[It’s a red-banner day for cultural oddities. Get ’em while they’re hot. – J.E.]
If there’s a more politicized sport than soccer, I don’t know what it might be. Maybe pairs figure skating during the Cold War. But probably not.
If soccer were an interesting game, that would be one thing. But it’s not. Basically, this seems to be the sequence with soccer: There’s a rhetorical prelude with trash-talking and fans making drive-by allusions to bumper-sticker versions of political history and social resentments. Fans leave huge messes at local eateries. A bunch of people gather in a stadium around some “pitch.” Referees show up with their armored personnel carriers and security guards, contracted by Blackwater. A few guys run around on the pitch for a while in shorts. Nothing much happens. The fans riot and pillage. Videos are posted on social media. It all starts over again.
It’s no wonder soccer has had so much difficulty making headway in the United States. The only part of the sequence that makes sense, in sporting terms, to the average, employed, grown-up American – the person who can afford to buy tickets – is this one: “A few guys run around on the pitch for a while in shorts. Nothing much happens.”
No way that can compete with the NBA, the NFL, the NHL, or MLB.
The “politics” aspect is such a clear dividing line. The typical American team-sports enthusiast is just not interested in having his team sports politicized. He hears politics creeping in – usually from some pantywaist sportscaster – and he hunches his shoulder and thinks, “Whatever, dudes.”
Whereas grudge-carrying politics is the life-blood of soccer. And soccer fans are ecstatic over that.
American leftists certainly seem to have a special penchant for it. When I wrote about soccer a few years ago, I noted the political-history taunts an American left-wing commentator had swooned over between British and French fans (“Agincourt!” “Hastings!”). Sure, I guess references to battles fought 600 and 1,000 years ago can seem really, you know, literate and stuff, to a generation that thinks it’s the only one that ever learned any history.
But shallow cleverness palls quickly – and in any case, the key ingredient in producing political taunts that are both shallow and clever is time. It’s cost-free for today’s Britain and France to lob taunts at each other about battles from hundreds of years ago. There’s no way, on the other hand, that Americans want to have an exchange of “Pearl Harbor!” “Hiroshima!” with the Japanese.
Still, the American left slogs on with the politicized soccer. In the wake of the Brexit vote, Slate has an advice buffet laid out on how to pick the least “xenophobic” team to root for in the Euro 2016 Cup.
Of course, there’s no knowing, in any rational sense, if the teams themselves suffer from xenophobia. What author Raoul Meyer is referring to is the soccer fan’s subjective sense of where he might place the nations whose teams are playing, on a sort of “xenophobia index.”
Meyer draws no very exact conclusion, as it turns out. The history of colonialism lurks over almost every possibility like the deadly green sky before a tornado. That said, merely discussing xenophobia and national teams is a superb opportunity to put one’s moral superiority on parade:
Our first premise is that, as a Slate reader you’re probably support things like economic integration and subscribe to the uncontroversial idea that immigration is a good thing because diversity is a good thing and immigrants bring skills, knowledge, and drive that make the countries receiving them stronger.
But that makes it harder, not easier, to pick among the contenders in Euro 2016, all of which are deeply defective, xenophobia-wise. France, for example, may have a lot of African players on the national team. But many of them ended up playing for France because of that colonial history. And you can’t condone that. If you choose France, for the player diversity – this is how I understand the reasoning – you’ll be condoning colonialism, and somehow that would make France, or your choice of France, more “xenophobic” than you might care to be associated with.
To be clear, xenophobia is fear of foreigners and foreign things. It doesn’t really come into play in the “France” discussion we just had. But that’s OK; it’s clear that none of this really has to make sense.
Consider, for example, Meyer’s advocacy for the Swiss team, which he suggests as an option if you “really want your footballing support to make a statement about your politics and let people know that you support the plight of European migrants.” What makes the Swiss team so attractive in that regard?
Their team features five players with Kosovar Albanian roots plus one with Bosnian parents and another whose parents were Kurds. They also have players born in Cameroon and the Ivory Coast and no unfortunate colonial past.
Hmm. One has the urge to help out by explaining that Albania and Bosnia are in, well, Europe.
If the criterion for being non-xenophobic is “fielding soccer players who aren’t in the migrant-crisis demographic groups,” then everyone else in Europe qualifies too. The Swiss team having the descendants of Kosovar Albanians on it has nothing to do with the “plight of European migrants,” unless you expand the definition until every migrant who crosses a border in Europe has a “plight.” (Neither Switzerland nor Albania is in the EU, incidentally – although Albania is a candidate for membership – but both are geographically and culturally European.)
Switzerland is a pretty funny choice anyway, if you want to “let people know,” in Slate-approved terms, “that you support the plight of European migrants.” It was Switzerland that voted in 2014 to buck the EU’s liberal immigration policies and clamp down on mass immigration, and Switzerland where an anti-immigration party won the national election in October 2015. It’s hard to see how a handful of Kosovar Albanians on the soccer team really balances that out.
Facts aren’t Meyer’s strongest suit, as it happens. He suggests just going with Belgium, so you can “cheer lustily for the country where the EU parliament is.” The official seat of the EU parliament is actually Strasbourg, France, although the parliament does meet in Belgium too, and most of the continuous staff work is done there – where the European Commission is officially headquartered. This is a source of budgetary frustration for the penny-pinchers in European politics.
But there’s that word again. Much as I’d enjoy devising a soccer chant about the historic Serments de Strasbourg, just for the sheer show-off-ing brio of it, I’m tiring quickly here of being served politics with my sports. That’s the problem with soccer. Well, that and the hacking-the-referees-to-death-when-they-stab-the-players thing. No politics with our sports, please; we’re Americans.