Football Nationalism

AMSTERDAM -- The late Arthur Koestler, born in Budapest, resident of many countries, and writer in several languages, once said that there is nationalism, and there is football nationalism. The feelings inspired by the latter are by far the stronger. Koestler himself, a proud and loyal British citizen, remained a lifelong Hungarian soccer nationalist.

It is hard for Americans, whose “world series” are essentially domestic affairs, to understand the emotions engendered in European citizens when their nations compete for the European soccer championship every four years. For several weeks this summer, the stadiums in Austria and Switzerland, not to mention the streets of European capitals, from Madrid to Moscow, were given to an orgy of flag-waving, anthem-singing, drum-beating patriotism. Spain’s victory was one of the rare occasions that Catalonians, Castillians, Basques, and Andalusians erupted together in an explosion of patriotic delight.

Football, more than most sports, lends itself to tribal feelings: the collective effort, the team colors, the speed, the physical aggression. As a famous Dutch soccer coach once said, not in jest: “Soccer is war.”