A Kick at Europe

How soccer stamps on the EU's goals


As the world watches the appalling spectacle of innocents being beheaded in Iraq, allegedly for reasons of nationalism by what some persist in calling a "resistance", a substantial number of people internationally have turned to a more pleasing display that is no less nationalistic, but also far less wantonly destructive: the Euro 2004 soccer tournament.

Every four years, European nations organize the championship, a miniature version of the World Cup. This year, the competition (which began two weeks ago) is being played out in Portugal, and as of today, those qualified will move to the quarterfinals, with the final match scheduled for July 4.

It was a coincidence, if a happy one, that on the weekend the Euro started, elections were held to the European Parliament. The results were a disaster for governing parties, but more significantly a triumph for Euroskeptic parties angry at the growing power of the EU's bureaucracy and institutions. In Britain, a former television commentator, Robert Kilroy-Silk (whom the BBC recently fired because he described Arabs as "suicide bombers" and "limb amputators"), was on the list of the Euroskeptic U.K Independence Party. He said, referring to the European Parliament: "We want to wreck it. We are going to expose the corruption and how they waste your money, sitting around in restaurants."

Commenting on the election results, the Paris-based International Herald Tribune had this lament: "An election that was meant to be a symbol of the joyous reunification of the Continent only six weeks ago became a reminder of how detached Europeans feel from the EU."

There was doubtless more to the election results than an effort by irate Europeans to break free from the half-nelson of the Brussels bureaucracy. However, a few days after the elections, as European leaders agreed to a new EU Constitution, there was a growing sense that the document would have to be put to popular referendums even in those countries, such as France, where governments had refused to commit to such the option, for fear it may be rejected.

As Europe more formally unifies, soccer has remained a splendid bastion of differentiation, although the regulations governing the sport and its transactions are increasingly falling under the purview of Brussels. Discounting the thugs who use stadium terraces as battlegrounds, the sport has mostly thrown up a laudable wall of contrarian divisiveness against EU-induced uniformity. Why is this important? Because it helps overcome the tyranny of consensus that in many respects Europe threatens to succumb to, as its bureaucrats legislate the continent's idiosyncrasies out of existence.

So, what is actually going on at the Euro 2004? More of the ancient rivalries that the barkers of European harmony would never quite be able to explain. Ask EU functionaries to enlighten you on the true meaning of the England-France rivalry, and they will mention Jacques Chirac's dislike for Tony Blair, or some quibble over agricultural subsidies. However, they will forget Agincourt or Waterloo, or other markers of mutual antipathy, leaving you unable to truly gauge the ecstasy felt by French fans when they defeated England in the last minute of their game on June 13.

Ask a Brussels denizen to deconstruct Italian suspicions before the match last Tuesday between Sweden and Denmark. The Italians feared that a high-scoring tie between the two teams would precipitate Italy's elimination from the competition, allowing the Scandinavians to march together to the quarterfinals. Warning against potential Nordic collusion, Italy's captain, Fabio Cannavaro was tart: "From all those people from the north who gave us lectures on civilized behavior after [Italian player Francesco] Totti's spitting [at a Danish opponent], I am anticipating a great lesson in fair play."

In the end, Italy lost, though the Swedes and the Danes visibly did not doctor their result. But the true loser was the EU, which has no vocabulary to portray so evidently inane a concept as "Scandinavian perfidy" and must have squirmed upon hearing Cannavaro mention "those from the north", as if describing space invaders. How, the EU suits surely muttered, could a mere central defender so boorishly miss the purpose of a united Europe by presuming antagonistic geographical blocs?

It is at the local and regional levels that soccer best hurls sharpened coins at the European project. The enmities between cities and regions inside countries are infinitely more powerful than those between nations. There is no pretense of concord as centuries-old cleavages take hold, with Basques and Catalans hating teams embodying central Spanish authority, particularly Real Madrid; with southern Italian supporters hating the far richer clubs from the northern cities, who, each, hate one another and despise the south; with the mostly Catholic supporters of Glasgow's Celtic hating the cross-town, mostly-Protestant supporters of the Rangers, and vice versa.

That's Europe's unadulterated past, which the EU has sought to mash into a giant ball of enforced concord, ignorant of the fact that the continent can only really thrive if its differences do so too, since peace is partly the opportunity to be noisily different.

Tim Parks caught the meaning of this in the most dazzling of soccer books, A Season in Verona, where he wrote about the travails of a group of fans (including himself) following the hapless Hellas Verona team around Italy during the 2000-2001 season. Parks described (on his website, in a paraphrased passage from his book, to which I've added something from the book version) the "mad theater" of regional rivalry that almost always stops short of violence, while adding something the EU has largely failed to offer its citizens: humor.

The scene is the southern city of Bari, where the Veronese fans have come to see Hellas play the local club. For the northerners, Bari is south enough to be synonymous with something vaguely "eastern" and, therefore, worthy of mockery:

In the San Nicolò stadium in Bari, high on cocaine and sodden with beer, a young Veronese went on and on shouting: "Albanesi! Kurdi! Scafisti!" (The scafisti are the unscrupulous men who bring in illegal immigrants on their rubber scafi or motorboats.) "Albanesi! Kurdi! Scafisti! Your mothers are whores! You live off our taxes."

Suddenly the strong wind blew his hat off. It was a precious, authentic 1985 hat, the year of the miracle, the year when tiny Hellas Verona won the Italian championship, against the opposition of Platini's Juventus, Altobelli's Inter. There was a gale blowing. The hat sailed over the fence segregating the visitors' area. "Give me my hat back," the man began to shout. "Please! It's a 1985 hat. It's an original!"

Lined up in their riot gear, the police were impassive. Some Bari fans with their red and white scarves pressed forward. They were turned back. What in God's name have I done?" the Veronese boy began to yell. "Give me my hat back. It's a champions hat." The Verona fans began to shriek at the police: "He only wants his fucking hat. What's wrong with you? Aren't you human? Animals! Our taxes pay for you."

Finally, a supporter made a break from the Bari side. He ducked through the police line. He had the hat. I fully expected him to take a lighter to it and burn it before our eyes. Instead, with a huge effort, he managed to throw it back against the wind over the fence. "Bari, Bari!" the Verona fans cheered appreciatively. "Lecce Lecce vaffanculo," responded the Bari boys and we joined in the insults of their nearest local rival. "Lecce, fuck off."

"Thanks!" The boy had his hat back on. He strode across to the other side of our compound and began to yell at another group of Bari supporters. "Albanesi! Kurdi! Scafisti! Merda! Your sisters take it up the arse!"

Indeed. Now go and legislate that in Brussels.