Unlike the Europeans, the American people have not really suspected that sports, say, football, is political. We think that games are as American as apple pie, and there is really no hidden agenda in the U.S. flags fluttering and the anthem blaring.
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.
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. In 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, 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.
Mass sports activities and mass events attracted politicians as early as the 19th century. Various political 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 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. 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. A mural of one of them, Marcus Rashford, was defaced with anti-black graffiti in Manchester, which triggered a solidarity march to his painted image in Washington, D.C. However, the bile truly overflew on the internet. There were further comments that the English team was a post-imperial hybrid, while the opponents were mostly ethnic Italians, which is false, as Rome also fields a few players of African descent. Comments turned so ugly that premier Boris Johnson himself publicly intervened in defense of the black English footballers.
That was just the denouement of the games. Undoubtedly, had England won, the whole team would have been equally celebrated. Before the defeat, racist incidents were hardly evident in the EURO Cup. Instead, anti-racism kneeling and pro-LGBT gestures were the standard.
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 took the knee, 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 spats on and off the field regarding LGBT issues. The focus was on Hungary’s recent law barring minors from being exposed at school to gay and transgender advocacy. Both players and fans took sides; once again, the split was geographic: east and west.
When the games were in western Europe, LGBT supporters went full blast to a sustained serenade by the media. In addition, the Dutch and German captains sported rainbow armbands in solidarity with the movement. A Munich stadium bedecked itself in rainbow colors at night for the Hungary-Germany match. An LGBT activist tried to interrupt a game with Hungary. And a rainbow-painted German car delivered a soccer ball to the final game.
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.
At the central level, the European soccer authority half-heartedly threatened to investigate unauthorized rainbow armbands on the field, and it refused to countenance the pro-LGBT lights at the Munich stadium.
Much more notable than all that fuss was a prayer by a Hungarian priest, Father János Karaffa, known as “the stadium evangelizer,” and a soccer chaplain, sent to his team: “My Lord, thank you for Your gift that has enabled the representatives of our beloved Hungarian country to find themselves among the best. Please allow the dreams of the players, coaches, and fans of the national team to come true in accordance with Your will. Protect their every step and give them strength and wisdom so they would always oppose Evil and could capture the laurel of victory, fighting for the Good Fight under the protection of the Sacred Crown… Amen.”
Fr. Karaffa passed away on the eve of the Hungary-Germany game.
The media is silent about any soccer chaplains in western European teams.
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 it as the Chinese have. What has happened to U.S. soft power?
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Washington, D.C., 14 July 2021
A version of this article was published by Newsmax.