soaked history or the fact that more often as not, national symbols are most aggressively claimed by the neo-fascist anti-immigrant right. Maybe it’s simply a recognition of the changing boundaries of nationhood in a shrinking, mobile, increasingly cosmopolitan world. Whatever the explanation, patriotism is widely viewed as a relic of the 20th century — which was, after all, the heyday of nationalism. (There was no Germany or Italy 150 years ago; Croatia or the Czech Republic didn’t even exist as nation states 25 years ago.) But as the Euro 2012 tournament that kicks off Friday will remind us, football is somehow exempt from the trend, an opportunity for nostalgic but usually harmless pantomime jingoism.

Over the next three weeks, otherwise cosmopolitan Dutch, English, German and French men and women, among others, will immerse themselves in the glories of a mythologized past, seeking symbolic revenge over their history’s defeats or symbolic restoration sense of “national” greatness no longer possible in the geopolitical realm. England fans watching their team struggle to contain lowly Belgium in a warmup game at Wembley Stadium last Saturday seemed unaware of the pathos in their full-throated renditions of “Rule Britannia” — there’s something almost comical about proclaiming that a nation without a single aircraft carrier currently in service “rules the waves.” But lest the requirements of national pageantry in football be underestimated, Serbia dropped striker Adem Ljajic from its Euro 2012 squad last week after he declined to sing the national anthem in a friendly against Spain.

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International football is the quintessential illustration of leftie sociologist Benedict Anderson’s argument that nationhood itself represents an “imagined community”  — an affinity between strangers who will never meet or hear of one another, but are bound by a mental image of shared history, often mythologized, and of common destiny. Nowhere is that community imagined more fiercely, today, than in the football stadium, and among the hundreds of thousands gathered in pubs and living rooms across the country communing with those in the stadium urging their national team forward against those of other countries.

Do hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen gather in front of their TV sets on Bastille Day to celebrate the creation of their republic by singing “La Marseillaise”? Not bloody likely. But that’s exactly what happens when France takes the field in a World Cup or Euro match. So, too, the Dutch, the Swedes, and the rest.

In the first few decades after World War II, football games — against Germany — became a symbolic reenactment in the minds of many fans of England and Holland. “Two World Wars and one World Cup” was an old England chant; these days it’s “Ten German bombers in the air …” More Dutch people poured into their country’s streets to celebrate Holland’s Euro ’88 semi-final win over (then West) Germany than at any moment since the end of World War II — and the fact that many raised up their bicycles (symbolizing those confiscated by the Germans under wartime occupation) was a clear sign that what was being avenged was not simply the country’s 1974 World Cup defeat to its more powerful neighbor.

The Germans, by the way, don’t really do football nationalism — they’re hardly likely to be singing about World War II, now, are they? Indeed, flag-waving nationalism had become so taboo in postwar Germany that when the country hosted the World Cup in 2006, there was a conscious effort to decontaminate expressions of national pride from associations with a Nazi past. Instead, Germans were invited to celebrate football as an expression of postwar redemption, as epitomized by the movie The Miracle of Bern. The movie, telling the story of Germany’s improbable 1954 World Cup win through the eyes of a child, offers a kitschy national football narrative that included the horror of men returned home after suffering in Soviet POW camps. It suggests that West Germany and East Germany always rooted for one another (news to those who witnessed their 1974 World Cup showdown), and generally treats Germany as a suffering underdog that can feel good about winning fair and square against the best team in the world at that time, Hungary. The film’s message, and the tournament’s? It’s okay at a football match to wave your flag and sing “Deutschland, Deutschland, uber alles in die welt” without setting off fears of anschluss and blitzkrieg among your rivals.

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There’s a heavy dose of intentional self-parody, these days, in English fans sticking their arms out to mimic Spitfire fighter planes and singing about downing German bombers. It’s the nation performed in quote marks, nudge-nudge, wink-wink, just don’t talk about the war, eh? When the Dutch face the Germans on June 13, the only history in play will be football history — 1990, 1988, 1974 — if anyone can even remember that far back.

Cold War scars are more recent vintage, of course, and it could get a little tasty in midfield when the Poles or Czechs face Russia, more so if the Russians and Ukrainians manage to meet during the knockout stages. And today’s European Union fiscal and monetary policy struggles will certainly add a symbolic charge to proceedings if the draw contrives to pit Greece, Spain, Portugal or Italy (Imagine: The Group of Debt!) against Germany. But nobody’s expecting another soccer war off the field, or even on it. The world has changed, Simon Kuper reminds us, in ways that undermine the notion of football as geopolitical tableaux. He writes:

“The era of dictatorships, hypernationalism, country vs. country wars, and festering resentments held over from World War II is passing. Most wars today are civil wars. Crucially, soccer is changing too. The World Cup used to set different national styles against each other. The Dutch attacked, the Italians defended, the Germans played badly and won, the Latin Americans dribbled, and the English huffed and puffed and screwed up. Inevitably, everyone felt that everyone else’s style was somehow immoral, even evil.

These days, however, the World Cup rewards globalization, and the homogenization of styles helped make [2010] a post-nationalist World Cup. Everyone plays much the same way now (with the exception of the English, who still huff and puff and screw up.)”

The more poignant link between football and the nation at Euro 2012 is no longer the pantomime reenactment of past wars, but the reimagining of the nation, redrawing its boundaries of inclusion and exclusion which are not necessarily fixed by objective criteria, as much as by the shifting boundaries of political struggles over inclusion and exclusion. Many of those proclaiming themselves American patriots a century ago may have not included African-Americans, Latinos, Jews or Irish Catholics within their definition of “American.” But times change, although usually only after bitter struggles.

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And Europe, today, is playing catchup with the nation of immigrants across the pond, its football reflecting a more elastic sense of the nation and what it comprises. As we’ve previously discussed, the French team that won the 1998 World Cup was dismissed by anti-immigrant National Front leader Jean Marie Le Pen as “not a real French team” because it was so dependent on players whose roots were African, Arab and Afro-Caribbean.

But that team and its achievement affirmed the idea of nationality as fluid, a matter of choice. Midfielder Patrick Vieira, for example, could have just as easily played for Senegal, the land of his birth. Defender Marcel Desailly was eligible to play for his native Ghana, and, of course, the team’s hero and key player, the great Zinedine Zidane, could have represented Algeria.

The same is true for many of the players at Euro 2012 — Italy’s Mario Balotelli had the option to play for Ghana, following the example of German-born Kevin-Prince Boateng, whose brother Jerome will help anchor the German defense at Euro 2012 (they played against each other at the 2010 World Cup). Germany’s Mesut Ozil could have played for Turkey if he’d made his choices — as permitted by FIFA — on the basis of his parents’ birthplace. That’s what Glasgow-born Aidan McGeady did, deciding to represent the Republic of Ireland in a decision that raised a stir in Scotland’s sectarian soccer politics.

FIFA, recognizing the reality of massive and constant migration accelerated by economic globalization, allows a player to effectively “choose” a country to represent at senior level, even if they’d played for a different one all the way up to Under-21 level. So eroded are national boundaries in the modern game that it mocks the very idea of a flag, anthem and passport that distinguishes between “us” and “them.” When France plays England next Monday, chances are that most of those representing Les Bleus will look across at those in England colors and see teammates alongside whom they train and play week in, week out in the English Premier League.

The more cosmopolitan makeup of many of today’s European teams also negates the idea of a shared history lionized in national flags and anthems. The Tricolore and “Marseillaise,” for example, for most of the players in France’s shirts, represents the power that presided over the slavery and colonial bondage under which their ancestors suffered. And if France applied the same rules as Serbia does on players singing the national anthem, it’s ranks might be seriously depleted. Watch the video clip below of France’s players during the playing of their national anthem during a 2006 World Cup showdown with Portugal to see why. (French anthem starts at 1.27)

The camera lingers on French captain Zinedine Zidane, waiting for him to sing. He declines. So does goalkeeper Fabian Barthez. Willy Sagnol and Florent Malouda are singing, but Franck Ribery is not. Claude Makelele and Willam Gallas sing lustily, Patrick Vieira doesn’t sing at all. Thierry Henry and Lilian Thuram sing but Éric Abidal stays mute. Even if we divide these players by origins into white (Barthez, Sagnol, Ribery), Afro-Caribbean (Malouda, Gallas, Henry, Thuram, Abidal) and African (Makelele, Vieira) their responses to the national anthem remain unpredictable.

Umbro, designers of England’s kit, makes a virtue of this tricky question of football’s inclusive sense of nationhood that spans some painful and traumatic divides, in a remarkable ad made for the last World Cup:

You don’t have to embrace the symbols under which your forebears were oppressed to embrace the contemporary English nationhood epitomized by the football team. You can wear the shirt, but not sing the anthem …

The same spirit was there in the the song that marched England fans off to the World Cup in 1998, celebrating the fact that fish-and-chips was no longer the national cuisine of a rapidly changing culture — and let’s face it, culinary insults have long been the shorthand by which European nations have distinguished themselves from one another. The chorus of England’s ’98 World Cup song? “And we all love vindaloo!

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