What Do Soccer Championships Say About 'National Character'?
These days it causes less chagrin to come out as gay than to come out as a soccer fan. But -- leaping out of the closet I was never in -- I am a soccer fan. I avidly watch the English Premiere League when it's in season and follow the international game too. I watched as much of the Euro championship last month as I could, cheering for underdog England to win (they didn't, though they did manage to leave unbeaten). Underdog Italy beat England on penalties and then dismantled favored Germany in the semifinal. Commentators are out and about claiming that the Italian national team knocked off Germany because of some "deeper" national meaning or character. Michael Ledeen demolishes that idea.
Commentators are quick to make soccer some kind of statement on national character. The English league is better because of this or that in the English character, the Italian league is inferior because of this or that in the Italian character, etc. One of the funnier attempts to do this came during this year's UEFA Champions League final between Chelsea (England) and Beyern Munich (Germany). Beyern took the lead late on a Thomas Muller goal, only for Chelsea to equalize on a late corner. The game went to extra time, neither team scored. It went to penalties, and despite German teams' history of being nearly invincible in shootouts, Chelsea won it and shocked the soccer world.
I was watching the match on Fox. Commentator Gary Neville, an Englishman, couldn't contain himself, and credited the victory to Chelsea's "English character" of tenacity. It made for a fine story. But it has a few factual problems. One, Chelsea may play in London but it's owned and funded by a Russian oligarch. He buys and sells multimillion dollar players and hires and fires managers at whim. That oligarch fired the club's manager, Andre Villas-Boas from Portugal, in mid-season and replaced him with Roberto DiMatteo, a former Italian national player. DiMatteo reinvigorated the nominally English team as it chased the European club title. In the final the scorer of the equalizing goal, and the scorer of the winning penalty kick, was Didier Drogba, a 34-year-old striker from the Ivory Coast. Almost immediately after the match ended, Drogba announced that he would not return to Chelsea. He has since moved on to ply his trade in Shanghai for a pile of money. Beyern, by the way, had advanced from the semifinals over Real Madrid via penalty kicks. Real is hardly a characterless pushover: They outlasted Barcelona to win the league title just a few weeks prior to the UEFA final. Barcelona is generally recognized as the greatest club in the world at the moment.
There is, in short, very little that's English about Chelsea, and English players did not secure the club's highest title. Chelsea's goalie, Petr Cech of the Czech Republic, and Drogba were the major stars.
Looking for something of national character in the Spanish team, now European and world champion until at least 2014, also makes little sense. Spain is so good now because its soccer federation and La Liga have spent a generation developing extraordinarily skilled players. Its clubs also are rich enough to buy some of the world's best players. Until 2008, though, Spain's national team had not won a major title. Now it wins them routinely because, surprise, Spain tends to produce great players. Its strength starts in the goal, with the best and second-best goalkeepers on the planet in Iker Casillas and Pepe Reyna respectively. Reyna, by the way, does his club duty for Liverpool in England. Casillas plays for Real. Spain is a strong team that starts with solid defense which allows its midfield and front line greater freedom than it would have if its defense showed any cracks. Spain dominates possession, tends to lull opponents to sleep, and then strikes when opportunity arises.
Spain's "national character" doesn't account for the pinpoint accuracy of the club's passing, or for midfielder Cesc Fabregas' laser-like bank shot off team mate David Silva's head for the first Spanish goal against Italy in the Euro final.
Fabregas grew up in Barcelona and plays there now but he has played most of his career with Arsenal in England; Silva currently plays with Manchester City in England, and City is currently the EPL champion. Which is repugnant, but that's beside the point.
"National character" doesn't account for this either. It's Spain's second goal against Italy. Jordi Alba, the Spain left back, goes on a tear that everyone sees developing, but no one on the Italian side can stop. He is too fast and the assisting pass is too perfect. His finish is that of a seasoned striker, despite the fact that he is a defender.
Spain went on to a huge 4-0 victory. Italy, which had outlasted England in penalties in the quarter final before outplaying the Germans, were totally outclassed. The last five minutes or so were painful to watch, even as a non-partisan.
Spain's thumping win didn't happen because of anything to do with "national character." The current Spanish national team is just that good. It's arguably the greatest national soccer team ever assembled, despite the fact that none of the three current top players in the world -- Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Robin Van Persie -- are Spanish. They're respectively Argentinian, Portuguese and Dutch.
Besides: If soccer really was a statement of national character, everyone knows that the United States would own the sport.