Saturday saw the kick-off of the European Football Championships in Basel. The tournament for Europe’s top 16 football (you call it 'soccer') nations is being co-hosted this year by Switzerland and Austria, neither of which is a noted hotbed of footballing passion, but feelings have nonetheless been running high for the past few days. That has little to do with the placid Alpine fans, and more to do with Sunday’s match between old rivals Germany and Poland.
In the run-up to the game, the Polish tabloid Super Express devoted its back page to a gruesome depiction of the Polish coach holding the severed heads of Joachim Löw and Michael Ballack, the German trainer and captain respectively, beside the headline “Leo, give us their heads!” A minor diplomatic incident ensued, with the situation defused only by an in-person apology from the Polish coach to the two decapitated Germans. “This is shit,” exclaimed Leo Beenhakker angrily. “Here one sees what sick people there are in this world.” Though the match itself was unremarkable, rival fans clashed afterwards, with some 150 detained; it is reported today that some of the German fans were heard singing Nazi and anti-Semitic chants.
Polish antagonism towards their neighbors has shown little sign of abating with the passage of time; last year, the then Prime Minister, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, caused outrage when he suggested that Poland’s voting rights in European Union institutions, weighted according to population, be rebalanced to take account of the millions killed by the Germans during the war. But in a continent which has largely banished conflict as a means of settling grievances, football is often the continuation of war by other means. Local rivalries exist in all sports everywhere, but Europeans are particularly good at using them as an excuse to dredge up old grudges.
Perhaps the most famous of these is the rivalry between Holland and, yes, Germany. When the Germans hosted these championships 20 years ago, the Dutch convoys came across the border singing "In 1940 they came, in 1988 we came" (it's catchier in Dutch, apparently). Two years ago, the fans traveled back across to Germany for the World Cup clad in WWII-style orange plastic helmets. The atmosphere is reasonably light-hearted these days, but there is no mistaking the undercurrents running beneath the surface.
Other match-ups are more hostile. Games between Greece and Turkey, or Serbia and Croatia, have in recent years seen major clashes between supporters. Armenia and Azerbaijan took it one stage further; their two qualifying matches for this competition were simply canceled amidst childish wrangling over venues. As for Israel, they clock up the air miles competing in the European football set-up, rather than against their Arab neighbors.
But, just as football fans can use the sport to express hostility, it can also serve as a vehicle for more positive nationalist sentiments. In the Gorbachev era, for example, with Soviet republics beginning to scent independence, fans used local club sides as proxies for the national teams that were still some years off. And so supporters of Ararat Yerevan, say, would look forward to games against "Georgia" or "Lithuania," not Dinamo Tbilisi or Žalgiris Vilnius, and chant the name of their opponents’ home republic in solidarity.
In some parts of Europe, club teams remain a focus for regional or national pride. Barcelona is still sentimentally seen as a substitute for a Catalan national side (despite being stuffed with foreign players), AEK Athens historically draw their support from the descendants of the displaced Greeks of Asia Minor, Glasgow Celtic "represent" Scotland’s Irish Catholic community. As for my own country, it has been seriously argued that devolution of government from Westminster to Edinburgh was delayed by two decades due to the timing of a referendum on the issue just months after Scotland's shattering failure at the 1978 World Cup.
But we who follow the sport with maniacal devotion (I'm typing this with one eye on the France-Romania match in the corner of my screen) do have a tendency to exaggerate its powers. The most remarked example of football as vehicle for social cohesion from recent years is probably France’s World Cup-winning team of 1998, whose members comprised a veritable rainbow of races and immigrant backgrounds; Armenian, Basque, Senegalese and Caribbean. The crowds celebrated in the Champs-Élysées under a giant picture of the great Zinedine Zidane, the son of Algerian immigrants, illuminated in red, white and blue under the slogan "Zidane Président." The chattering classes in France loved it.
Only Jean Marie Le Pen and his National Front chose to strike a sour note: "France cannot recognize itself in the national side," he griped. "Maybe the coach exaggerated the proportion of players of color, and should have been a bit more careful." Le Pen's casual racism seemed out of step with the time, but four years later he was in a runoff for the Presidency against Jacque Chirac, and few would say that Zidane's iconic image has done much for relations between "native" French and the country's large Muslim population. Perhaps sport serves as a focus for national pride when other outlets aren't available; maybe it's a safety valve that allows us to mock our enemies without (usually, at least) fighting them in the streets; maybe it can hold up a mirror to our society and help up see ourselves as others see us. Maybe it can even change that society for the better. But hang on; in the corner of my screen, it looks as if the French team of 2008 may finally be stuttering into life, so let's wrap this up.
The actual football game between Germany and Poland? It passed off without incident. The Germans won, as the Germans usually do. Appropriately, both goals were scored by striker Lukas Podolski, who was born in Poland and left when he was a child. He did not celebrate.