Brexit and Soccer


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In the days following the victory of the Leave advocates  in the British referendum on its membership in the EU, the quarterfinal games of the EUFA Euro 2016 were contested in various cities in France, the host country. The Euro championships are a quadrennial event that alternates with the World Cup. After a long qualifying round, 24 countries entered the tournament and eight were eliminated in group play.

It’s a commonplace that the games that we play tell us something about our culture. The national teams we field reveal something about our national character. And the trends in international competition in most sports (track and field, cricket) tell us something about larger changes in political and economic movements around the world.

Franklin Foer’s 2010 How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization is the best known of the works that seek to explain these connections between the sporting world and larger social forces. He trains his attention on the ways in which Iranian female soccer players use their sport to press for the liberalization of Iranian gender laws, the ways in which the new oligarchs have purchased teams in the major European leagues and populated them with high-priced international players, and how Serbian soccer hooligans provided the ground troops for their nation’s aggressions against their Balkan neighbors.

Foer’s overarching insight is that there are twin forces at work – the centrifugal forces of globalization and the centripetal forces of nationalism – and these competing forces are readily observable on the sports pages and as well as on the front pages. Clearly the British public’s decision of leave the European Union was a narrow victory for the nativist movement that feels threatened by globalization, especially the allegedly soft immigration policies that threatened the economic well-being of the native born and challenge fixed and somewhat nostalgic ideas of national identity. The same deglobalization movements can be seen in most members of the European Union where right wing parties have gained a hold on the imaginations of the disempowered and disaffected. [Recently the right wing Freedom Party in Austria has through the courts forced a re-election after a narrow defeat by a Green-backed liberal candidate.] Tribalism, thought to be extinct after the end of the Cold War, is very much alive.

If you were a Stay supporter and a football enthusiast, you were dealt a double blow when a lifeless and unimaginative British football team was defeated in the first game of the knock-out round by this year’s tournament “Cinderella,” Iceland, a nation with 1/200 the population of Great Britain. When the nation that invented the game falls, the humiliation is deep. The salt in the wounds was the advancing of Wales, a country of 3 million within the United Kingdom, into the quarterfinals.

The opponents in the quarterfinals provided interesting contrasts. In each of the games (Poland vs. Portugal, Wales vs Belgium, Germany vs Spain, and France vs. Iceland) a tribal team was pitted against a team with a global identity and an international flavor. In all cases the purity of the tribal team was obvious, whether the teams was from a small country (like Iceland) or from a large country (like Poland or Spain or Italy). The rosters of these teams look like the rosters did prior to the formation of the European Union and the loosening of immigration controls. The Italian roster was unmistakably Italian, as was the Spanish side. This despite the fact the immigrant populations are 10% and 14% respectively.

The rosters of other teams clearly show the influence of decades of immigration of foreign peoples into the country, many from former colonies with cultural ties to the new home nation. Often the “foreigner” who plays for his new country is the child or even the grandchild of immigrants. For example, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the son of a Bosnian Muslim father and an Albania Christian mother, has long represented Sweden in international competition, and in the latest sign of the internationalization of the game, he has recently signed with Manchester United, the wealthiest of soccer franchises. Another example: Jerome Boateng, a defender on the German squad, has a Ghanaian father and a brother who play for Ghana in international competitions. Boateng has never been to Ghana.

Portugal draws some of its starting eleven from Guinea-Bissau and the Cape Verde Islands in Western Africa.  Two of Germany’s best players are ethnic Turks who are sons of parents who came as part of the guest worker program while another, Mario Gomez, has a Spanish father. The second-ranked Belgians are a polyglot crew with players who have connections to Morrocco, Congo, Indonesia, and Martinque, all blended with Flemish and Walloon Belgians.

The team with the heaviest globalization imprint, France, is made of players who connections to equatorial Africa (Senegal, Mali, Angola), North Africa (Algeria) and the Caribbean (Guadeloupe).

So what do the tea leaves of the quarter final results tells us in this allegory of different approaches to and visions about culture and identity – the nationalist/exclusionist and the internationalist/inclusivist. Promoters of cosmopolitanism might be happy to know that the edge is with the latter. The winners, with one exception, Wales, were Portugal, Germany and France. France’s 5-2 victory over the upstart North Sea Icelanders was the most decisive though not a sure thing given Iceland’s charmed run through group play and the first of the knock out round (they beat England surprisingly).

The rap against Belgium, the team vanquished by tiny and relatively homogenous and home grown Wales, is that the coach, Marc Wilmots, was not able to blend the multiple identities of his team. For Leave advocates, the departure of the highly talented team, must have been a sweet result given their strenuous opposition to the overreaching bureaucrats in Brussels.

It’s commonly acknowledged that the real final will be played in the second semi-final when France faces off against Germany.  Two teams with the stamp of internationalism and long records of World Cup success. The odds makers are with France, because it is the host country and also because of injuries to key German players. Furthermore, Germany just squeaked by its quarter-final opponent, Italy, winning in a protracted shoot-out after regular and overtime play. Yet, Germany is the reigning World Cup champion.

In 1998 France hosted the World Cup and walked away the winner, decisively beating reigning champion Brazil, 3-0. The victory was hailed not only as soccer conquest but also as an affirmation of France’s success at building a multi-cultural society. The stars of the team were Zinedine Zidane (parents from Berber Algeria), Thierry Henry (parents from Guadeloupe/Martinique) and Youri Djorkaeff (Polish father-Armenian mother).

In 2002, in the Japan/Korea World Cup, France exited early, not scoring a single goal in the three games in group play. In the opening game of the tournament, the one that features the reigning champion, the French succumbed to former colony Senegal. It was one of the worst performances by a returning champion in World Cup history. And it was read as a sign that the multi-cultural dream was over. The demise of Belgium this year is being read in the same way: this is a team that passed the tipping point into the territory of “too much multi-culturalism.”

All of which makes it a bit risky to make prediction about the direction of global affairs on the result of soccer games, a statement with which that I think Franklin Foer would agree.

My personal preference was for a Wales-Iceland final, not only because of their small size and soccer obscurity but also because their rabid fans sing throughout the entire game. It would be a pleasure to listen to as well as watch.



About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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