Football teams that hold nations together

FT Magazine June 17, 2014

The political leaders of all 32 nations competing in the World Cup will be praying for a good performance from their national side. With the possible exception of Barack Obama, they can confidently expect to bask in any success achieved on the playing fields of Brazil. Football glory is welcome for any country. But, right now, it feels particularly important for those countries that are currently troubled by national identity crises – in particular Belgium, Nigeria, Spain and even, France. Fortunately, all four countries have good teams that have arrived in Brazil with high hopes.

It used to be said that only three things held the French and Dutch-speaking parts of Belgium together: the royal family, Brussels and the national football team. These days, with Flemish nationalists gaining strength at each election, Belgium needs all the unifying factors it can find. Fortunately, the national football team is in the best shape it has been since Belgium made it to the semi-finals of the 1986 World Cup.

I should admit to pro-Belgian bias, since I lived in the country for some years – and also put money on the Belgians to win the World Cup two years ago, when they were still 66-1. The Belgians are now down to 16-1, at my local bookmakers, after a very strong performance in qualifying. Even more important, from the point of view of national unity, the teams’ stars hail from both main communities – including Flemings like Jan Vertonghen and Walloons like Eden Hazard. The team’s captain, Vincent Kompany, speaks both French and Dutch (and perfect English) and has said that the team can serve as a force for national unity. Just as long as they have a successful World Cup – mind you.

A country that needs a footballing boost even more badly than Belgium is Nigeria – which is currently wracked by the violent Islamist militancy of Boko Haram. Tensions between southern and northern Nigeria – and between Christians and Muslims – are on the rise. But the whole country unites behind the “Super Eagles”. Rashidi Yekini, the star of the great Nigeria side of 1994, supplied one of the most glorious images of that year’s World Cup, with his joyous net-grabbing celebration, after scoring the team’s first goal. Yekini (now sadly, dead) was a Muslim. Most of the stars of the current side seem to be Christians. But one of the team’s rising stars is Ahmed Musa, who hails from a Muslim family, but has a Christian mother – and would be a potent symbol of national unity, if he were to have a good tournament.

The Spanish national side are not only current world champions. They also – like the Belgian and Nigerian sides – serve as a unifying factor in a country that fears division. The hugely successful national team is based around stars from Barcelona and Real Madrid – who overcome the bitter rivalry between the two teams, and the regions they represent, when they pull on the Spanish shirt. For many years, some theorised that division between Catalans (from Barcelona) and Castilians (from Madrid) explained the under-performance of the Spanish side. But now that Spain are World Champions, as well as two-times champions of Europe, that theory has had to be put to bed. After the victory in South Africa in 2010, a new theory rose up: that the success of the Spanish national side would help the country transcend its divisions. But that also seems a bit doubtful. Catalan nationalism has grown since then, with growing demands for an independence referendum.

The failure of Spain’s World Cup victory to solve the country’s identity problems is reminiscent of the false hopes that were aroused by France’s World Cup victory in 1998. Back then, the multi-racial character of the successful French side was seen as a living reproach to opponents of the emerging multi-cultural France – and a slap in the face for the rising National Front. But the National Front is now, sadly, stronger than it has ever been. And the French team at the 2010 World Cup was riven by divisions that some reckoned had racial over-tones. Going into this World Cup, however, the French team seem a happier lot and have warmed up with a stunning 8-0 victory over Jamaica. They also have quite an easy group in the first stages of the tournament. A good run by the French national side will not solve the country’s problems. But it may give France a badly-needed morale boost.

One country that stands as an exception to the idea that the national football team is a unifying force is England. With Scotland due to vote in an independence referendum in September, the question of British national identity has rarely been more vital, or more sensitive. But Britain do not play as a team at World Cups. The four nations of the UK go it alone and Scotland have not qualified since 1998. A strong performance by the English national side in Brazil might actually weaken the common British identity. A wave of English patriotism and flag-waving would probably alienate the Scots and make the English shrug off the idea that they need Scotland. Still, as an England fan, that’s a risk I’m prepared to take.

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