Manhattan Institute

Rooting for the Home Team

National identification remains essential to events like the World Cup.

Nothing is as strange as the enthusiasm of others, and those uninterested in football (soccer, in American parlance) might be somewhat mystified by the extreme outbursts of national rejoicing—including, in France, celebratory looting—or despair exhibited by crowds after matches in the recent World Cup.

The most significant aspect of that rejoicing or despair, however, was that it was national. However trivial a sporting contest might seem to those of more intellectual tastes, there is no doubt that patriotic, or even nationalist, feeling fuelled the enthusiasm. And whatever beauty or excitement people saw in the game itself, the sense of national competition was what gave the matches their edge.

Imagine a match between a team representing the European Union and, say, a team representing NAFTA, or ASEAN: would anyone take the slightest interest in the result, or be either pleased or downcast by it? Since human feelings are mutable, it is possible that one day emotions similar to those that millions feel for national teams might attach to teams representing supranational organizations; but I suspect that that time is a long way off. For the moment, we’re stuck with national sympathies and passions, which perhaps is just as well. Genuine patriotic attachment to whole blocs of nations would bring us close to the situation imagined in Nineteen Eighty-Four.  

The denial or reduction of national feeling is one of the justifications for the European Union’s drive toward what it calls ever-closer union. On this view, the expression of any national patriotism leads inevitably to xenophobia, conflict, and war. Love of one’s nation is inseparable from hatred of others.

It is no coincidence that one of the principal praise-singers of this attitude should be Jürgen Habermas, the German sociologist and philosopher, who—no doubt through fear of his, or his compatriots’, inner Nazism—wants to replace attachment to nation with attachment to supranational constitutional arrangements that will presumably have to cover the entire earth, if conflict between blocs is to be avoided. To bring this about, however, would require the suppression for many years of the kind of emotional loyalty displayed during the World Cup—assuming that this could ever be done. The suppression of such loyalty except in the context of sporting competitions might, however, be very dangerous: indeed, might bring about the very dangers that it was supposed to avoid.

The rules of the competition governing the nationality of players are also interesting. No player having once played for a national team may change to another, for fear that he might change for the sake of mere economic advantage, rather than from any genuine attachment to his new nationality. It appears that the football authorities take nationality more seriously than national authorities—at least in Europe.

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