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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.”

It was not supposed to be like this. After two world wars, displays of national fervor became more or less taboo in Europe. Nationalism was blamed for almost destroying the old continent twice in the 20th century. The kind of exalted patriotism, especially when combined with warrior pride, that is still entirely normal in the United States, was for a long time associated with mass slaughter. The English, who escaped occupation by a hostile power, and still believe they won World War II alone (well, with a little help from the Yanks), still have a militaristic streak. They are exceptional. Hence, perhaps, the notorious belligerence of English soccer fans.