The Crumbling of Nationalism’s Last Frontier

It is June 11, 2008, a Wednesday, and the rain is absolutely pouring down in the Swiss city of Basel. Grey clouds whirl ominously above and beyond the open roof of St. Jakob Park stadium where supporters find every little bit of shelter that they can.

Out on the pitch, however, hosts Switzerland are playing Turkey in a winner-take-all clash. This final game in Group A will determine who makes the quarterfinals of Euro 2008.

Thus, despite the torrential downpour, the support is overwhelming and the action no-holds-barred. More importantly, given the circumstances, the tension is thick enough to slice with a knife.

And there are the afters.

The last time these two teams clashed back in 2006, the match ended in a mass brawl between the two sets of players.

All this, sets the game up perfectly.

At the start, the weight of expectations seems to be playing on the Swiss, who put in a lacklustre display. Turkey, buoyed on by the quest for revenge look slightly more assured.

But then, as so often happens in football, out of nowhere, the Bayer Leverkusen forward Erin Derdiyok beats the offside trap, gallops towards goal and squares for Hakan Yakin to put the home side ahead.

Switzerland are suddenly one up and the tension is visibly alleviated.

Minutes later, the dynamic duo combines again and yet again Derdiyok puts Yakin through. This time, however, Yakin’s abject finish sees him inexplicably miss a wide open goal.

The replays do him no favors. On slow motion, it looks much easier for him to score.

But somehow he flicks it wide.

The crowd is aghast and cannot believe it. Most are fixated in a similar expression of wide-eyed disbelief.  But a select few shake their heads knowingly in a manner that suggests they expected nothing else. And the nods soon morph into full-fledged insults when, a few minutes later, Valon Behrami also contrives to miss perhaps an even easier opportunity.

It is all downhill from there.

The rest of night descends into a series of catcalls and screams and it is no surprise then when the Swiss crash out to two late goals from a spirited Turkey side.

The Swiss fans curse their luck and the weather which made conditions unplayable but the biggest retribution is saved for Yakin. Shockingly some sections accuse him of intentionally missing an open goal.

The watching world is shocked. And even more so when the reason for this sudden hatred is stated.

Yakin is ethnically Turkish. So is Derdiyok. And in the eyes of that select group of Swiss fans, they were basically playing against their “own country.” Some cannot seemingly shake off the lingering feeling that Yakin, whose mother wanted her son to play for Turkey rather than Switzerland, decided to do his country of origin a “favour”.

In truth, it is a jingoistic allegation and one that has no basis on facts but try telling that to the not inconsiderable number who lay the blame for their exit solely on the shoulders of Yakin.

But what of Valon Behrami? He too missed a golden opportunity.

This only gives fuel to their fire. Behrami may be turning out for the Swiss, they claim, but everyone knows he is originally a refugee from Kosovo.

In reality, all these claims are generally absolutely nonsense. Yakin would no more have missed the open goal, than he would have sold his mother out. And he is no more Turkish, than Barack Obama is Kenyan. Yakin was born in Basel and he grew up in Münchenstein, a town along the French and German border. He is a Swiss resident and citizen and has played all but one of his active football years in the country. By all definitions, he is as Swiss as cheese and chocolate.

But yet, in the minds of some fans, the doubts remain.

No doubt then, that these nationalistic views are draconian and unjustified. Even more amazing is that this is a view held by a group of people smack right in the middle of Western Europe, long held as a beacon of light for the civilized world.

But the truth is that in this day and age of globalisation and migration, the lines of nationalism are slowly but surely becoming blurred.

And nowhere is this as evident as in the game of football.

The reason for this is simple. Even in its heartland of Western Europe, football is very much the game for the man-on-the-street. It is this appeal which has helped football grow into perhaps the most universal sport in the world today. But while this wildfire like growth has ensured its global popularity, what this has also meant is that football has become riddled with elements of over-zealous nationality which is generally seen as a common trait of the average man-on-the-street.

This might sound like stereotyping, but the examples supporting this hypothesis are many.

Or how else does one explain The Sun, with its war-riddled headlines, being the highest selling newspaper in England?

The truth is that football is perhaps nationalism’s last frontier.

In the real world nationalism is a rapidly dying philosophy. Even as far back as 2002, the British newspaper Independent concluded that, “…national symbols such as the Queen and the flag bear uncomfortable overtones of racism and colonialism. Patriotism,” they went on, “is seen as profoundly down-market, like doilies and bad diets.”

In football, however, flag-waving nationalism is widely acceptable. Nationalism in football is understandable, to a certain extent, especially when it concerns an international context. Think of the European Championships and the World Cup. These are competitions organized around the principle of nationality. Teams are composed of players with the same nationality, the national anthem is played and the national flag is displayed. Therefore, the organizing principle of such competitions implies that nationality matters — that it is a generalization with substantive content rather than an empty stereotype.

So arguably, every European Championship, World Cup, or even Olympic games does more to strengthen nationalism than to weaken it. Which, from a purely sporting concept, is not really a bad thing; as long as it does not get very complicated.

But, too often in football, simple flag-waving nationalism descends swiftly into chauvinistic and anti-foreigner behavior. Think of the segment of English fans, forever caught in the mythical belief that those ‘bloody foreigners’ are responsible for bringing diving, cheating et al. into the English game. Not to mention, that they are also responsible for the lack of success of the national side.

Multicultural teams are often frowned upon and invoke debate and people like Hakan Yakin face allegations about their allegiance for their national side. And this is the kind of attitude that also explains how even people who give Fascist salutes are revered and regarded as cult-heroes by certain sections of fans at their clubs.

Unfortunately for these elements, football too has, slowly but surely, become multicultural.

The most potent example is perhaps last year’s World Cup in South Africa.


The new Germany

The biggest point of contention around many circles seemed to be on the said “German-ness” of the Germany national team. A certain segment of people I spoke to seemed to harbour the belief that the creative bunch of young olive-skinned professionals turning up in the black and white of Germany, were somehow impostors. The lingering feeling was that Germany had somehow cut some corners to make this happen; that somehow if you were not blond and blue-eyed you could not really be German.

A number of others seemed to understand and accept this view, but in reality it should really be inexplicable, especially when you consider that this is the exact ‘concern’ that was expressed by the National Party in Germany during the World Cup in 2006.

A tiny Neo-Nazi group, they unfurled a banner showing 11 paper figures in Germanesque uniforms. Ten had brown, black, yellow or red faces. One had a white face. The words below read: “National Eleven 2010?”

The irony is that they were not too far from the truth. The Germany squad in 2010 in South Africa had eleven players who could have represented other nations. In their first match in South Africa, Germany comprehensively outgunned a fancied Australian side. They scored four goals but for the context of this piece, the first is the most interesting.

Here is how that transpired.

The midfielder Sami Khedira, born in Stuttgart to a Tunisian father and German mother, passed to Mesut Ozil, born in Gelsenkirchen to Turkish parents. He in turn slid the ball through for the Bavarian born and bred Thomas Mueller who cut the ball back for the Polish-born German striker Lukas Podolski. And that is not all. Podolski in turn blasted the ball into the net via the hands of German-born Australian goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer.

So Tunisia, Turkey, Germany and Poland essentially combined to put Germany one goal up. Four of the five people involved were born in Germany, yet not all of those four represented them. Mind boggling eh?

Schwarzer chose Australia and while Podolski could have played for Poland, his allegiance was always to Germany. Ozil was courted extensively by the Turkish but he too stated that he has never felt anything but German.

But for Germany, the Australia game was just the tip of the iceberg.

Their final group game was against Ghana and here things got even more interesting. For the first time in history two brothers lined up against each other for a World Cup encounter. Jerome Boateng played left-back for Germany as his brother Kevin-Prince Boateng lined up in central midfield for the Ghanaians. So two people born to the same mother in the same country lined up in a national sporting event playing against each other.

Crazy at it sounds that was not the first time this had happened. Steve Mandanda, the French goalkeeper of African origin once turned out in goal for the Les Blues B side playing a friendly against Congo. Mandanda played the first half as the French goalkeeper but by the time his brother came on for Congo in the second half, he was already substituted, hence missing out on a chance to break into the history books.

While the cases of Mandanda and Ozil are widely different from a purely political perspective, it does not take away the fact that this is the kind of scenario that may play itself out more in the very near future.

It is enough to make your head spin and all this understandably also makes it very complicated for the average fan. And you can’t help feel sorry for them. With the lines of nationalism so blurred, all they wish for are those days when just names were enough to judge your nationality. For them, it’s getting harder to argue that they are backing a country out of national pride when the lines of nationality on these teams are so blurred.

So now, given all this disparity, how does he really root for a nation?

In all honesty, it really should not be all that difficult. As aforementioned, football is perhaps still the last frontier for nationalism. Nationalism itself is not very bewildering. People like to be in groups with other people who share common characteristics. A nation is a convenient group with shared history, language, culture, etc.

In its own way, it is not so different from club allegiance: it’s just on a larger scale. So it’s completely understandable that the average football fan will swear by it. But what  some overzealous groups among them need to understand is that nationalism really isn’t acceptable in other contexts anymore, especially in Western Europe where most countries’ political elites, at least, are ideologically dedicated to diluting their national identities into the broader European Union — as quickly as possible. Multiculturalism is not a fad. It is the way of the future, and the longer the average fan closes their eyes to that, the harder it becomes for them.

It is easy to see why some resist.

While national identity does add some spice to competitions like the Olympics and World Cup, in the larger world of politics, it’s almost entirely destructive. We see it everyday across the world.

But sport is different. Although many fans bring the same stupid violence to sport that they have been taught in politics, most have thankfully moved beyond such primitive idiocy.

And the signs are bright.

Not too long ago, club fans were wary of players who were not from the region that the club is based on. The general feeling was that they would never feel for the club as strongly as a “local lad” would. But this has slowly and steadily been erased, to the extent that many clubs now often field full teams that have no players from the country the club is from, much less the region. The feeling is now so limited that clubs often have icons that have no ties to the community or the region.

Cesc Fabregas, for example, is Catalan, but who would argue that despite his move back to his homeland,  he is still revered as a  legend at Arsenal, a club from the north of London.

Multiculturalism can only be wonderful for football. People often like to pretend that it is a new thing but it is not at all the case. Recently, it has affected Germany the most in terms of destroying stereotypes, but sooner or later, all nations will experience the same thing. And it is not as if Germany are the first to experience such a trend. The French national side of 1998 was inherently multicultural too.

Multiculturalism brings fresh ideas and new styles to traditional systems and that can be nothing but good. And anyone who has a problem with naturalized citizens, Germans with Polish parents and French people with Arab names should really join the 21st century.

After all, it is the way of the future and they could do well to be part of it.

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Quazi Zulquarnain

There is no right, there is no wrong, there is only popular opinion. Follow me on twitter @nondeplume


  1. I’m saying that speaking the language is definitely a bonus. Exceptionally talented individuals may choose to ignore that skill, but… I don’t see Capello as one of them.

  2. >>> Another thing that I think maybe sometimes we should remember is: The players do not REALLY represent a nation, do they? They actually represent a football association. How else could there be Scottish and Welsh and English and Northern Irish teams?

    Err, those ARE four distinct nations. That’s why they have their separate teams.

  3. >>> A certain segment of people I spoke to seemed to harbour the belief that the creative bunch of young olive-skinned professionals turning up in the black and white of Germany, were somehow impostors.

    Only a few douchebags, I’d say. I think the vast majority feel proud those individuals chose to play for the German colours, despite having other options. It’s a manifestation of Germany’s diversity and the mutual respect people of diverse backgrounds have for another.

    In regards to the the term “multiculturalism”, I find it somewhat problematic. For it’s not like the treasure of German customs and culture simply becomes one among many. It remains the common denominator in a culturally diverse society.

    Anyway, I think the celebrations over the past decade exude a relaxed joyous patriotism. We no longer agonise about one’s love for country, as say our parents’ generation did.

    Being patriotic is okay, fun and no longer considered suspect. We’re a normal country.

  4. Well, do you think Capello not being able to speak English fluently is the reason why England aren’t playing to their potential? I sure don’t.

  5. Not necessarily. When Capello can’t speak more than “a hundred words” of English, there might be a problem.

    Look at my country (Estonia), for example. In the last ten years, we’ve tried Dutch, Icelandic and Danish coaches, and they’ve all failed. Now we got a local coach and we’re in the EURO playoffs hitting way, WAY above our weight.

  6. Brilliant piece! I think the biggest enemy of this schizophrenic jingoism are the segments of the media that continue to perpetuate it. On its own the behavior is slowly dissipating throughout society as time goes by but institutions still keep it alive. That to me is the most worrying part.

  7. The team just reflects the reality of society in Germany. Just thinking about my own best friends is proof for me: S is half-Pakistani, A is German-born Afghan, Z is Hungarian, so is O, E is Half-Italian, as, funnily enough, are D and M, F is all-Italian, M is Austrian, J is Swedish-German, K is Uzbek, L and I are half-English, S is Turkish, L is from Goa which means his passport is Portuguese – and of course there’s a number of all-Germans there, but they are not the majority.
    My own father btw is German but comes from Pomerania, which used to be German but is now part of Poland… so it might be Klose and Podolski who are the ones to represent my type in the national eleven. But that’s just a little side-note.

    What is kind of weird is that – particularly on UK blogs that I’ve visited – people are going about those “Un-German” names while they would never complain about the Un-Swedishness of a name like Ibrahimovic or how, say, Lukaku and Fellaini don’t strike you as particularly Belgian. Oh well. But that’s stereotypes for you. I’m trying to no longer get wound up about it. At least these people have not complained about Un-Belgianness or Un-Swedishness in the first place, I don’t want to give them ideas now.

    Another thing that I think maybe sometimes we should remember is: The players do not REALLY represent a nation, do they? They actually represent a football association. How else could there be Scottish and Welsh and English and Northern Irish teams? These young men do not stand for our people and our soil, but for the administrative body organizing our regions football events. There. That should take some hot air out of it.

  8. Excellent piece. A point; however. If Behrami is ethnically Kosovan, would that not make him (according to the historical nationalist perspective) anti-Turkish? Why would he purposefully waste such a chance? Extreme nationalism is utter rubbish and devoid of all reason.

  9. Multiculturalism is very much the new nationalism. As the old guard still stands and behaviors of conservative, purely traditional and anti-ethnic support groups still try to get their voices heard, we are living in a more acceptable world. The new generation of football fans, born in the late 80’s and 90’s are part of it. As much as it is prevalent to support just one team, you see more and more fans from Eastern Europe supporting Spain and as many people emigrate and live in new lands, so do allegiances shift away.

    In my case, I’m Romanian born, lived in Austria and the U.S. but cannot help to feel allegiance to neither to the degree where I would call it nationalism. I support Germany and in terms of football identity I think it’s arguably different than a socio-political identity that was traditionally associated with nationalism.

    I think this is the key shift and the aspect that needs to be paid attention to in the footballing world. As the world moves closer and closer together, we cannot help but dismiss the very injunctions that were in place to enable the notions of nationalism. Instead there is a return to football purity. We support simply what appeals to use, oftentimes that takes priority over the support of our ‘homeland’ Time yet has to tell whether this is a good thing in the long run, as the very notion of Globalization – as we move towards one another, what happens to what makes each individual great and unique? Is that lost?, etc

  10. It does seem we are in that end stage of Huntington’s clash of civilizations but corners of football haven’t quite accepted that yet. Club football seems to be at a greater height these days and perhaps this is a part of it–it’s easier to root for laundry without the strings of nationalism attached. Good stuff.

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