Soccer

Europe went to a soccer tourney, and patriotism broke out

Delayed by one year thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, Euro 2020 will conclude on Sunday. But whether it’s England or Italy that lifts the trophy, that team won’t be the only victor at Europe’s quadrennial soccer tournament. Patriotism has also won out in a continent where love of country has long been considered gauche — or worse.

Throughout the monthlong tournament, we’ve seen fans of each of the 24 participating teams wear their colors with pride. No fans have been as energetic as those of the finalists. England fans have behaved well, avoiding the hooliganism that has overshadowed their presence at previous tournaments. Instead, with their original but simplistic chants — partly designed, it seems, in cognizance of intoxication preventing accurate memory recall — they have sung their team to its first major final since 1966. So, too, has the skill of Italy’s “Azzurri” been matched by the energy of its fans. Expect well-humored teasing between the two sets of fans on Sunday. Italian fans will certainly be unveiling one of their favored signs in this tournament: “Stop putting pineapple on pizza.” It’s a well-deserved rebuke to a pizza tradition that England has embraced — and perhaps a nod to the idea that English cuisine is not considered equal to Italian.

The pizza topping debate is also a metaphor for European politics in 2021. It evinces the tension between European identity and national cultures. Britain’s 2020 exit from the European Union has upset the political bloc’s confidence, leading its most ardent supporters to fear other national separation movements following in Britain’s wake. This political context will permeate Sunday’s final. Consider a cheeky message from Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s equivalent of prime minister. Earlier this week, Varadkar posted a photo of himself visiting an Italian coffee shop. One imagines that Ireland’s rather dynamic history with England might just have something to do with Varadkar’s choice of support! But Varadkar, a fervent supporter of the EU project, also wants to show that Ireland has Italy’s back.

Nevertheless, it is the basic idea of patriotism that has flourished at Euro 2020. Fans from EU member nations have not worn EU flags. They have worn the paint and colors of their home nations. They have not sung the EU anthem, but rather their own national anthems. Doing so without shame or aggression toward opposing fans, these fans have shown that national pride is, at its best, both morally good and spiritually uplifting.

The success of national compatriots reflects the uniqueness of a nation. It builds a sense of belonging to something specific and participatory, rather than something amorphous and politically distant. This joy also cuts against the tradition of certain EU elites to criticize those who are proud of their nation. In 2014, a senior British Labour Party parliamentarian was forced to resign from her position after she was regarded as having insulted a homeowner who had laden his house with England’s flags.

This is not to say that nationalism in sports should serve as a fixed rule book for nationalism in politics. Europe’s history testifies to the risks of nationalism when vested in xenophobia, territorial ambition, and racial exclusivity. But that’s not the case with Euro 2020. Fans from 24 nations have shown that they desperately want their team to win, but they have also shown that they’re proud of their heritage. They’ve done so peacefully and passionately. There’s no shame in celebrating that.

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