The many questions of the UEFA Euro 2012 in Ukraine are: Why did the Dutch exit early? Would Wayne Rooney lead England to glory? Why are former fascist countries (Germany, Italy, Portugal, and Spain who all are in the semi-finals) so darn good at soccer? And the most important story to follow: Who will win it all?
International soccer has a history of uniting countries under one banner, whether it is the Ivory Coast or the successful, reunified German team of the 1990s. A country often rallies around the team, regardless of the players’ backgrounds. Excellent play on the field provides a reason to respect all the individual players and components of the team, just as fans love the team itself.
After having the enjoyable experience of living in Moscow for the entire tournament, I mistakenly suspected the same thing for Russia with their ubiquitous “Charge Russia” chants. (Russians are also big fans of the triptych “Ros-si-ya” chant, similar to “U-S-A.”) However, although Russia has large immigrant populations of Caucasians and Central Asians, minority players are conspicuously absent from the squad. Alan Dzagoev, a young Ossetian striker, is not ethnically Russian but there is limited tension between ethnic Russians and the Orthodox Ossetians.
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Unlike with the Ossetians, there is high tension between ethnic Russians and Muslim migrants from the south. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, waves of economic migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia have been moving to big Russian cities like Moscow. The dark-skinned immigrants have been accused of stealing jobs from ethnic Russians and racially motivated violence is common. (The truth of the matter is no one in the more educated ethnic Russian population wants the menial jobs that the Chechens or Tajiks in Moscow are working.)
The second major storyline out of the tournament has less to do with the colors of flags and more to do with the color of skin. It was not surprising then to learn that Russian fans in Poland had harassed Czech defender of Ethiopian descent Theo Selassie. British documentaries and former Arsenal great Sol Campbell warned fans away from a racist Ukraine. Reports of racist and ultra-right wing behavior have dominated the non-match related headlines of the tournament with UEFA fining different countries for their fans’ actions accordingly.
International soccer can lead to respect and admiration for all different members of one’s nation and national team. But there are two teams in every match. The other team and the individuals that comprise it are “them,” one’s team is “us.” When a member of the opposition does not match the vision of what “us” looks like, especially when “us” is nearly homogeneous, it is easy to consider him an enemy.
The pitched “battles” between countries would seem to make international soccer a breeding ground for nationalist sentiment and racism. What fans don’t realize, however, is that even if the arbitrary boundaries that divide countries really matter and if there is some special national character, their teams are not embodiments of the Spanish, American, German, or Russian soul. The team is a group of 11 young men who are arbitrarily picked by a coach, many times who is of a different nationality like Dutchman Dick Advocaat on the Russian side.
International soccer then shows a root of racism and the nationalist sentiment that is growing in Europe with strong showings by leaders like Marine Le Pen. Racism, just like nationalism, is more about identifying the harasser than the victim, about creating an identity (an “us”) for a skin color or a nation, whether the “them” be Chechens or Czechs. The randomness that an enemy can be created (this week we play the Greeks, next the Germans) shows the meaningless of skin color, religion, nationality, etc.
While it may sound utopian, the main point of the tournament, or politics for that matter, should focus on excellence and quality; building up to a sublime goal, working towards a better world. Especially because all my teams lost.