It is an abiding image of Euro 2012: victorious German and defeated Dutch footballers exchanging post-match hugs in Kharkiv. Before the game, Arsenal’s manager Arsène Wenger had cautioned, “There is a hatred between these countries. It dates from world war two, and it’s still very tenacious today.”
Well, few in Kharkiv noticed any Dutch-German hatred, either between fans or footballers. In fact, the worst hostility was between Dutch players.
Those hugs were the image of a European championship marked mostly by harmony and similarity, at least among western Europeans. A united, successful EU exists – not in economics, but in football. The many reports of racist incidents at Euro 2012 have created a misleading impression.
The quarter-finals that start on Thursday feature six eurozone countries, plus England and the Czech Republic. Meanwhile, arguably all of eastern Europe has already been eliminated. Like Poland, the Czech Republic has gradually moved in the European imagination from eastern Europe to central Europe and lately to fiscally disciplined northern Europe, for once without changing its borders.
The eurozone, which hogged all three places on the podium at the last two World Cups, still outpaces the continent’s east in football knowhow. Very unlike in economics, in football southern Europe has caught up with the formerly dominant north. The Spaniards are reigning world and European champions. Stricken little Greece knocked out Russia.
A fast-paced disciplined passing style has spread throughout the EU. Even Greece and England have ditched their ineffective homegrown styles. At England-Italy on Sunday, the traditional contrast between British battlers and Italian schemers won’t be on view.
Western Europe’s footballers now belong to a homogenised international professional caste, much like investment bankers. During England-France, the Frenchman Samir Nasri scored against England’s keeper Joe Hart. After the game, the two Manchester City teammates chatted and hugged. For footballers, Euro 2012 is more like a trade convention than a remake of past wars.
Off the field, the media have focused on racism: the fine of €80,000 imposed by Europe’s football association Uefa on Croatia for racist chants, a neo-Nazi banner at a German game, and the pre-tournament BBC TV programme that showed Ukrainian supporters giving Nazi salutes. However, these events probably do not betoken worsening European racism. Rather, we are seeing a spectacle familiar from other areas of life: the imposition of current north-western European norms, cast as “European values”, on the rest of the continent.
The UK and Germany have fought racism in their public life. So has the US, whose media increasingly cover European soccer. In that climate, a banana that may or may not have been thrown by Croatian fans at a black Italian player becomes international news.
Certainly, a few hundred Croatian and Spanish fans have performed ghastly racist chants. That should not surprise anyone. Eastern and southern Europe have not undergone the decades of anti-racist education delivered in north-western Europe; even in some north-western countries, nearly a fifth of voters support anti-immigrant parties; and in the UK, nearly 40,000 hate crimes were reported in 2010. Small wonder that in the gladiatorial arena of football stadiums, a few despicable chants are heard.
It is remarkable not how much tension there has been between rival fans, but how little. Even Germany-Greece on Friday is expected to go off peacefully, whatever the economic grudges back home.
Young male fans from different countries are hanging around the host cities, drinking hard. Each group is immediately identifiable by its colours. The matches set nation against nation. And yet ethnic violence has flared only once here: not between whites and blacks, but between Poles and Russians.
Unhappily, Poland-Russia was scheduled in Warsaw on Russia’s national day. Thousands of Russians held a pre-match march, and fought Poles. Riot squads fired water cannons. There were 184 arrests, and about 150 injuries.
As Poland’s prime minister Donald Tusk remarked: “This wasn’t Poland and Russia battling in the streets. It was a few hundred fools trying to attract attention.” Still, the harmony that now characterises western European football doesn’t quite span the continent.
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