Americans tend to think that games are as pure and American as the apple pie. Our flags fluttering and the anthem blaring are supposed to unite us as one nation under God in the land of the free and the home of the brave. No more.
That sport reflects politics is a lesson most Americans have internalized only since the shenanigans of the San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who resurrected the 1960s revolutionary fashion of disrespecting the Old Glory. There have been variations on that: an American Olympian turning her back on the flag and the anthem last month; or a couple of athletes giving the Black Power salute at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968.
All that is quite shocking for most of us. However, in Europe sports have historically been connected to either social classes or political parties.
In Greece heroes who excelled as athletes could later command popular support in the agora, which translated into political influence, particularly in democratic city-states.
In Rome gladiatorial and other games attracted fans who followed not only their favorite stars but also sponsors. The latter were, in turn, connected to various politicians or court factions.
Byzantium chariot racing saw the imperial capital split between the worshipers of the Whites, Blues, Greens, and Reds. Their fans routinely indulged in riots and targeted assassinations.
In 527 the Emperor Justinian rooted for the Blues, which triggered a rebellion led by the fans of the Greens. Violence engulfed the city. Half the imperial capital burned to the ground, and thousands of inhabitants perished.
In modern times certain games, especially football, became a working-class domain. Mass sports activities and mass events they took place at attracted politicians as early as the 19th century.
Various options recruited followers. Sometimes the divisions were linguistic, e.g., competing Flemish and Walloons in Belgium.
At other times the differences were confessional. Politics, often radical, simply exacerbated other factions.
And, thus, working-class Catholic nationalists could, and did, clash with proletarian Protestant socialists, as was the case, for instance, in Great Britain.
The European tradition has continued. However, in the current iteration of sports partisanship the conflict on and off the field reveals itself in a familiar American garb: wokeness and anti-wokeness.
Let’s look at the recently concluded Euro soccer championship, which had been delayed by COVID for a year. In the final match, Italy won over England. Because of a tie, the game went into overtime and the Italians scored higher in penalties.
Three English players fouled up their kicks, which triggered a torrent of racist abuse: They were all of black African origin. The bile truly overflew on the internet.
Comments turned so ugly that premier Boris Johnson himself publicly intervened in defense of the black English footballers.
Undoubtedly, had England won, the whole team would have been equally celebrated. Before the English defeat racism was not the issue, but the fracas over taking the knee and LGBT.
Both the fans and the players seemed split on that count geographically: Western European teams showed off their wokeness, while eastern European crews rejected it. When the former ostentatiously knelt down, the latter uniformly pointed to the patches on their uniforms which read: “Respect.” Respect the anthem. Stand at attention.
Tellingly both western and eastern fans booed the kneeling players.
There were also ongoing public west-east spats on and off the field regarding the sexual revolution. The focus was on Hungary’s recent law barring minors from being exposed at school to gay and transgender advocacy.
In western Europe, LGBT supporters and media went full blast in favor of making private sex public.
On the field, the Dutch and German captains even sported rainbow armbands in solidarity with the movement. A Munich stadium bedecked itself in rainbow colors at night for the Hungary-Germany match.
In the east the opposition sported a much lower profile. Hungarian fans hoisted a homemade anti-LGBT placard at least once; and the organizers confiscated LGBT banners at a game in Baku, Azerbaijan.
In all the excitement, it must have escaped nearly everyone’s attention that Chinese companies constituted over 30% of sponsors at the Euro Cup. That should be a serious concern for the United States.
Make no mistake: the Europeans (and others) take their soccer as seriously as Americans do their batting averages in baseball and the Heisman Trophy in football. Time to take note of that like the Chinese have.
What has happened to U.S. soft power?
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school of statecraft in Washington D.C.; expert on East-Central Europe's Three Seas region; author, among others, of "Intermarium: The Land Between The Baltic and Black Seas." Read Marek Jan Chodakiewicz's Reports — More Here.
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