Crossing Borders

World Cup Conclusions

July 17, 2006

For me, the 2006 World Cup ended as it had begun, at least in the context of writing for POV's Borders | American ID.

In late April, while I was pondering ways of conveying to Americans the powerful nationalist forces of sports and their effects on a country's identity, the most vivid images I could recall were those of delirious Italian soccer fans taking to the streets, with persons of all ages swimming, wading or otherwise cavorting in the grand fountains of Rome and other historic cities. Those were scenes from July of 1982, after the Italians had won their third World Cup by beating [the former] West Germany, 3-1.

I also remember the 1998 World Cup vividly, when a multi-ethnic French team united a nation splintered by ethnic and sociological tensions for a few weeks. The celebrations after France won its first World Cup went on for three days. Thierry Henry, one of the stars of the current team who was just 20 in 1998, said the reaction stunned him. An elderly French woman tearfully thanked him for giving the nation its greatest moment since the Liberation. "That's when I realized how powerful sport is," he said, "even if I don't completely understand it."

Much of it happened again. During this year's tournament, the French players were again subjected to the right-wing vitriol of Jean-Marie LePen and his rantings of racial purity. French defender Lillian Thuram, an elegant black player whose own heritage links him to the island of Guadaloupe, spoke out publicly to contradict LePen, declaring that every player on the team considered himself a Frenchman proud to wear the jersey.

Meanwhile Italian fans celebrated again, and millions of them swarmed through dozens of cities on July 9 after the Italians defeated France in a penalty-kick shootout to win the World Cup final.

The match itself and its aftermath was tainted by a moment of madness from France's star midfielder, Zinedine Zidane, who viciously head-butted Italian defender Marco Materazzi in response to something Materazzi said. Zidane alleged Materazzi had besmirched his mother and sister, Materazzi insisted he said nothing about Zidane's mother.

Initial reports speculated that Materazzi perhaps had referred to Zidane's origins in a poor Algerian slum in north Marseille. Zidane is fiercely proud of his heritage, yet any real proof that Materazzi had called him a "dirty terrorist" or "dirty Muslim," as some news outlets reported, was not forthcoming. Materazzi denied this as well.

The issue at hand is excruciatingly volatile, with a complicated history. In 1998, France won the World Cup. Three years later, just a few weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, a "reconciliation" match between Algeria and France — a former colony and its ex-master — turned bitter and ugly. Zidane and other players were called traitors to Islamic youth, chants supporting Osama bin Laden were heard. The match had to be stopped 15 minutes early when thousands swarmed onto the field.

This was a glimpse into the dark side of soccer nationalism; the "us versus them" mentality; the playing out of political and cultural mistrusts and outright hatreds on a soccer field.

Yet at the 2006 tournament, a meeting between Angola and its former colonizers Portugal turned out to be a soccer game, nothing more. Similarly, none of the historical animosity between Germany and Poland was apparent when they played before a mixed crowd of 70,000 in Dortmund. The din was deafening and passionate, not threatening or dangerous.

I observed much more than simple nationalism at the World Cup 2006. Skirmishes between rival supporters were few; instead, fans from dozens of nations flooded into city squares and designated "Fan Fests" to watch games, and these massive communal gatherings defined this year's competition as unique from the 17 that had preceded it.

American fans, who themselves numbered in the thousands, confessed to being overwhelmed by camaraderie and friendship. So minor is the sport in America that they often feel ignored if not disdained, but during this World Cup, they could truly and honestly believe they were at the center of the sporting universe.

In a segment of their American identity — its soccer team — American fans found communality with the rest of the world.

Older: Changing German Identity Revealed at World Cup

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