In the very same week that politics was shredding history’s most ambitious League of Nations, football was embracing Europeans in the fold of sports, proving, once again, that competition does not have to escalate into conflict. Football is terribly noisy, and fans can become boorish, but there is never real rancour — nothing that cannot be washed away at the corner pub once the hurly-burly’s done. Disruptive (as distinct from constructive) politics, on the other hand, feasts on the fear of the unknown, the most dangerous territory in human psychology. Sports limits consequences; it is only a game without quite being only a game.
Nationalism is not the issue. There is no point being a nation if you do not want nationalism. The problem is the imbalance, which tips whole populations towards aggression in the name of some higher cause. The key to both existence and co-existence is not non-violence because violence is sometimes a practical necessity against killers; it is the balance.
An international competition is meaningless without national spirit. Each country has a character, which is over and above the psyche of an individual. A footballer changes when he shifts from club to country. The evidence is there on your television set; just watch closely. The French surge best from embattled positions. The Germans prefer surgery, calm, clinical, precise. They score a goal in quite the same way that they make a Mercedes. The English do not hit and run, for that would be uncharacteristic. They run and hit — and mostly, these days, miss. In European politics, they miss the point, on a European playing field they miss the goalposts. The Spanish have become a bit like their national anthem, all music and no words. Win or lose, the Irish never give up. The great puzzle, however, is Italy. They are playing measured, thoughtful and sometimes thought-provoking football as if the tempest in their arteries has been bottled in the container of discipline. I believe that they have placed their consuming flair and flamboyance in the safe custody of their coach, whose behaviour on the sidelines, consequently, is reassuringly bizarre. Italy wants to win.
Do I detect proof of Europe’s anger over Brexit in the pre-match support and post-match celebrations of Iceland’s victory over England? Ten per cent of Iceland’s population flew to France to watch the game, and an astonishing 98.8 per cent watched the game. Patriotism, or even exultation at Iceland’s progress, cannot quite explain this for even the most optimistic Viking could not have hoped for victory. Consider the facts: Iceland’s captain can only manage to find a place in the second division of the English league; their goalkeeper is a part-time filmmaker; and their coach, till very recently, was a dentist. But never underestimate the rage of the aggrieved in a one-sided divorce.
Now that the Brexit typhoon has made landfall, and wreckage is being counted, the law of unintended consequences is beginning to kick in. England has gained a nation, but, seven decades after it lost an empire, it has now abandoned a kingdom. Europe could, counter-intuitively, emerge stronger, for nothing is more restorative than a wake-up call. Its leaders must admit that they must cull the reach of Brussels and pack off the tailor who insists that one-size-fits-all. Here is a further suggestion. Europe’s biggest mistake is to ignore the vicious war that is going on at its geographical doorstep, literally a few miles from its easternmost Mediterranean island, across the Levant, Iraq and north Africa, perpetrated by theocrats living centuries behind reality. Europe may want to leave the war alone. The war will not leave Europe alone. Terrorists who strike cities from Istanbul to London and beyond are telling us that. The despairing and desperate refugees fleeing from this war are telling us that. Why do we refuse to listen? Wars are not won by long and bitter conferences about refugee camps. They are won by meeting the enemy on its preferred battlefield.
The things one learns from a football tournament: There are apparently four countries, and not just Spain, with anthems without words. Spain did have lyrics for 217 years until it discovered the virtues of democracy in 1978. Their anthem had too much of the ethos of ancient regimes. Since 1978 the Spanish have not been able to achieve consensus on any alternative set of verses. The fault lies not in poets, dear reader, but in the usual suspects. Perhaps by the Euro of 2116 the people of Spain will get a complete anthem.
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