These days in Germany, news from European football (soccer) arenas is far more in demand than depressing reports about the Euro crisis. Even economic and financial news is sometimes relayed in a language full of sporty metaphors: it is all about “scores,” “defensive” and “offensive” strategies, “gate-keeping,” and so forth. Newspaper cartoons nicely reflect this conflation of Euro-2012 and Eurozone debate: one has the Greeks defending their goal with Euro-umbrellas (the “Euroschirm” umbrella is the German metaphor for the Euro-protecting assistance package), while another puts a Euro coin on the field instead of a ball. One cultural explanation for the political implications of football mania can be found at the exhibition “Choreography of the Masses. In Sport. In the Stadium. In a Frenzy,” which opened in Berlin on the eve of Euro-2012. It offers an interesting outlook on the fusion of sport, architecture, and fan culture, but what is more important is that it uncovers the firm nexus between sports and politics. For Germans, this linkage dates back to the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, which became a landmark identity-shaping event, designed to demonstrate the stark contrast with the 1936 Berlin Olympics wholly orchestrated by the Nazi regime. There was another political connotation as well: it was in 1972 that the two German teams performed separately, and the East Germans did much better than their West German compatriots and rivals.
Since those times, Germans have tended to politicize sports. The German newspaper Das Parlament recently stated that “Of course, the Euro-2012 is a political event: it’s a peculiar mixture of national spirits and an international advertisement market” (May 12). Multiple proofs followed this utterance. German national football coach Joachim Low had to answer at least twice to explicitly political questions at a recent press conference. The hottest one concerned the quarterfinal match between Germany and Greece. “Aren’t there hidden political connotations,” a journalist wondered, alluding to the bitter tensions between Berlin and Athens as a result of the Eurozone crisis. Low did his best to assure the journalists that the game was going to be “absolutely sport-like,” but the German media covered the preparation to the match in explicitly political tones. Stories and interviews with football players were intentionally mixed with the stark anti-German rhetoric of radical Greek politicians comparing Angela Merkel’s strategy in Europe with that of Adolf Hitler. Another question smacked of conspiracy theory: aren’t there political connotations in Germany’s choice of Danzig (Gdansk) as its base during the championship, taking into account that the Second World War started in this city? The coach refused to answer, and perhaps he was right. Yet the question of how the difficult historical heritage of Germany’s relations with its neighbors is reflected in football appears to be quite compelling for many of his compatriots. The German Cultural Forum recently organized a conference with a title that speaks for itself: “Football as a Mirror of the Search for Ethnic and Regional Identities in Central and East Europe.” Indeed, football as sport and social entertainment is inscribed in the political history of all Eastern Europe, which explains the interest to this fusion on the part of sport sociologists and artists. What immediately comes to mind is a recent Russian movie that tells the story of a football game between Germans and Ukrainians in Nazi-occupied Kyiv. What deserves a bit more sophisticated explanation is the politicization of football, i.e. its merging with different political discourses. A good example is a week-long seminar “Stories from Ukraine and Poland Beyond Tymoshenko,” arranged by the Institute for East European Studies at the Free University of Berlin. Its format was quite unusual: each day a political discussion on two co-host countries was followed by a live football show. Perhaps watching football after debating human rights and the rule of law is a good alternative to watching it with a glass of beer or something stronger, as many do. But I was trying to look at this combination of football and politics from a more theoretical perspective. To me, it seems to confirm a phenomenon known as “trans-politics,” after the works of Jean Baudrillard. He assumed that today politics have lost their autonomy (if they ever had it), and that everything can now go political – from arts to sports. Traditional political discourses and means of communication are no longer sufficient. To attract people – and thus to perform democratic functions – politicians need something which lies beyond the domain of politics proper. Perhaps discussions on authoritarianism and corruption in Ukraine, followed by the public viewing of football games, garner more attention than those without such a thrilling follow-up. Likewise, anti-extremism television clips featuring football stars could be more effective than the admonitions of political leaders. And, by the way, football fans are voters too – that is why the SPD party published a special brochure for the Euro-2012 which, among other things, stressed the political importance of Poland, Ukraine, and the whole of Central and Eastern Europe. Of course, politics is a sort of game. Yet today’s (post-)political class in many countries lacks what sports have in wide supply – passion, thrill, emotion, and the unpredictability of results.
Andrey Makarychev is a Guest Professor at the Free University of Berlin, blogging for PONARS Eurasia on the Russia-EU neighborhood.