More often these days, Association Football shatters long held myths of national identity. You could watch that happening, in vivid detail, this week in Germany, as soccer did a magical job of demolishing the lies that Europeans like to tell about themselves.

Soccer shatters ethnic myths

Suddenly, there was no legitimate link between national identity and ethnic identity

Doug Saunders

Berlin —  Saturday, Jul. 10, 2010

The World Cup, which has been reduced to a stark contest between Northern and Southern European soccer cultures, is always about national mythologies. Sometimes, it confirms them. On Sunday, we will doubtless watch a display of Dutch stubbornness and unpredictability pitted against Spain’s mesmerizing bolero of syncopated passing.

But more often these days, it shatters those myths. You could watch that happening, in vivid detail, this week in Germany, as soccer did a magical job of demolishing the lies that Europeans like to tell about themselves.

I stood a few blocks from the Brandenburg Gate on Wednesday night and watched as several hundred thousand people, most of them wrapped in the German flag, cheered on their national heroes, then consoled them in their loss with a drunken mass rendition, in mangled English, of You’ll Never Walk Alone.

The star of the night was midfielder Mesut Özil, a German superstar whose grandfather is one of the two million Germans born in Turkey. He played with Jérôme Boateng, whose dad is from Ghana; with Cacau, a black Brazilian German worshipped by Nuremberg supporters; with the Stuttgart phenomenon Sami Khedira, who has Tunisian roots; and with Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski, two Polish-born Germans.

They also cheered with equal fervour, of course, for Bastian Schweinsteiger, who is about as Bavarian as you can get. But the point is, they were no less devoted to the 11 players whose last names were not Teutonic.

No longer could anyone in the fervent world of German soccer pretend for a moment that these men were anything other than the very essence of German – and, suddenly, in the conversations of the tabloid-reading, beer-garden-occupying millions, there was no legitimate link between national identity and ethnic identity. Germany, after a century and a half, had rejoined the club of cosmopolitan nations.

If you think this is hyperbole, note that Germany’s major far-right groups – which are small but have a good following in the country’s soccer stadiums – publicly announced last week that they will no longer have anything to do with national-level soccer. Those who would link nationality with ethnicity have been forced to retreat from national sports, as they have in recent years from national politics, national television, national music and national cuisine.

Earlier in the day, I strolled through the Turkish ghettos of Kreuzberg and Wedding, and found almost every shop and apartment wrapped in the red, black and gold flag of Germany, every kid’s face painted with the national colours. Turkish-born Germans were denied citizenship for decades – only in 2000 did Germany introduce a form of citizenship based on something other than blood lines – and this World Cup marked a historic assertion of German identity, in good part thanks to Mr. Özil.

This is symbolic stuff, but it makes a big difference in the real world. Look at what happened in England. The “go back to where you came from” variety of racism was socially acceptable among the standing-room classes right up into the 1990s. Then, suddenly, most national heroes became people with brown and black skin, who spoke with the same accents and scored goals for England.

British scholar Mark Perryman chronicled the result: Racism, beginning with the non-white-majority England team of 1996, became unthinkable in much of working-class England. The result was measured by German sociologist Joachim Bruss, who found that the proportion of non-European immigrants in Britain who now feel their ethnic identity has not affected their job prospects has risen to 82 per cent, compared with 54 per cent in Germany. France, after its national team became a multi-hued mix, began to experience similar changes.

It’s not so much that Europeans are embracing a new polyglot spirit as much as that they’re rediscovering their true nature after a century of pretend homogeneity. The continent has been an amalgam of Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths, and of clashing languages and cultures, for as long as it has called itself “Europe.”

Spain is an awkward, half-finished construction of at least four very different languages and ethnic groups, never fully unified; Britain is an equally fragmented bonding of four others; and Germany and Italy both were very recent forced marriages of a dozen disparate groups. In France, as recently as 1900, almost half the native-born population neither spoke standard French nor identified themselves primarily as “French.”

It was the decades of war, and the years of forced ethnic homogenization afterward, that solidified the European myth that national borders are tied to single ethnic and linguistic groups. Only now, after that illusion has been unmasked on big-screen TV, have people begun to cheer for something else.