As the European Football Championship have reached their halfway stage and moved from the group phase to the quarterfinals which Portugal opened with their victory over the Czech Republic on Thursday, it’s time for some halftime analysis–albeit not of the soul-searching depth of ever-vain Cristiano Ronaldo’s reflections during halftime in Portugal’s opener against Germany. In a game that saw Portugal defend too deep and develop little of its own offensive capabilities, the self-pronounced world’s best footballer knew what had to be done: when he stepped back onto the field for the second half, he had radically restyled his hair shifting from the gelled comb back to the quiff that is the metrosexual footballer’s best friend in the post-Beckham era. Portugal went on to lose 0-1.
Much of Jean Baudrillard’s (1993: 79-80) analysis of football as a space for increasing spectacle that at some stage is so enlarged in its representation that the actual event may well not need take place at all, has been proven right over the past decade, but not even he will have imagined the spectacular triumph of superficiality and ephemerality that is Cristiano Ronaldo’s hair–and indeed ego. Those searching for further evidence for the preponderance of the postmodern in European Championship don’t have to look far: once again, the mediated tournament appears in radical isolation from the context of the social, cultural, and physical landscapes in which the matches take place, with the exception of the dramatic thunderstorm that led to an hour-long delay in host nation Ukraine’s group match with France. German public broadcaster ZDF–previously rarely know as a beacon of postmodernism–has inadvertently crossed into the realms of the surreal by deciding to build a stage for its pre- and post-match analysis on a pontoon in the Baltic Sea on the island of Usedom, leaving millions of bewildered viewers–and newspaper columnists–to wonder “why?”, as the floating stage seems to have as little to do with football as host Katrin Müller-Hohenstein and former Germany keeper Oliver Kahn’s wooden attempts at conversation and banter have with entertainment.
Yet, just when there are appears plenty of convincing proof of football’s dissolution into postmodern spectacle, fate presents us with a match-up that forcefully reminds us that base and superstructure are rather less divorced than the non-reductive methodologies of postmodern theories would have us believe. When Greece meets Germany in the second quarterfinal match tonight, it’s, literally, about the Euro(s), stupid!
One of the most persistent myths about the nature of modern sport is that it has lots its innocence and authenticity over time through professionalization and commercialisation. In fact sports, and none more than football–or what Europeans tend to call football and Americans, in reference to Association, call “soccer“–have from their very origin in the second half of the 19th century been driven by forces of capitalism and industrialisation, resulting in the regulation of time and space and crucially the distinction of participants and spectators, the latter becoming paying customers as early as 1871 when English side Aston Villa was the first to charge at its gates. All that followed from the game’s symbiosis, first with newspapers, then radio, and eventually television to turn it into a the multi-billion dollar industry it is today, adhered to the very principles that had given rise to modern football in the first instance (Sandvoss 2003). And with the popular appeal and reach that football achieved in its mediated form, it inevitably became part of the public sphere in which, as much important work in media and cultural studies has illustrated over the past three decades, the political may not always be popular, but the popular is always politics.
Rarely will this nexus of sports, politics, and money be more evident than when on Friday night the German team meets Greece in Gdansk. In the rhetoric of many Greek politicians, the current economic plight is a result of austerity enforced on the Greek state by the EU and driven by its largest member state Germany. Many Germans in turn are dazzled by such hostility as Germany’s contributions account for nearly half of the €240 billion bailout Greece has received since 2010.
In the same manner, Germany, who have won all three of their first-round matches in what the ever restrained sporting press named “Group of Death”, are perceived as strong favourites, the Goliath threatening to roll over Greece’s brave eleven that somehow sneaked its way through the quarterfinals with efficiency, ingenuity, and self-belief.
But beyond all the hostile rhetoric and regardless of tonight’s result, over time the game will simply confirm the realities of a globalising world–a world in which through pressures of global capitalism as much as, I believe, related yet partially autonomous social, cultural, and political forces, create transnational structures and trajectories that erode the cultural frame of the nation station. The reality of the two teams that will play tonight is that almost half of the Greek squad either currently live, grew up in, or previously played in Germany, much as the German team includes many players of migratory backgrounds, primarily from the Mediterranean. In the same way, the only resolution to the Euro crisis, over time, will be an ever closer political and fiscal union between today’s still seemingly autonomous member states of the Euro Zone. Because, in the end, the Germans, the Greeks, and all of us share something more fundamental than the Euro and the Euros in a clash that the prophetic Monty Python predicted four decades ago. There, finally, is some hair to make Cristiano Ronaldo blush with envy!