Nationalism and international soccer

International football, by which I mean nations playing other nations, has a strong and obvious nationalist component. The anthems of the two teams are played before the matches commence. Some players belt out the song with the gusto one would expect at a feverish nationalist rally.

Fans paint their faces in the colors of their nation. Some countries come to a standstill the day their team plays.

FIFA, the body that governs world soccer, is fine with all of this. It adds to the spectacle. It’s what helps the biggest tournaments, especially the World Cup, stand above the biggest events in other sports.

There is, though, an ugly side to nationalism in international soccer. When North Korea played South Korea this week in a World Cup qualification match at an empty Kim Il-sung Stadium (spectators and media were barred), the North Koreans played like they were waging war.

After the 0-0 draw, Son Heung-min, South Korea’s captain and an English Premier League star for Tottenham Hotspur, said:

The opponents were very rough, and there were moments when very abusive language was exchanged. It was hard to concentrate on the match because you were thinking about avoiding injury first. . .It’s an accomplishment that we returned from a game like that without injury.

The South Korean football federation is considering whether to lodge a formal complaint with FIFA.

In Bulgaria, nationalism morphed into racism and fascism. Fans in Sophia taunted England’s black players with monkey chants (a practice that was far from unheard of in England in the 1980s). Fans also gave the Nazi salute.

The English team considered walking off in the middle of the match which, under the anti-racism rules, it had the right to do after the second incident. Instead, the players stayed, thrashing the Bulgarians 6-0 to clinch a spot in next year’s European Championship tournament.

It should be a long time before Bulgaria gets another home international match.

Finally, the Turkish team expressed solidarity with their country’s invading troops during Turkey’s away match against France. After Kaan Ayhan scored for Turkey, he and his teammates lined up in front of the away supporters and gave a military salute.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. Turkey’s invasion of Syria is abominable in my view, and I don’t like the injection of controversial politics into sporting events.

On the other hand, if I were Turkish I would probably support the invasion. And as an American, I’d be unlikely to condemn American players who, in the middle of a hot shooting war, expressed support for our troops during an international match.

Turkey’s coach Senol Gunes defended the team’s action, saying that it was a gesture of respect for the armed forces, rather than a political statement. The line between the two isn’t bright, if it exists at all. However, I find it difficult to blame the players for showing solidarity with their troops, even though doing so carries political implications.

For comedic effect, I hope, the coach added:

You’re always asking me about the salute, but it’s way above me. It’s Trump’s business, it’s Macron’s business. They are the ones who rule the world, while I can barely rule the team.

This coach may want to become the Steve Kerr of international soccer.

The controversy spilled over into the German national team, which contains several players of Turkish origin. On Instagram, Ilkay Gündogan (Manchester City) and Emre Can (ex-Liverpool) “liked” a photo of Cenk Tosun (Turkey and Everton) giving the military salute after scoring a goal in another Turkish team match. They later “unliked” the post, and said they were only showing support for their friend who has had a tough time scoring (or even getting off the bench) at Everton.

Whether or not there was a political component to what Gündogan and Can did, I don’t see a problem with it. Why can’t athletes, on a their own Instagram account, “like” photos that have nationalist, but not racist or fascist, implications?

International soccer is predicated on nationalism. I understand the desire to rein it in when international controversies arise, especially when they manifest themselves in war. But it’s asking a lot of players to do so. Maybe too much.