Europe's racists kicked into a frenzy by the beautiful game
It's not hard to see why Europe's anti-immigrant far right hates football, even if many of its more rabid supporters love showing up at games to hurl racist abuse at players and fans they don't like.
Consider the scene: there's a moment's hush in pubs and other public places all over France on Monday, and then tens, even hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen and women begin to sing La Marseillaise, in concert with those inside Ukraine's Donbass stadium ahead of Les Bleus's showdown with England.
An important international football match invites, perhaps, the most passionate performance of the rituals of nationhood that most of today's French people engage in; they don't swarmaround TV sets in public on Bastille Day to sing their national anthem in concert with the official ceremony in Paris.
And yet, because of the bizarre habit of TV producers insisting that their cameras record the response of each player to this ritual, we're treated to a discordant image. Many of the French heroes don't bother to sing. Karim Benzema looks sardonic. Franck Ribery, lips sealed, looks up at the camera and winks. Samir Nasri always seems amused by a private joke during these moments.
Theirs is the "Frenchness" of the blue jersey, attained by any kid with sufficient talent and dedication, even if his parents came from West Africa, the Caribbean or the Maghreb. The flag and anthem? For many, those are symbols of the authority that colonised, or even enslaved, their forebears. They'll happily wear the blue shirt, just don't expect them to sing the anthem that means something different to their history.
France's football hopes have, since 1998, rested heavily on players whose roots are in the Maghreb, West Africa and the Caribbean. Back in 1998, of course, Jean-Marie Le Pen, then leader of the anti-immigrant Front Nationale, complained that the squad representing France at the World Cup was "not a real French team".
They won the tournament; Mr Le Pen lost the argument - although after the French debacle in South Africa in 2010, where the players went on strike to protest the expulsion of Nicolas Anelka from the squad, the current coach Laurent Blanc reportedly called for ethnic quotas in the French youth academy to ensure a greater proportion of players who share "our history, our culture". Still, Blanc knows his prospects at Euro 2012 depend on Benzema, Nasri, Hatem Ben Arfa, Adil Ramy, Alou Diarra, Florent Malouda, Yann M'vila, etc. And heaven knows what a custodian of "our culture" makes of Ribery, an outrageously talented white working-class Frenchman who has converted to Islam.
Even as French politics remains riven by divisions over immigration and identity, football has made France more at ease with a more inclusive notion of Frenchness - one that begins to embrace people of diverse, and often conflicted histories.
Nor is France unique. During Germany's national anthem ahead of Saturday's match with Portugal, there was polite silence from Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira, Jerome Boateng and Lukas Podolski - who would have been equally eligible to represent, respectively, Turkey, Tunisia, Ghana and Poland. Chancellor Angela Merkel may insist that multiculturalism "has failed, utterly failed", but this "failure" has not extended to the football team she loves to cheer.
Multiculturalism, of course, is the bête noire (pun intended) of the racist far right that loves to drape itself in national flags, conjuring up fantasies of racial purity, sometimes with murderous consequences, as in the case of Norwegian killer Anders Breivik. And it's precisely because football represents the most multicultural reflection of an evolving European identity that the game is also a magnet for toxic racism.
Already, at Euro 2012 we've seen racist chanting targeting Dutch players at an open training session, and also possibly directed at Czech fullback Selassie, whose origins are Ethiopian. And the preponderance of neo-Nazi hate groups among fans in Ukraine in particular prompted a number of high-profile former players and families of current England players to publicly abandon plans to travel to the tournament in fear of their safety. Italy striker Mario Balotelli - whose biological parents are Ghanaian - warned that he would walk off the pitch if abused, and also said if anyone threw a banana at him on the street, "I will go to prison because I will kill him."
But far-right racism at games is no Eastern European phenomenon.It's worth noting that in response to Balotelli's claims of pride in being a black Italian, some Juventus fans still turn up at games with banners proclaiming: "There are no black Italians." Abuse hurled at black players from the terraces is all too common in Serie A. Spain's La Liga has had its share of similar problems, with UEFA applying slap-on-the-wrist fines.
The hard (and continuing) work of kicking racism out of the game - more of which has been done in England, and some parts of Western Europe - is yielding dividends, if slowly and unevenly. And the setbacks and challenges don't negate the progress, since the problem of racism originates in the wider society, not in the football stadium.
Indeed, the stadium offers an almost utopian spectacle of a society where men are judged not on the colour of their skin, but only on the weight and trajectory of their passes, the quality of their shooting and crossing, the strength and timing of their tackles and of their jumps and runs, the composure of their touch, the intelligence of their movement, and their commitment to give to the team until it hurts.
On the pitch, football represents a post-racial Europe struggling to emerge, even a post-national one shaped by migration and multiple affinities. No wonder it antagonises the neo-Nazis. Thatshould be read as a sign of progress.
On Twitter: @TonyKaron
Updated: June 13, 2012 04:00 AM