Football, the European kind, can be a confusing area for a North American on the old continent. From individual national leagues with their myriad of titles to pan-European tournaments including the UEFA cup and Champion's League, the club season can go on forever. Then there is the World Cup with it's long and winding qualification stages which remind me of the American presidential primary process. This summer, kicking off today in Austria and Switzerland, the football world's focus switches to the European Championship, Euro2008. Like the World Cup, the Euro Cup is a once every four year competition featuring national squads. With very few breaks, the whole system seems to have been devised to keep fans attention focused on football throughout the year. Unlike many of the other tournaments, the World Cup and Euro Cup have the additional emotional impact of national pride. Sometimes this can rise to the boiling point and turn ugly.
As luck would have it Germany and Poland both drew into the same group, along with Croatia and co-host Austria, from which only two teams will advance to the quarter finals. Of course a tabloid war is to be expected in the run up to such a confrontation, but this one has taken a nasty turn. First, the Polish paper Fakt ran a story imploring the team: “Leo, repeat Grunwald!”. The reference is to the 15th century Battle of Grunwald where the Poles defeated the Germans. The picture accompanying the story had the German captain Michael Ballack kneeling before the Polish coach Leo Beenhakker who was brandishing a sword. The Germans were disgusted and hit back, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the newspaper is German owned. Not to be outdone by their rival, another Polish tabloid, The Super Express, ran a story which has drawn the most attention. The story's picture (top of post) features the Polish manager once again, this time holding the severed heads of the above-mentioned Ballack along with his manager. Diplomatic lines have been buzzing with Peter Danckert, chairman of the German parliament's sports commission, calling for an "appropriate reaction" from the Polish government. Poland's ambassador to Germany Marek Prawda was quoted as saying, "This shows an idiotic lack of taste. I wish them the worst" and continued, "I think it is particularly bad that this is published at a time when fans are coming into contact. It's completely unnecessary an really should be ignored." Oooh, ignored, bad taste. Maybe we should be more careful. Will the animosity build to the point that it did between Honduras and El Salvador before the outbreak of the so-called “Football War”?
On July 14, 1969, with the attention of the rest of the world focused on the impending moon landing a week later, El Salvador launched an air strike on their Honduran neighbours, starting the Football War. Coincidentally or not, the two nations had just played a tie-breaking qualification match for the 1970 World Cup that featured an inordinate amount of nationalism. The build-up to the game was intense with the two sides having met a week earlier. After the first game an 18-year-old El Salvadoran girl committed suicide after seeing the Honduran side score the lone goal. The rampant nationalism on both sides of the border due to economic and land disputes combined with martyrdom of the girl to create an atmosphere that was ready to explode and did just a few hours after the final whistle. The cost of the 100-hour war was about 6,000 deaths and 15,000 wounded.
There are some who point to another football match as the true beginning of the Balkan conflict of the 90's. The match was to feature the Croatian side of Dinamo Zagreb up against the Serbian side, Red Star Belgrade in Zagreb. Instead of a football match, the stadium played host to a pitched battle between supporters of both sides. Some of the fighters included future war-crime indictees, players themselves delivering flying kicks, police and of course fans of both teams. In an effort to avoid such a spark to war, football's world governing body, FIFA, suspended a match between Sudan and Chad just last week. As in the German and Polish situation, both nations had drawn into the same group, this time in the African Cup which will determine African representation in the 2010 World Cup. The suspension came after Sudanese authorities had blamed Chad for a rebel attack near the Sudanese capital of Khartoum earlier in May. Chad had also sealed it's border with Sudan and cut-off economic ties with it's neighbour.
So what will happen after Sunday night's game? Well, I'm certain enough that war can be avoided, but with the number of flags I can see fluttering around my adopted home town of Poznań here in Poland, you'd think it was Independence Day. Let's hope the nationalism doesn't result in the outbreak of war, especially seeing as I'm only about 133km from the German border. However, if the Poles do manage to break their 14-game drought against their rivals, maybe the party could get too loud for the neighbours...