If the intellectuals of the future were to ask, say, 2,000 years from now, what in the past embodied the notion of a modern and free Europe with shared values and ideals, what document, work of art or event would they refer to? Among the documents, Don Quixote, by Cervantes, and Critique of Pure Reason, of Kant, would be two safe candidates. The same would happen with the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven and the Sagrada Familia by Antonio Gaudí in the fields of music and architecture. However, as a festive expression of continental enthusiasm, there would certainly be no more revealing event than a European Championship like the one that is being played again with joy this summer. Football as an example par excellence of the European liberal spirit with universal power of attraction.
The paradise of individuals
Due to the unfortunate behavior of the official bodies, the prosaic fixation on results and the excessive presence of the media, with its paralyzing effect, it is too easy to lose sight of how deeply and how faithfully this game of games has exemplified for some time. more than 150 years the ideals of the continent where it was born. In the first place, football has the peculiarity of offering a field where almost any form of physical individuality can be displayed; Whether you’re 1.50 or 2.10 meters tall, sturdy or slim, left-handed or right-handed, impulsive or thoughtful, intellectually limited or extremely intricate, expectations of football excellence are open to literally everyone, and now everyone too. This game, which in its initial form requires almost no equipment or skill, and whose rules are also ridiculously simple, is prone to all kinds of refinement and differentiation. Therefore, it represents a true paradise of human individuality.
As a team game, soccer also creates groups and communities made up of members whose main task is to dynamically link the goals, abilities and weaknesses of others with their own. No one, no matter how touched by grace it may seem, can dominate the game alone without the other 21 present on the field, much less against them. And yet it is always the individual performances full of genius that give the football match its true great twists and moments of beauty.
An open us
In the form of national teams, the social openness inherent in the game affects the idea of the nation. This openness is a lasting legacy of modern Europe, whose old nationalist equality between people and national territory has experienced a productive fracture and has been transformed into a patriotism of maximum inclusion thanks to the current national teams, deeply marked by multiculturalism. It is impressive how the very way the 2021 UEFA European Championship will be held (the matches will be played in 11 cities, from Glasgow to Rome, via Seville and Baku) underlines the continent’s pre-national regional diversity and its geopolitical openness to the East. . Europe’s borders are not rigid and cannot be defined strictly geographically. Soccer shows like no other medium that they could very well reach Israel or Azerbaijan.
This is also consistent with the fact that, in the 60 years since the first European championship, there have been champions from all corners of the continent. We have had winning teams from Scandinavia (Denmark in 1992) and, of course, from southern Europe (Italy and Spain several times); from the west (France), the center (Germany, Czechoslovakia) and the east (Soviet Union in 1960), as well as from the true cradle of culture in the southeast (Greece in 2004). Moral: in our wide diversity, everyone can become a champion.
The spirit of utopia
The culture of the stadiums and football fans, with its rich repertoire of ironic insults and utopian self-praise, its laughing contempt for the hierarchs and the powerful (“tribune pigs”) and its orgiastic glorification of the supposedly declassified masses (“we are fans, asocial fans ”) links in the same old European line of development with the times of cultural subversion of the Roman Saturnalia or the medieval carnival, with its jester kings, their donkey-eared hats and their entire days of drunkenness. And when, in the mid-nineteenth century, the flâneur and metropolitan dandy Charles Baudelaire summed up the fundamental aesthetic experiences of the consciousness of the great European city in the formula modernity is the transitoria, the fugitive, the contingent (modernity is the transitory, the fleeting, the contingent), it was also defining the specific experience of the game of soccer, which at that time was emerging as the fashionable pastime among the youth of continental cities: always boiling, always fluid, impossible to capture and fix, with the stubborn spherical as a permanently uncontrollable contingent wild card.
Even for the postmodern aesthetic of essential emptiness, fundamental absurdity and necessary failure, football was and still is a step forward. After all, when you’re exposed to it for 90 minutes straight, the game is characterized by truly epic emptiness and boredom. At its core, it is nothing more than a recital of the permanent inability of 22 highly trained players to control and limit the complexity that they voluntarily produce themselves. In other words, what Heidegger once called Thrownness of existence (the human condition of being thrown into existence in the world) in all its rawness and existential comedy. Most of the plays do not come to fruition, they end up offside or with the ball out of the field of play. In Samuel Becket’s words: “You tried. You failed. No matter. Retry. Fail again. Fail better ”. Soccer is our life. And it is all the more beautiful when, at the most unexpected moment, everything agrees, and the good fortune of the moment manifests itself for what it really is: a contingent gift. Thus, freedom is experienced as joyful openness to that which can never be disposed of.
Precisely the games without an audience of the time of the coronavirus showed that football practiced and professionally staged is actually much more than a mirror of society, in addition to other things. It is an extraordinarily agile subsystem in which what will happen later in society is shown and put to the test. The bubbles Isolated equipment shows, on the one hand, the extreme conditions in which physical interaction is still possible even in a pandemic situation. The return of stadium fans as it is these days is the best imaginable expression of the end of the pandemic for society. We are back, together again, body to body, united in joy for the opening of this existence in the world that football, like no other game, transmits and seeks.
Precisely at the time of the great tournaments, which attract with their magic the attention of an entire continent, the stadiums become places of a shared and moving real presence that can only be adequately described in the terminology of the dawn of religion in Europe. . In these extraordinary periods, an entire continent is perceived and savored as a distinct unit of free and fraternal beings. And it is possible that this year England, the favorites, will win the trophy for the first time, and the motherland of football can thus reconcile politically with its deeply European identity. England returns home to Europe. Certainly, it would be too much to wait. Although, on the other hand, not too much for this game of true miracles or for the continent of free men and women that life once gave him.
Wolfram Eilenberger He is a philosopher. His latest book is The fire of freedom (Taurus).
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