Only romantics and incurable optimists believe soccer is a celebration of the athletic spirit, which brings nations closer. And only people who are comfortable with lies will say that politics has no relation to the tensions that arise from the sport.
As well as being a big business, soccer is also a ritualistic form of extreme competition, one of the biggest in the world. In addition, it provides setting of semi-sanctioned aggression: physical on the pitch, verbal in the stands and no-holds-barred away from the stadium.
As we see from the European Championship currently taking place in France, soccer marches comprise symbolic wars between nations that started long before the referee’s whistle and do not end after 90 or 120 minutes. These teams are not random assemblies of players. Instead, those with blind faith would have us believe, they bring together and showcase the traits of the nation they represent. Not just the physical traits, but also the intellectual and spiritual. This is why the most fanatic of fans – who tend to grow in number at times of increased nationalist sentiment, such as at the present – cannot accept defeat. They do not view it as a mere athletic failure that can be explained in many different ways and possibly even reversed. They see it as an insult to their nation, as a disgrace.
The displays calling for divine intervention that are so prolific on and off the pitch are not simple superstition but are linked to the belief of every nation, passed down through the generations, that a higher power is rooting for it and protecting its interests, even when it comes to soccer. Here in Greece, many still believe that God is Greek and some even claim that this explains the country’s hat-trick victory at the Euro 2004, even though it does not explain why we failed to make the cut this year. Similar religious chauvinism prevails in other countries too, both Christian and Muslim.
It is this kind of blind belief that allowed ISIS-style extremism to appear in France without a single jihadist having to move from the Middle East. The start was made by English fans who crossed the Channel not to watch a game but to chant in drunken arrogance “ISIS, where are you?” – thus delivering the most brutal and callous of insults to the French, whom they perceive as their eternal enemy. They were followed by German neo-Nazis, who arrived in France waving Nazi banners and chanting, appallingly, “We’re invading again.” Their ideological allies – though rivals on the pitch – the mayhem-causing Russian fascists, are not missing either. So Europe has its own form of ISIS, its neo-Nazis, who share the same “values:” hate, blood, annihilation of the other.