I recently watched Thierry Henry’s documentary – ‘My France, My Euro’s’. Its release was of course timed to coincide with the European Championship in Henry’s homeland and I tuned in expecting a light hearted football show; however an intriguing history lesson began to unfold. This programme looked not just at the football side of the competition but at what the games tell us about each country; their identity and how they feel towards other nationalities.
Of course here in Ireland we get a great kick from beating England. We see them as our greatest adversaries and the victory over them in Stuttgart 88 is still fondly remembered on these shores. However there was another fixture in that tournament that dwarfed the Ireland England clash in terms of drama and emotion – The semi final between Holland and Germany.
The background to the Euro 88 clash between these two neighbours was fascinating. The 1974 World Cup final is still seen as a national tragedy in Holland. The team of Cruyff and their total football revolution had lit up that tournament but in a bad tempered final they lost against their hated rivals. It went all wrong for the Dutch as they were beaten two one despite taking an early lead. When asked why they didn’t kill off the game instead of toying with the Germans at one nil their flamboyant midfielder Willem van Hanegem revealed that they perhaps had the wrong priorities after going one nil up. “I didn’t give a damn about the score; one nil was enough, as long as we could humiliate them. I hate them. They murdered my family – my father, my brother and several family members. Each time I faced Germany, I was angst-filled”.
The sense of injustice at this defeat only inflamed the animosity that the Dutch people felt for Germany, emotions still raw from the occupation of World War Two. When Holland gained revenge by beating West Germany in Hamburg in 1988 the players and fans back home were delirious. Ronald Koeman swapped his jersey for a German one and quickly wiped his backside with it. An iconic image of his actions was captured by the photographers present. Yet another image encapsulating the hatred between these two countries was taken just two years later when Frank Rijkaard spat in Rudi Vollers hair during the 1990 World Cup finals. Rijkaard later apologised but no apology could mask the level of hatred Dutch people felt towards their neighbours.
It is not just tension between different countries but tensions within a country that can be seen and sometimes healed by sport. Henry interviewed Cesc Fàbregas and Guillem Balague and questioned them on the problems faced by Spain before their breakthrough victory at the European Championships of 2008. For decades Spain had been seen as the underachievers of world football; held back by the tension between Barcelona and Real Madrid and by the different ideologies of regional government. Balague stated that Spain sees itself as a country of different regions. It took the genius of Xavi, Villa and Torres to win the tournament for Spain, but when they did it precipitated an outpouring of national pride from all corners of Spain.
Henry of course also spoke of his own countries victories at France 98 and Euro 2000. We were reminded that France had many problems at the turn of the millennium just as it does today. Integration of so many different immigrants into the country had caused many French people to question what it actually was to be French. The multi ethnicity of France was represented by the football team itself. The line-up was a mixture of black, white, Muslim and Christian. Henry said the victory in 1998 brought the country together at a time when it was really needed and reminded us the 2016 tournament comes at a time when the need is perhaps even greater. Henry said the multicultural France team of 1998 and 2000 “showed that we could be together and work together as a team. The fans could relate to each other. We all became one. When the referee blew the final whistle every single person in the country was French.”
Ireland fans have been gaining much praise in these championships. It is almost as if they are being held up as the polar opposite of the football hooligans we see throwing plastic chairs across the promenades of France. Do the Ireland fans in some way show us the difference between patriotism and nationalism? When talking about nationalism and patriotism, we cannot avoid the famous quotation by George Orwell, who said that nationalism is ‘the worst enemy of peace’. According to him, nationalism is a feeling that one’s country is superior to another in all respects, while patriotism is merely a feeling of admiration for a way of life. So I think we Irish can get away with feeling a little superior about our supporters and how they have behaved themselves. We stop well short of believing we are superior in all aspects. Indeed we never went to the championships with any hope of winning. We went there to enjoy another country while representing our own with pride. Surely that is patriotism as is should be.