Benjamin Pauker: Soccer Wars…and Peace?

Ben Pauker, Managing EditorFor those of you not passionately following the Euro 2008 soccer tournament (which every four years pits Europe’s top 16 national teams against one another), let me be the first to tell you that the semifinals have arrived. There are two big games over the next couple of days, but something feels slightly off.

The streets of London won’t fall eerily silent as Brits pack the pubs, the Champs Elysees won’t be thronged with reveling Parisians, and there’ll be no splashing about in Rome’s Trevi fountain: Europe’s traditional powers have all been knocked out. England didn’t even place high enough in qualifying to make the tournament.

Instead, the final four teams remaining in Euro 2008 are Turkey, Russia, Spain, and Germany. Pardon the crude turn of phrase, but Europe’s outliers, once knocking at the door, have let themselves in, looked through the fridge, and sat down at the table.

In some ways, soccer—particularly in Europe—has been an acute barometer of politics and demographics, if not an agent of change itself.

Many Croats mark a soccer game on May 13, 1990, as the first volley in the war of independence from Yugoslavia—more than a year before armed conflict began in earnest. As a massive riot broke out among Serbian and Croatian fans in the Maksimir stadium in Zagreb, the star player Zvonimir Boban kung-fu kicked a Yugoslavian policeman who had been beating a Croatian fan, instantly making him a national hero and a champion of the independence movement.

On the flip side, European soccer has also been a force for unity. To many, when Germany’s reunified team played together for the first time in December 1990, less than 2 months after formal unification, it heralded the birth of a common cause and a salve for old wounds. And when France’s national team, Les Bleus, won the 1998 World Cup with a multicultural squad led by Zinedine Zidane (of Algerian descent), it reflected the changing face of the nation.

But Turkey and Russia? Do Europe’s borders really now extend to Vladivostok and Iran? If we are to look first at the soccer map, they extend even further: among the 53 countries that comprise UEFA (the governing body of European soccer) are Azerbaijan, Israel, and Kazakhstan.

If we were to put these 53 pushpins on a map, the epicenter would still be familiar—probably close to Brussels—but grow scattershot towards the east and southeast. But, though it may look odd, this is in fact the new Europe; and the increasingly diluted map (soccer and otherwise) marks both a new integration and notion of what constitutes the EU.

For the better part of the last two decades, Europe has struggled with self-identification: “what makes us, ‘us’?” the democratically elected leaders of Western Europe have asked. Well, is the question even relevant any longer?

Does it really matter that Ireland’s “no” voters recently scuttled the Lisbon Treaty that was to have enshrined a European Constitution? Perhaps it does to Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, a big supporter of the Lisbon Treaty, and to Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who recently attached the Turkish soccer team’s success to the notion of European integration, saying, “As our national team is a sine qua non component of the European soccer championship…Turkey’s membership will create large and positive effects for the EU.”

But the Lisbon Treaty and constitutional matters are likely far less important in Dmitry Medvedev’s (or Putin’s) Russia, which still bucks NATO and the EU, while supplying the vast majority of the oil and natural gas that fuels the engine of European growth.

Perhaps more so than anywhere else today, Europe is increasingly connected in an intricate and vital economic web to which the softer and more elusive ties of shared culture and values (“European-ness”) eventually affix.

After all, the Kazakh city of Astana may not now look the part of a European capital, but if the nation’s booming energy and agriculture sectors continue to put petrol in Europe’s cars and cereal on its grocery shelves, how long will it remain on the periphery?

It is increasingly apparent that the ties that bind an enlarged Europe are not first and foremost shared values, currency, religion, or democratic institutions. It’s the economy, stupid—and the map of European soccer reflects this better than most.

It may well be that Spain and Germany will face each other in the final in Vienna on June 29, but even these old European powers have changed dramatically. Spain, once the sick man of Europe with a citizenry once deemed antithetical to democracy, is now the world’s eighth largest economy. Memories of Franco’s dictatorship have long been buried. And Germany, which faces off against Turkey on Wednesday, is now home to some 2.7 million people of Turkish descent—a necessary and vigorous segment of the workforce.

I’ll come back to all this when we know our finalists, but for now I’m off to watch the game. (All in the name of world policy, mind you.)

Benjamin Pauker is managing editor of World Policy Journal. He has written for Harper’s magazine, the Chicago Tribune, and PBS television’s Frontline/World among other publications, reporting from Cambodia, southern Thailand, China, and Eastern Congo. In 2006, he contributed a chapter on Ukrainian politics and sport to The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup (Harper Perennial).

Comments are closed.