Soccer, the last acceptable form of nationalism.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
June 18 2002 12:37 PM

Flag on the Field

Soccer, the last acceptable form of nationalism.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Once, and only once, have I attended a world class—not quite World Cup—soccer game: England was playing Germany in London in the semifinals of the European championships. I'd previously been to a Super Bowl and one or two Redskins' games, but nothing really prepared me for the decibel level of Wembley Stadium. Over and over again, the fans sang "Football's Coming Home," a weirdly catchy tune, with lyrics predicated on the mystical notion that football (soccer), a game the English invented, was finally "coming home"—and that the chronically weak English team would once again become great. They also chanted. The night I watched England play, they mostly chanted, "Here we go, here we go, here we go," but sometimes the chants are more original. During the England-Argentina World Cup match last week, for example, they chanted, "Where is your navy? At the bottom of the sea"—a not terribly subtle reference to the Falklands War. About once a year, a British anthropologist is trotted out to analyze the chants as a vestigial form of primitive cult religions.

Outside the stadium that day, soccer mania had gripped the nation—and it is a mistake to imagine that only the hooligans temporarily turn into chauvinistic nationalists on the day of an England match. Otherwise well-behaved friends of mine were genuinely outraged that I, a mere foreigner, had received a press ticket. Germany jokes, usually involving the Nazis, were all the rage. One was attributed to Mrs. Thatcher, who upon being told that Germany had defeated England (which they did, of course) had allegedly replied, "They may have beat us at our national game, but we beat them twice at their national game in the 20th century."

And everyone laughed. In the context of soccer, flag-waving nationalism—even chauvinistic, anti-foreigner, flag-waving nationalism—is acceptable in Britain. Which is odd, given that it isn't acceptable in other contexts, not in Britain and not anywhere in Western Europe, where most countries' political elites, at least, are ideologically dedicated to diluting their national identities into the broader European Union—as quickly as possible.

In Britain, even what Americans would consider to be ordinary patriotism is often suspect. When Tony Blair first entered the prime minister's residence in Downing Street, in 1997, he staged a little parade of well-wishers, all of whom were waving the British flag, the Union Jack. The British chattering classes howled their disapproval of this unsightly show of nationalism—one friend told me that the Union Jack always made him think of right-wing extremists—just as they had earlier howled their disapproval of the Blair campaign's brief (and quickly withdrawn) use of the traditional British bulldog. This summer's Jubilee, the 50th anniversary celebration of the queen's reign, has been accompanied by some flag-waving—but some opposition, too. One Independent  columnist wrote that her friends are "studiously ignoring the event," since national symbols such as the queen and the flag "bear uncomfortable overtones of racism and colonialism." Patriotism, she went on, is seen as "profoundly down-market, like doilies and bad diets."

The attitudes vary in other countries—unlike the Union Jack, the French tricolor flies from just about every public building in France—but the general rule of thumb holds true. Certainly there isn't anywhere in Germany you can go to shout, "Deutschland! Deutschland!" except a soccer stadium, for example. Perhaps as a result, feelings run so high in Germany following a soccer match that no incumbent German chancellor has ever lost an election in the wake of a major German victory. The re-election of Helmut Kohl in 1990 was widely attributed to Germany's victory in that year's World Cup. Perhaps it was all a coincidence, but the current German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, is taking no chances. He has made a point of halting all his current, tight election campaigning for 90 minutes every time Germany plays a World Cup match.

In part, reverse snobbery explains this strange phenomenon. Soccer is the man-on-the-street's game in Europe, and the politicians, academics, and high-end journalists who would normally shun exhibitionist patriotism support their national teams as a means of proving they are really men-in-the street themselves. But it may also be that high national emotions are permissible when a soccer team is playing precisely because they are impermissible at most other times. There aren't, simply, many other places where you can sing your national anthem until you lose your voice without causing a riot.

And the implications are broad-ranging. The somewhat strange fact that the British have four international teams (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) instead of one, for example, may well have contributed to the recent revival of Scottish and Welsh separatism. If the England team really did become successful, it might even create some serious English separatism, a previously unknown phenomenon. Certainly the rise in middle-class support for the England team has contributed to the revival of the English flag—a red cross on a white field—which now flies from fans' cars on the days of big matches, and sometimes gets painted on their faces.

But the significance of the American team's weakness has always been underrated, too. Particularly now that the Olympics have been spoiled by total American dominance, it is nice for everybody else that the United States always loses at the only game the rest of the world really cares about. Now that the United States has started to do a bit better, the future looks darker. Hearing the score of this morning's Mexico game—and the rumors that riots might start in Mexico City—I immediately worried: If the United States started to dominate soccer the way it dominates basketball, then anti-Americanism might really start to get ugly.

As it stands, the relationship between the United States and soccer is perfect. Americans—citizens of a modern state—have plenty of opportunities to show their patriotism, on inaugurations and at school assemblies and on the Fourth of July. They don't need to do it in soccer stadiums as well. Europeans, on the other hand—citizens of postmodern states—have fewer and fewer, and need those soccer highs badly as a result. Cheer for the American soccer players if you will—but keep your fingers crossed, and hope the U.S. team doesn't upset the balance by winning too many more matches.

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