Italy may have defeated France to win the World Cup, but the real winner was the “Old Europe” that Donald Rumsfeld once derided. After all, who would have predicted a World Cup final between France and Italy? It looks as if the national teams of the two “sick men of Europe,” felt obliged to change their countries’ images in the world.
In the Italian case, following the corruption scandals that have nearly sunk Il Calcio, Italy’s premier football league, the national team had to rehabilitate the game in the eyes of their fellow citizens. More globally, however, it is as if “Old Europe” had decided that it was time to set the record straight and prove more dynamic than the world’s emerging forces.
Indeed, in the new global balance, where football has become much more than sport, Europe is back with a vengeance. What has been unfolding in front of our eyes in the last four weeks has been a modern and reduced version of the balance-of-power system that dominated Europe and the world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
If football and its culminating moment, the World Cup, has become the universal religion of the global age, this is above all because it fulfills, in a non-spiritual way, contradictory instincts in human nature. Football magnifies the cult of the individual and the glorification of the hero, but it is also a celebration of the cooperative team spirit. More than any other collective activity, it channels the search for identity and identification that dominates our age.
Thanks to the World Cup, one is a citizen of the world, enjoying a spectacle together with billions of others on “Planet Soccer.” Even in Washington, where I arrived at the beginning of the tournament, I was greeted at the airport by television screens showing the game. The program was in English, but the advertisements were in Spanish. In terms of football at least, the Hispanic community’s influence has brought the United States closer to Europe (though not, of course, in its team’s performance on the pitch).
At the same time, during the World Cup, fans are not only universal; they are also unique, and they can express their difference with impunity, sometimes in the most assertive, aggressive, and, unfortunately, occasionally racist manner. In a world of “multiple identities,” to choose one’s team is in part to decide who one is.
From this standpoint, this year’s World Cup has not only witnessed the triumph of European nations – all semi-finalists were European for the first time since 1982 – but also the absence of even a glimmer of European emotions. In my country, France, most supporters were clearly motivated more by post-colonial references than by European allegiance. African teams, except when they were playing against France, were favored over those from the European Union.
As I watched the Croatia-Australia match early in the tournament, I surprised myself, too, as I realized that my emotions were with the Australian team, whatever that could mean, given that there were so many Croatians playing for Australia.
This deep search for identification should not be confused with a simple surge of nationalism. Reality is more complex. And this is not only because many coaches of the national teams are, like in the good old days, “foreign mercenaries,” with this Cup’s Swiss guards including the Brazilian coaches of Japan and Portugal, the Swedish coach of England, and the French coach of Tunisia.
The Cup’s explosions of proud nationalism hide more tortured realities. Nostalgia is not what it used to be. In 1998, when France won the Cup for the first time, the three colors of the French flag (blue, white, and red) were celebrated alongside with the three colors (“black, white, and beur, the skin color of North Africans born in France to immigrant parents) of the members of the French team. But that innocence has been lost because it is no longer possible to celebrate the triumph of the French model of integration.
Indeed, after the violent episodes of the last year, France’s immigrant communities have a very different message to deliver: “Without us, you would not have had this World Cup success. Do you believe you can continue to ostracize the communities from which your soccer heroes come?”
From ping-pong diplomacy with China to the united German Olympic team that competed in 1990 before actual reunification, sport has prefigured political developments, and politicians everywhere have seized on the importance of the World Cup. Football success has become part of countries’ “soft power.” France may not have the military might of the US or the growth rate of China and India, but its team reached the World Cup championship, raising its standing in the eyes of billions of people – and perhaps giving a reprieve to its unpopular government.
But sport can also become a kind of gigantic, distracting screen behind which nasty regimes do outrageous things – the very opposite of the Olympic and World Cup spirit. As the world was watching the football games in Germany, North Korea was testing long-range missiles and Palestinians in the governing Hamas launched attacks on Israel that prompted a bloody invasion of Gaza.
The World Cup is drama, excitement, a dream, but it is also a form of “global escapism.” Football may explain the world, but it does not improve it. And now we are back to reality.