Free-Floating Hostility

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Soccer Qualms

Argentina meets The Netherlands Wednesday afternoon, in a game between two traditional soccer powers. The New York Times World Cup Blog posted this today, an account from the time these two nations met for the 1978 Cup final in Buenos Aires, though it has little to do with the match itself. Argentina was ruled by a military junta that took control in a coup in 1976, but was allowed to host the tournament anyway. The match was played less than a kilometer from a prison where some 5,000 desaparecidos were housed. The juxtaposition of people doing hard labor just around the corner from a nation celebrating a World Cup title could not have been more stark.

This year's World Cup final will be held in Berlin's Olympic Stadium, which (after $300M of renovations) is the same ground where Jesse Owens ran for four gold medals at Hitler's 1936 Summer Games. Another host city is Nuremburg, where the stadium abuts the Nazis' favorite rallying grounds. It is probably inevitable that a sport whose traditional powers reside in Europe and South America would continue exist in the shadows of some of the 20th century's worst atrocities.

The hard part is figuring out what exactly to make of all that. Perhaps that's because I'm an American, and we tend to gloss over the more difficult parts of our history. Or we break down by age. Neither Anna nor I are particular excited about the erecting of a new building on the site of the World Trade Center. But to our children 9/11 will just be a scary story, something that doesn't mean nearly as much as it does to us. It will be a difference in our collective memory. There have been a number of articles suggesting that Germans have been slow to embrace their national team, because they fear how powerful real nationalism can be. And with the Nazi-era buildings still there, maybe it's more difficult for eras like that to fade easily.

This is also a soccer thing, in that hooligans tend to be right-wing nationalists. I've never thought of, say, New York Yankee crowds as particularly ideological, but the crews on British terraces tend to like to beat up minorities. During the prelude to each match of the World Cup there is a white tarp placed over the center circle with the message, "Say no to racism." This has been deemed necessary because of several incidents over the last year in which black players have been subjected to monkey chants and other indignities. Having dealt with the less obvious racism of U.S. sports fans (who trade in coded adjectives and wistful memories of the good old days) the American players have professed themselves shocked that such behavior still exists. European club soccer has its own good old days of course, the years when a nation's top league was populated mostly by domestic players. Now the top clubs cast a worldwide net and field rosters with players from all over the world. I imagine it drives the hooligans and nationalists crazy.

It will be interesting in four years, when the World Cup is in South Africa, to see the way that country's history is addressed then.

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