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Monday, July 14, 2008

Sports and National Pride

Europeans love their football (i.e., American soccer) teams. The lasting effects of an international victory on the collective spirit were evident last week when I spent a few days roaming the streets of bubbly Barcelona. A German friend who was showing me around the Catalan city described the link between spectator sports and national spirit as even more significant for the new Germany.  For obvious reasons, for many years displays of national pride, “Nationalstolz,” associated with the Nazi regime, were frowned upon in Germany. When Germany won the World Cup in 2006, the country was altered with a renewed patriotism.

My friend described how for the first time in his lifetime (he is 37), he and he friends felt right about hanging and waving the national flag. He talked about how he found this change to be a highly significant, positive development for a generation that grew up schizophrenic. I tend to agree with his observations that Germany by and large was forced to deal with its past in a way that other European nations were not and that allowing the return of patriotic joy is better than brewing bitterness among a young generation that felt a continued shame of expressing their identity.

As someone who has always much preferred playing than watching sports, I find the power of these international events to transform national and international moods fascinating. The events surrounding the upcoming Beijing Olympics are of course an excellent example of the highs and lows that sports events can bring to countries.

Posted by Orly Lobel on July 14, 2008 at 10:35 AM in Orly Lobel | Permalink

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Orly: Great points. Underlying my academic obsession with free expression in the context of sports is the same notion of the expressive nature of sports--the way fans express themselves through their teams and the way successful team convey and instill pride in the community (national, local, alumni/student, etc.).

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jul 14, 2008 10:48:44 AM

One error: Italy won the 2006 World Cup, not Germany. Germany did HOST the World Cup, but they lost in the semifinals and played in the Third Place Game.

Posted by: Winston | Jul 14, 2008 11:01:56 AM

I gotta go with Winston on this one...nice effort haha.

Posted by: Steve L | Jul 14, 2008 11:30:22 AM

thanks for the correction -- Ben Roesch was the first to email me the correct version: Germany did not win the World Cup in 2006 (Italy beat France). Germany won the "third place" or consolation game, but had an impressive run through the tournament (much like its run through Euro 2008, where they lost to Spain in the final).
which to me just strengthens the point about their pride awakening - third place did it for them...

Posted by: Orly Lobel | Jul 14, 2008 1:35:45 PM

I think Orly was referring to the 1990 World Cup, which Germany did win, and which was a watershed moment in German comfort with expressions of national pride (though I think it was officially _West_ Germany that won that world cup, to the extent that makes a difference).

The connection between soccer and national pride in Europe is one that's long interested me. I saw it up close when I was in Germany for WC2006, when Berlin shut down every time Germany won a game (which was pretty often, at least until that semi versus Italy). I'm interested, though, that Orly found the afterglow of Spain's victory even in Catalonia. I've never been sure how Spain's various autonomous regions would respond to the national team's success. Many people in Catalonia, Galicia, the Basque country, etc., regard Spain-writ-large with ambivalence, especially to the extent that "Spanish" culture is often conflated with Castilian culture. Catalonia and Basque national soccer teams have often sought FIFA's recognition to compete separately from Spain's (much like Wales and Scotland compete separately from England). But it is interesting to see that in Barcelona, at least, Spain's victory was perceived as Catalonia's victory as well (perhaps not least because Spain's captain, Carles Puyol, is himself Catalan).

And while I think the MSM often embraces uncritically the connection between national pride over soccer and nationalist/racist violence, it does bear noting that this is a real problem, especially for certain nations. At times national pride over soccer expresses itself in a kind of idealistic universal way (e.g., France's joy when their racial melange of a team won the 1998 Cup), but there are no shortage of counterexamples (classically, xenophobic English hooliganism, such as at the 2000 Euros in Charleroi, though there has been lots of violence by lots of other nations' fans like Germany and Turkey). This trend has been blessedly on the decline in recent years. I can't explain why this happened, but it pleases me for lots of reasons, most of all because when there used to be a strong association between right-wing extremism and pride in the national soccer team, it became hard for decent, tolerant soccer fans to support their country's team for fear of being grouped in with the hooligan fringe. As this fringe continues to abate, the mainstream of every nation (at least in Europe, where the hooligan phenomenon was at its peak) can begin to enjoy the success (or be disappointed about the failure) of the national team).

Posted by: Dave | Jul 14, 2008 1:36:49 PM

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