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Italy and Germany: the deeper meaning of soccer

June 30th, 2012 - 3:05 pm

Actually the headline is  intentionally misleading.  I don’t believe soccer has meaning, and certainly not “deep” meaning.  But, as an avid fan (you cannot have spent nearly fifty years in and around Italy, as I have, without getting, ahem, deeply involved in the minutiae of the game and its players), and a cultural historian, I’m greatly amused by the many pundits who analyze soccer in terms of national character, or national culture, or something.  Most of the time, they not only fail to understand soccer, but embarrassingly expose their ignorance of culture and character as well.

Italy and Germany are great examples.  Most folks expected Germany to win the semifinal game that the Italians won 2-1 (and were clearly better than the Germans).  Those who follow the sport knew that Germany had better talent, and believed that “Germans are tougher than Italians.”  They were right about talent, but wrong about toughness.

Whenever Italy plays Germany, the Italians expect to win and the Germans expect to lose.  And why not?  As Fox News’ Jamie Trecker noted before the match, “Germany have never beaten Italy in a game of this magnitude, either in a World Cup or in a European Championship. In fact, the last time they met in a knockout game, Italy ejected them from the very World Cup they were hosting.”

Does that surprise you?  If so, it’s probably because you don’t understand either Italians or Germans very well.  You probably think of them in terms of the usual stereotypes:  Italians are charming people who live life to the fullest, great for celebrating and eating, great at cooking and winemaking, beautiful to look at, gorgeous country, wonderful weather, but not very good at war or projects that require organizing people into coherent units, whether big industrial projects or sporting events.  Yes, lots of individual talent — so they’re good at Formula 1, for example — but you can push them around on battlefields or athletic fields.

It must be said that many Italians work hard to advance this stereotype.  It serves their interests to be thought of as lovable, non-threatening guys.  It encourages others to let down their guard.  But Italy has a very long tradition — perhaps the longest and richest unbroken tradition in the world — of political assassination.  And what country gave us the word “mafia” anyway?  Aren’t mafias famously disciplined organizations?  And would you say they are normally made up of charming, non-threatening guys?

If you would, you’d best head for the reeducation school in Corleone.

So at a minimum there’s a very tough subclass of Italians.  And it’s not limited to the criminals.  Italian politics may be superficially entertaining, but in reality it’s a blood sport, sometimes quite literally.  You may remember that Aldo Moro, the most powerful politician in the country, was kidnapped and assassinated.  You probably don’t remember the many judges, lawyers and others who were killed or kneecapped by the terrorists in the same decade.  I do, since when I was a professor at Rome U., one of my colleagues, who happened to be the chief justice of the Italian supreme court, was gunned down on campus.

Quite aside from such violence, there are many once-powerful politicians who have been destroyed by “scandal,” as often as not conjured out of the Roman air (notice that Berlusconi, who has never been convicted of anything, was recently exonerated of yet another charge (fraud)).

Tough guys, in short.  They have to be.  Italy’s a tough place, and survival, let alone success, requires real toughness.  That charm is a mask, as is much of the celebrated joie de vivre.  You won’t get past that mask without a lot of effort and plenty of time with them.  When I first got there, someone said that I should be slow in thinking I understood anything.  “It’s a ten-year course,” he said.  Actually I think it’s longer, at least it has been for me.  But I’ve learned a good deal about that charming mask and about the underlying toughness.  On the soccer field — to reprise our theme — they do not try to charm their opponents.  They try to take them apart.  If you watch Italy play soccer, watch their feet carefully, and you’ll see what they do to their opponents’ ankles.  Rather like the picadores in the bullring.

And what about the Germans?  I haven’t lived in Germany, but I’ve known a lot of Germans, from academia to politics to special operations commanders to champion bridge players.  To my great surprise, I have found them the opposite of the stereotypical aggressive, self-assured, even arrogant bully of film and recent history.  Back when I attended a lot of international conferences about fascism (in the sixties and seventies), most of the Germans invariably took pains to apologize for the terrible things their country had done.  Fair enough, I thought, but after a while it got to be annoying.  One day I said to a German historian of my age, “listen, Jens, it’s enough already.  You didn’t have anything to do with it, and you’re a terrific historian, so just get on with it.”  He couldn’t.  He continued to ask forgiveness.

I think most contemporary Germans are ashamed.  They know what the others think of them, and they’d prefer to think of themselves–and have others think of them — as something else.  As Europeans, say.  But not stereotypical Germans, the sort who, left to their own devices, will kill again, because that’s what “Germans” do.

Kohl was that sort.  He imbibed the nastiest stereotype of “Germans,” and I believe his passionate embrace of the euro project has a great deal to do with that stereotype.  I think he believed it was necessary — in the cause of peace — to make Germany disappear.  The euro, for him and  for many of his countrymen, was supposed to be the solvent in which “Germans” would blessedly dissolve.  You cannot imagine how many Germans came to Washington to explain to us that the euro wasn’t just, or even primarily, about economics.  It was about peace.  It would guarantee peace for Europe, after hundreds of years of war.  I heard that over and over again, and I can well imagine the terrible frustration of such Germans today, as the other Europeans are asking Frau Merkel to take charge and dictate policy to the others.  It’s one of those things that reminds us of the Almighty’s refined sense of humor.

The Germans have no desire to take charge, indeed it’s the last thing they want to do.  Like the Swedes — long among the most warlike peoples of Europe — after the Napoleonic wars, the Germans have lost their military vocation.  I don’t really understand what happened to the Swedes, who after all were among the victors on the Plains of Virtue after the demolition of Napoleon’s armies.  But it’s easy to understand the Germans.  They lost twice in thirty years, and they created a monstrous regime that came to define genocidal evil.  It’s easy for me to understand how and why contemporary Germans want to work hard, do well, and try to enjoy life, without telling anybody else what to do.

So why does Italy invariably defeat Germany at soccer?  I think it’s because, over the years, most of the crucial matchups have favored the Italians, because the Italians are better improvisers than the Germans, and because the Italians, unlike so many of the other European teams, aren’t the least bit afraid of the Germans. They know better, and they know they’re as good as anyone, as their history demonstrates.

Don’t buy into the stereotypes, please.  And enjoy Spain vs. Italy.  Spain has more talent, and when they are playing well, they are elegant, imaginative and explosive.  Italy’s very hard to beat.  They’re tough guys. But then, so are the Spaniards.  No surprise that they tied 1-1 in an earlier round of the tournament.

For those of you who love Braudel’s great The Mediterranean World, the final is best understood as a Mediterranean phenomenon, in which each side is hoping to win…elegantly.  I hope it’s a beautiful game.

(Thumbnail image on PJM homepage by Shutterstock.com.)

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