Football & Acceptable Nationalism ?


Soccer play

As anyone with a pulse, and access to an electronic device must surely know by now, the world of football (or “soccer” if you belong to a nation insistent on changing the nomenclature of other people’s pastimes) is currently in the rabid fever grip of the European Championships. Taking place in France – a country still reeling from the impact of international Islamic terrorism – and involving 24 national teams from across the region, the European Championships are the second most influential competition (after the world cup) of the most popular and participatory sport on earth. Unlike the Olympics, which relies for the most part on sports that require expensive equipment to participate, football only needs a ball, and a couple of backpacks on the ground to act as goal-posts. Everyone, from the poorest street urchin to the trust-fund baby knows what it is like to kick the old pig bladder around, meaning that football is (as close as damn it) truly everyman’s sport.

[I will take a moment here to acknowledge that women also play football, and that it is considered the fastest growing female participation sport – especially here in the USA, where the women’s team are the current World Champions – but for the moment I am going with the hyperbole of a male dominate competition because that is the rhetoric of machismo and chest-beating that we are going to get into in a moment]

For those of us interested in the farcical nature of the geopolitics on display at Euro 2016, the competition already afforded a smorgasbord of nationalistic insanity, even before we made it into the knock-out rounds! Let’s start our exploration by looking at the most fascinating aspect of football in the 21st century – the fact that, in many ways, football is the last bastion of strident nationalism! I might even go so far as to state that it is the last acceptable venue for simplistic nationalist rhetoric outside of a campaign rally – although the advantage of the football arena is that you never have to hear some bloviating windbag use the phrase “what the American people want/demand/need/deserve…etc, etc, etc, as if a) the American people were some sort of monolithic ideal, or b) that the orator in question had some special insight into the hopes, dreams, and expectations of 320 million people.

For the average football fan out there, events like the World Cup and the European Championship provide an opportunity to dress like an idiot, slap on the old patriotic face-paint, and scream at the top of your lungs a variety of quasi-patriotic chants, vaguely amusing insults, and the only verse of the national anthem that you can remember. – and it has to be said, the entire process is fabulous fun! For someone who spends their days reading critical geopolitics papers, bemoaning the level of dialog on the international plane, and finding ever more inventive ways to avoid writing my dissertation while still pretending to be doing “work,” I find myself as easily drawn into the nationalist fugue as the next man. Regardless of how many times I have had to explain Benedict Anderson to some fresh faced Undergrad, I still find myself caught up in the “imagined community” of the football world – chanting “Come on England” despite having been massively disappointed by them for my entire adult life – or perhaps it is actually because they always succeed in failing miserably? My national team is nothing if not consistent – a bit like the Monarchy – meaning that even though governments, politicians, and decades may come and go, the
Queen and England’s ability to be dumped ignominiously out of a tournament are two strangely reassuring constants that serve to anchor the notion of “England” in my head.

Of course, that is the vaguely cosy version of nationalism that has worked its magic on me since I was but a wee lad. However, alongside this somewhat twee  vision, football also serves to enhance – or at the very least provide an outlet for – a far more disturbing and virulent form of nationalism; that of “hooliganism.” Growing up in the 1980s in England, the constant visuals on the nightly news about football supporters – generally dressed in a beer stained England shirt (if any shirt at all) staggering around some foreign city looking every part the belligerent drunken morons that they were, was also something of a constant. An entire genre of popular fiction arose to explore the “life of the hooligan” – even to the point of making dubiously sourced “real life accounts” into motion pictures that sought to show how the lads would go out and “take the town” from the wops, or the spics, r the frogs, or whatever other degenerative term was in fashion at the time. Who can forget adorable Frodo Baggins as a lean, mean, fightin’ machine in “Green Street Hooligans” – a movie that at least had the good graces to put its territorialism up front and center, even if the battles involved were more tribal than national.

Inengland-hooligans any event, hooliganism was the scourge of English football in my youth, or at least, that was what I thought. However, Euro 2016 has demonstrated that bad ideas never die, they just lay dormant for a while until a fresh batch of idiots comes along to embrace them. The clashes in France during the first week of this tournament were like having an acid flashback to the bad old days – albeit with one major difference – in this instance, the pot-bellied, drunken imbeciles waving their bare chests and farmer’s tans around were on the receiving end of the “agro”, as a new country stepped up to the plate and assumed the mantle of the “worst fans in Europe” – namely the Russians.

Here is where the really interesting geopolitics takes place because unlike their British counterparts, the Russian “Ultras” appeared to enjoy the tacit backing of at least some members of the Russian parliament. I point of fact, the head of the Russian Supporters Association (and employee of right wing Nationalist MP Igor Lebedev) who was deported by the French authorities was subsequently found to have sneaked back into France in order to attend Russia’s final game (they were also ignominiously dumped out of the tournament, demonstrating the disconnect between prowess on the field, and bullshit in the streets).

352E041800000578-3638517-Ready_for_battle_Russian_ultras_are_not_only_the_most_vicious_sp-a-22_1465824361564Quite why running street battles should prove to be such a point of pride for Russia is a debatable point, although it would appear that at least some members of the British Government see the Machiavellian influence of Vladimir Putin behind the troubles. The Guardian had a delightful piece, brimming with old school Cold War enthusiasm, that posited the bizarre notion of the Ultras as a covert arm of the Russian military, engaged in a form of “hybrid warfare.” As the theory goes, these street battles are a way of demonstrating nationalistic pride and machismo, while at the same time allowing Putin to shore up popular support at home by demonstrating how Europeans hate (and fear) mother Russia for her strength. You might be inclined to see this as delusional paranoia, but there is some precedent for this kind of thing. In particular, I am thinking of Simon Kuper’s excellent book Football Against the Enemy – which I heartily recommend to those of you with an interest. Alternatively, you can take a look at Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World: An unlikely theory of Globalization which is also an interesting read.

At the end of the day, the tiny minority of idiots engaged in chest-beating (both metaphorical and actual) is insignificant, even though it does tend to dominate the airwaves. After all, the images are just so shockingly visceral, like something out of the Coliseum. Groups of sweaty men, arms raised, chests puffed out, swaggering along in packs like the Sharks and the Jets – yet somehow less believable as symbols of a cohesive identity. – it all makes for excellent click-bait. However, we should also spare a thought for the French authorities, already under enormous strain due to the heightened state of tension from the recent terrorist attacks. One of my faculty committee, Dr. Tom Gillespie, travelled to France this summer to show his support for the host state, and to demonstrate his contempt for ISIL and their ilk. He is probably camped out in the Fan Zone beside the Eiffel tower as I type, preparing for the final match between France and Portugal, and having the time of his life (I am only 90% jealous – the other 10% enjoys watching the games in HD too much).

This leads me to my final (meandering) point about nationalism and football – namely that if you take a good, long look at exactly who represents the state in such a tournament, you get a very different picture of what constitutes the state – and how that has changed over the past 30 years. Take France for example – here is the French National Team in 1984 (when they won the European Championship as host nation):

Soccer - Euro 1984 - French National Team

And here they are in 2016, preparing to try and do the same thing again:


Notice the difference? What I love about the nationalism of football is that is actually affords the opportunity to help re-define what we as the fans understand constitutes the “imagined community” of the state. How can you be French, fiercely nationalistic, immersed in a sense of national honor and pride, wrapped in the tricolour, and watching a veritable melting pot of ethnicities and skin-tones coming together to fight for the honor of the homeland, and not be swayed by that? Of course, some people (many people?) allow that feeling of one-ness and shared purpose to dissipate five minutes after the final whistle has blown – and lets not try to pretend that a state like France does not have some heinous issues with race relations, its colonial heritage, and a multitude of other major problems – but for some of us that shared experience has a lasting effect, and it is a positive one. Even if it is just for one, brief, shinning moment, the state comes together to pin all its footballing dreams on a pretty broad cross section of society – and I for one revel in that part.

Vive la France!


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