Even though I’ve lived in Canada half my life, I feel extraordinarily European whenever soccer tournaments come around.
Sport is visceral, or at least should be, and anyone who refers to franchises and wages clearly has no idea of the genuine appeal. Club and country, shirts and colours, identity and passion.
I didn’t choose Tottenham or England anymore than I chose where I was born. It was always there, and it can never change. It’s dad and family, it’s the first game I ever saw, it’s lining up for hours for a ticket to the final, it’s travelling to away games and knowing people you’ve never met before have your back because you support the same team, it’s using the word “we” when you talk about your team, it’s knowing the history and the songs, it’s part of the bloodstream.
So North Americans making tired jokes about lack of goals and players pretending to be injured is like flatulence in a storm. Who cares? There is only one genuinely international sport, and with Asia now joining Europe, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East in football mania, North American ambivalence is — sorry — irrelevant.
Which bring us to the violence. The first article I ever had published was in Britain’s New Statesman in 1982, and it was about racism and violence in football. I’ve covered the issue, interviewed players and managers many times since. Hooliganism does still exist, but has been conquered in most of Europe and, frankly, was never as problematic as some pretended.
Football was and still is a working-class sport. The ballet of the proletariat. Working-class communities tend to be tribal, particularly in Europe, and tribes go to war.
In England it was imperialism by other means, a way of stamping pride on foreign shores. There were horrendous cases of stadium disasters, but more often than not the violence was contained. As the police became more competent, and the followings more middle class, the trouble declined.
What we’re seeing in Poland and Ukraine is, however, more nuanced. First, a lot of the fears come from a horribly tendentious BBC documentary, which failed to interview — for example — a black MP in Poland, or the Israeli star of the Krakow team. Both deny Polish racism.
The same applies to Ukraine. Of course there are thugs and bigots, but they are in a small minority. The highly publicized attack by Polish fans on Russians has a certain context.
Russia has oppressed Poland for millennia. Some idiot allowed thousands of Russians to march on Russia Day — a nationalistic holiday — through Polish streets, and a few Polish hooligans attacked them.
No sane person approves of this, but no sane person should find it beyond understanding. History informs, and infects.
The Dutch and the Germans clash, England and Argentina have no love for each other, Arab football is drenched in hatred.
But the sport unifies far more than it divides. A black man plays for Italy, a Jew whose mother left Poland as a child could well play for the country, national teams are composed of all religions and races.
It matters, whether you like it or not. And I really, really like it!