Soccer and the Inevitable Failure of the European Project
As longtime readers (and podcast listeners) know, my devotion to sports runs a close second to politics (and is usually infinitely less depressing). But a man's passions must have boundaries, and so I'll happily admit that soccer ranks just below synchronized swimming in my hierarchy of athletic interests (the latter edges the former for the simple reason that it's merciful enough to end more quickly).
Still, European football is no exception to the rule that sports can intermittently teach us something about the wider world, which is why this passage from the most recent issue of Sports Illustrated jumped out at me:
Few scenes in sports can match the emotional power of the one that Irish soccer fans produced at their Euro 2012 game against Spain in Gdansk, Poland, last week. In the final minute of a 4-0 loss to the defending champions, the Irish supporters, a majority in the stadium, could have booed and whistled at their own team or quietly filed out into the Polish night. Instead, the 25,000-strong Green Army sang a hauntingly beautiful rendition of the The Fields of Athenry, an Irish folk ballad that had witnesses agreeing afterward: There are no fans in the world more passionate, supportive and just plain fun than the Irish. Defender Gerard Pique said he'll remember Fields of Athenry as long as he lives -- and he plays for Spain.
... No less an authority than NFL commissioner Roger Goodell marveled at European soccer, telling [Sports Illustrated's] Peter King that he would love to replicate the spontaneous songs and chants that are as much a hallmark of the stadium experience as blaring music, Kiss cams and T-shirt cannons are part of the NFL and other artificially enhanced U.S. sports.
The piece then goes on to wring its hands about whether American football fans are even capable of mustering the raw esprit de corps of European soccer fans. To which, it seems to me, the obvious answer is no.
That's not to sell short devotees of the National Football League, of which your author is one. Professional football is the nation's greatest sports obsession and some of its most devoted fan bases (Dallas Cowboys, Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers) possess a sense of shared identity almost as strong as the European fans. But only almost.
The difference is one of depth. NFL teams are brands. And while, over time, those brands may become intertwined with childhood memories, regional identities, and any other number of factors that produce the tissue of lingering affection, they don't run as deep as national pride. At the beginning of every NFL game, fans of both teams have their hearts swell to the same national anthem. Not so intra-continental European soccer.
And therein lies the dilemma for the Eurocrats in Brussels who stubbornly refuse to admit that the real obstruction to their vision of a unified continent is neither political nor economic, but cultural. The 25,000 Irish who sang with one voice above the pitch in Gdansk, did so not because they loved soccer -- or at least not just because they loved soccer -- but because their team was inextricable from a sense of nationhood, from a sense of blood and soil that can't be legislated through any multi-national body. Can anyone picture a similar group, 15 years down the line, joining together in a hymn celebrating a collection of disparate nations who've devised a common agricultural policy?
No doubt, we're still in for many years of Brussels regarding its task as making straight the crooked timber of humanity. And, no doubt, that will end in failure. When future generations ask you where the Eurocrats' battle was lost, you can tell them: on the fields of Athenry.