GENEVA The World Cup has ended. An orgy of flag waving and anthem singing has concluded for at least another four years. Germany won, as could have been expected. What wasn’t expected was how the threats of street violence and protest within Brazil over the lavish preparation did not materialize.
But more interesting, and worthy of reflection, was how the extreme nationalism shown by the fans never degenerated into violence. We are certainly aware of the security forces patrolling throughout Brazil. There is no question that the country was well prepared to stop major violence. Major hooligan exporters, such as England, left the tournament early. But seeing Argentineans waving flags and taunting Brazilians on the Copacabana beach was a most positive reminder that patriotism need not degenerate into physical conflict.
Hooliganism is part and parcel of soccer throughout the world, even here in Switzerland where the police chief of Bern expressed exasperation after the final of the Swiss Cup in April during which 45 people were arrested in clashes in the streets of the capital. Trains are destroyed by alcohol-addled soccer fans; barriers are constructed to prevent one team’s supporters from attacking their rivals during games. The recent final of the Italian Cup between Napoli and Fiorentina in Rome was a frightening example of the degree of the threat of organized violence within a stadium. The match began 45 minutes late while the forces of order “negotiated” with hooligans to assure the match could begin peacefully.
If hooliganism is part and parcel of soccer throughout the world, why were the fans so well behaved during the World Cup? Granted that forces of order were omnipresent, roughly 26,000 local police and Brazilian armedforces were deployed for Sunday’s World Cup final. Nonetheless, was there something else going on that differentiates between a club mentality and a national fervor? And if so, what does it mean? How is national patriotism different from club fanaticism?
While there is no definitive answer to these questions, and certainly not in a short blog, it is refreshing to see the joy of those supporters from the winning teams and even more encouraging watching the tears of the losing fans accepting their fate. It is difficult to praise good losers, but that is exactly what should be done.
While we witness sectarian violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon and Egypt, to name only a few places around the world torn by internal strife, while the violence between Israel and Palestinians enters a new, murderous phase, “the orgy of flag waving and anthem singing” at the World Cup remains a most positive example that nationalism in sports brings out the best behavior in citizens. People are proud of their countries, but not to the point of attacking the opponent’s fans. It is the sporting spirit in the very best sense of the word.
If the World Cup can bring out a truly sporting spirit, why is it so difficult to get people so emotionally involved with their national teams to sit down at a table and resolve political issues? If, as Clausewitz maintained, war is the extension of politics in another form, why can’t sports be an extension of politics in another form as well? The Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was most gracious in shaking the hands of the Argentinean players, Brazil’s greatest rivals, when they received their medals. Chancellor Merkel was wonderfully exuberant when hugging her victorious team, as if all the U.S. spying scandal and Ukraine-Russia problems had suddenly disappeared. The sporting spirit seemed to have indeed triumphed at the end.
As the organizers will surely remind us, that is what the World Cup and sports are all about. In Ancient Greece, wars were suspended during the Olympic Games. While many people consider sports as recreation, entertainment, or even big business, perhaps we should begin reconsidering how sports can play a more positive political role in a world that seems overwhelmed with violence, where there are no gracious losers.
Daniel Warner is an American-Swiss political scientist. This article appeared on his blog for la Tribune de Genève at tdg.ch/blogs.