Politics was not quite in fashion in Bulgaria during the hot days of June. Even the protest against the Forestry Act, important as it was, did not garner the attention it deserved. That’s because Bulgarians, like the rest of Europe, were watching football.
It did not matter that Bulgaria was not represented at the European Championship in Poland and Ukraine. King Football ruled the day.
This is not that strange. The game Americans call “soccer” can shed light on politics, history, even economics. Or so sportswriter Franklin Foer claims in his illuminating 2004 book How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization.
According to Foer, “soccer is much more than a game, or even a way of life. In fact, it’s a perfect window into the cross–currents of today’s world, with all of its joys and sorrows. Soccer clubs don't represent geographic areas; they stand for social classes and political ideologies. And unlike baseball or tennis, soccer is freighted with the weight of ancient hatreds and history.”
Euro 2012 gives credence to his theory. The championship illuminated many things for its many viewers, especially for curious and receptive Bulgarians.
It had, for example, a historic grudge match in Russia versus Poland. The ancient rivalry, based on centuries of war and occupation, produced tension on the pitch and blood on the streets, as Russian and Polish fans clashed. The result was a 1-1 draw, which later proved fatal for both teams’ hopes of advancing. It brought to mind another historical draw – 0-0 at the World Cup in Spain in 1982, when the Soviet Union was still potent and Solidarity was on the rise. That draw favored Poland. So did history, seven years later.
But let’s get back to the present. The political and, in a sense, macro-economic match of Euro 2012 was Germany-Greece. The Bundes-team had to win; otherwise German (and EU) policy vis-à-vis the Greek recovery would look inconsistent. And so it did, 4-2.
It was impossible to miss the relief on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s face after Germany scored its second goal and took control of the match. Just imagine if the Greeks had turned the tide. The struggling yet proud nation could have gone into patriotic delirium, instinctively following the “go it alone” policy of Alexis Tsipras’ leftist SYRIZA party and jeopardizing the European recovery.
Humility is a better option, even for the Germans, who later faced defeat against the young and talented Italian team. The “political” lesson might have been that Germans might finance Europe, but they cannot rule it. There is good news in that: the Euro final between two of the most problematic European economies, Italy and Spain (with Spain emerging victorious), could reinforce the optimism the markets so badly need.
With the tournament itself now history, we should not forget that Euro 2012 was politicized in the traditional sense even before it started. Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s hunger strike over alleged mistreatment in prison led some Western leaders to refuse to attend matches in Ukraine. Just as some of them did for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, they declined to participate while actually participating (their countries sent teams, after all). Nobody really took their stance seriously, but at least they had taken one. Isn’t that quintessential politics?
There are so many things you can see through the football lens today. You could reflect on multiculturalism, race relations, tourism, and business. Poland and Ukraine were tremendously enthusiastic about this tournament – until they began to look over their ledgers. The expectation that investing massively in stadiums and roads would yield a pot of tourist gold was not borne out. In some ways it recalls the dreams Eastern Europe had about the West 20 years ago. Now, as then, the results are not completely rewarding.
Bulgaria’s transition to democracy could be also viewed through the soccer prism. Consider the situation of Bulgarian football, yesterday and today.
The communist regime produced lots of footballers via the so-called “sports schools” – and kept them in Bulgaria by not letting them play abroad. The country had decent football clubs that fared well in European competitions, such as CSKA Sofia and Levski. But with the national team, something was missing. Communist Bulgaria never won a single match in either Euro or the World Cup.
After 1989, it became clear that the missing link was experience abroad. With regime change, Bulgarian footballers got immediate opportunities. Hristo Stoichkov prospered with Barcelona, Emil Kostadinov with Porto and Bayern Munich, Lyuboslav Penev with Atletico Madrid. The shocking breakthrough came in the 1994 World Cup in America. An inspired and highly talented Bulgarian national team finished fourth, defeating powerhouses like Argentina, Mexico, and, yes, Germany. All of Bulgaria danced in the streets, and the players were treated like national heroes.
This bears deeper consideration. That mighty 1994 squad combined skilled local talent developed intensively under communism and Western experience against the world’s best competition. The unique mix could have been a good template for a transition to democracy and prosperity. But it slipped away.
A handful of Bulgarian footballers are still successful in the West – Dimitar Berbatov, to name just the most prominent example, has had a great career at Bayer Leverkusen, Tottenham, and Manchester United – but local tradition was ruined. Mired in mismanagement and corruption, schools declined. Bulgarian clubs failed to produce enough new talent to field a competitive national team. Football has fallen prey to organized crime, dirty money, and obscure interests.
It didn’t have to happen. There was no global conspiracy. Local misfortunes followed from local failures.
If Franklin Foer is right and soccer really does explain the world, we should be able to learn from both successes and mistakes. And if we translate from football to politics, the moral is clear: it is not enough to go West to solve all your problems. You need bold local efforts too.