If you had to choose a holy English year since the Second World War, it would be 1966. The year is almost as much a landmark as 1066, when William the Conqueror created the modern nation. For all the fuss about club football, the biggest football matches, the ones that fill living-rooms all along the street, have always been nation versus nation. When a national team plays, you sometimes get half a country’s population or more watching on TV. In Germany, for instance, seven of the eight highest-rated TV programmes until 2008 involved the national football team playing in a big tournament. No club game can have that kind of impact. Nationalism is the strongest animating force in football support. You could even argue that since 1945 in Europe, football has replaced war as the main outlet for nationalist emotion.

However, in the last few years something significant has changed: emotional nationalism is fading from international football. It’s being replaced by a gentler kind of “party nationalism” — people with flags painted on their faces drinking beer and flirting with fans of the other team— and also by post-nationalism. Just as old-style nationalism is becoming less important in politics, it’s fading in football too.

Mihir Bose, in his recent history of modern sport, The Spirit of the Game, dates the start of sporting nationalism back to Baron de Coubertin’s creation of the modern Olympics. Nationalism wasn’t what De Coubertin wanted, of course: he thought that playing sport would turn gentlemen of different nations into brothers. That’s why the five rings in the Olympic flag were interlaced: friendship between continents. But in fact, once the modern Olympics took off, and after international sporting fixtures became common in the 1930s, countries began to seek prestige by winning them. Mussolini was probably the pioneer, the first leader to take propaganda through sport seriously. But during the 1930s the practice became quite widespread among politicians. At the 1936 Olympics, Albert Foerster, the Nazi Gauleiter of Gdansk persuaded Hitler to come and watch Germany thrash little Norway at football. Goebbels, who watched the match with Hitler, wrote in his diary, “The Führer is very excited. I can barely contain myself. A real bath of nerves. The crowd rages. A battle like never before. The game as mass suggestion.” But to Foerster’s mortification, Germany lost 2-0. It seems to have been the only football match Hitler ever saw.

So football nationalism emerged in the 1930s, but there is one caveat: back then, “fair play” was as central to national prestige as winning. Watching a football international in the 1930s seems to have been almost an impartial experience, like going to the theatre. Even the infamous Germany v England friendly in Berlin in 1938, when the England team gave the Hitler salute just before kick-off, wasn’t considered at the time to be just about winning. On the Monday after the game,The News Chroniclenewspaper ran the front-page headline, “THE GAME AND NOT ONE FOUL”. TheTimes said Len Goulden’s cracking goal for England in the game “drew gasps of admiration from the crowd and is the talk of the town today.” True, there was a new football nationalism, but games then weren’t played in the same angry spirit they would be after the war.

From 1939 through 1945 a different sort of nationalism took over. But after 1945 something remarkable happened: war died out in Europe. The Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, points out that there have been no interstate wars in western Europe since 1945, and, skirmishes in the Caucasus excepted, none in eastern Europe since Soviet tanks invaded Hungary in 1956. Pinker writes, “Keep in mind that up until that point European states had started around two new armed conflicts a year since 1400.”

After 1945, Europeans no longer expressed nationalist emotions through war. Instead they began to express them through international football. This probably started in Germany in 1954 after the West Germans won the World Cup in the mud of Bern. The story of that day is one of the founding myths of the Federal Republic: crowds of people clustered around the only TV set in their neighbourhood, the train carrying the players home being mobbed at every station, people celebrating on the streets in both West and East Germany, and finally, at the official celebrations in West Berlin, when the national anthem was played, the West German president Theodor Heuss frantically trying to coach the crowd in the correct new lyrics so that they wouldn’t sing the old, taboo line, Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles. Of course most people sang it anyway. It was the national anthem they knew. The German phrase most associated with that day is, “Wir sind wieder wer, “We are somebody again.” In other words, football had begun to create a proud new nation.

Over the next four decades, first World Cups and then European championships gained in importance, as more people bought TV sets and as interest in football began to spread through all classes of men — though not yet among many women. This is the era when World Cups became the most watched TV programmes on earth; a Philips executive once told me that sales of Philips TVs spike in even years, when there is a major football tournament. The most extreme TV viewing figure I know of is the 12.3 million Dutch people —three-quarters of the country’s population — who watched at least some of the Holland-Uruguay semi-final of the last World Cup. (The Holland-Spain final actually drew slightly fewer Dutch viewers). Holland-Uruguay was the biggest shared postwar Dutch experience, just as France’s victory in 1998 was the biggest shared French communal experience since the Liberation — with the difference being that in 1998, unlike in 1944, all the French were on the same side. In the decades after the war, national football teams had come to constitute the nation. Those 11 young men in synthetic shirts were the nation made flesh — more alive than the flag, more concrete than gross domestic product, less individual than the president or queen. In the Dutch popular mind, for instance, the Dutch football team now is the Netherlands in a way that nothing else quite is.

Nationalism always needs an enemy, and in this era from the 1950s through the 1990s the enemy for most European countries became Germany. English football’s anthem, “Three Lions”, is mostly about matches against Germany — which makes it particularly ironic that while the Germans were on their way to winning Euro 96 in England they liked to sing the song on their team bus. But it wasn’t just the English. France’s worst football moment — much more painful than Zinedine Zidane’s sending-off in the 2006 World Cup final — was losing to West Germany in Seville in the World Cup semi-final in 1982. The Dutch, the Danes, perhaps half the countries in Europe date the best and worst moments in their football history to matches against Germans.

To some degree, we all know why. Here is Lou de Jong, a grey Dutch professor who spent about 50 years writing the official history of the Netherlands in the Second World War in umpteen volumes, talking to a newspaper after the best moment in Holland’s football history, victory over West Germany at the European Championship of 1988: “When Holland scores I dance through the room. Of course it’s got to do with the war.” After that match millions of Dutch people celebrated on the street, in the largest public gathering since the Liberation. The French TV commentator Georges de Caunes said that for French males of his generation, the flying kick inflicted by the German keeper Toni Schumacher on France’s Patrick Battiston that night in Seville reawakened feelings from the war.

But the anti-German feelings weren’t just to do with the war. The near-invincible post-war West German teams, from 1954 through 1990, were the might of the wealthy post-war Federal Republic incarnate. That peaceful might provoked resentment, even hatred. The German-British writer Philip Oltermann, in his new bookKeeping Up with the Germans, writes, “I sometimes wonder if Germany in my lifetime has been hated with more passion than it ever was in the 1910s or 1940s.” Holland-Germany matches have provoked clashes between fans on the countries’ shared border, the closest the European Union gets to war; and after England-Germany at Euro 96, Germans — and people who were mistaken for Germans — and German cars, were beaten up in towns around England.

Yet in those post-war decades we all needed Germany, because the country gave meaning to international football. David Winner, the Blizzard contributor, says, “In terms of story the greatest nation in the history of football is Germany. A World Cup without Germany would be like Star Wars without Darth Vader.” Germany was the perfect villain: the bad guy who killed the beautiful teams, like Hungary in 1954, Holland in 1974, France in 1982.

German dominance peaked in 1990: between July and October, Germany won the World Cup and achieved reunification. The team’s coach, Franz Beckenbauer, the incarnation of post-war German superiority, said that with East German players about to join the team, Germany would be “invincible for years to come”.

I happen to have been a witness to the zenith of post-war Germany. In September 1990 I arrived in Berlin to study for a year and on 3 October 1990, the day of German reunification, I wandered down Unter den Linden to witness the birth of the invincible Germany. The avenue was packed, but apart from a few East Germans scarfing champagne, most people were wandering around quietly too. Like me, they seemed to be just looking, not celebrating. Walking down the most pompous boulevard of an empire on the night of its greatest glory, you seldom realise that this is the moment that the empire starts to decline. But it was.


Germany’s slide after 1990 — on the pitch and off it — helped hasten the end of hypernationalism in Europe. Contrary to what Beckenbauer expected, Germany has won just one football trophy in the 20 years since reunification. The economy also went through a long period of turmoil before recently emerging as Europe’s prize pupil again. Interestingly, many German football fans seem to have welcomed their team’s decline. Recently, Germans have coined the word Siegesscham — victory-shame — to describe their feelings in the post-war decades when their ugly teams kept winning prizes. A lot of Germans didn’t want to be the old domineering Germans anymore. In July 2006, early in the morning after Germany had won the World Cup’s third-place play-off, I was on Unter den Linden again, and I was amazed to see thousands of people, dressed in German shirts, walking towards the Brandenburger Tor. I couldn’t work out what they were doing, but it turned out that they were going to wait around in the baking sun for hours to cheer their team’s arrival in Berlin later that afternoon. German fans were celebrating losers — and in many ways were happy to be losers. I’ve been to every World Cup since 1990, and it was in 2006 that I first noticed the shift from old-style nationalism to this kind of party nationalism. Oliver Bierhoff, the German team’s general manager, remarked with surprise in 2006 that fans had become less interested in results.

This new, larger and yet reduced Germany has ceased to be Darth Vader. The team just doesn’t provoke the same hatred anymore. At Euro 2004, when Holland and Germany met again in Porto, the fans of both teams sat together in the stands. Not only didn’t they fight, but they didn’t even seem to dislike each other. “A step forward in history,” a security official at Uefa told me later. On the one hand it’s nice that nobody hates Germany anymore, but on the other hand the loss of Darth Vader definitely makes European football less interesting. There may never again be a European football match as loaded as Seville 1982 or Hamburg 1988, and that is a loss.

In part, what has happened is that since 1990 the war has faded from collective European memory. Finally, in Europe, the Second World War is over; not just the fighting itself, but the war in the head, too. You saw signs of the burying of the war in 2005, around the celebrations of the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Europe: French schoolchildren had a snowball fight at Auschwitz; a poll showed that many young Britons didn’t know that “VE Day” stands for “Victory in Europe”. World War Two was becoming like the American Civil War: remembered by history buffs but only vaguely by the general public, and no longer used as a terrible lesson for policymakers. Horst Köhler, Germany’s president in 2005, recognised as much when he urged his country’s parliament “to keep alive the memories of all the suffering”. What he meant was that the memories were fading.

In fact, the World Cup in 2006 felt like a pan-European party to mark the true end of Second World War, which was why it had to end in Berlin. The tournament was a European-wide lovefest for the German hosts. A few days before the final, I attended a conference on football and history at the Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz in Berlin — the building where Nazi officials in 1942 had planned the Holocaust. The day I arrived the weather was beautiful and from the garden of this dreadful villa you could see people sunbathing all around the Wannsee. I went for a stroll with the official from the DFB, the German football association, whose job it was to deal with historical questions. If anyone had a question about the DFB and the war, they had to call him. I asked him if many journalists had called him about war-related issues during the World Cup. “No, nobody,” he said.

True, there was a last flaring of the old passions at Euro 2008 before Germany-Poland, when Polish newspapers banged on about old wars. One paper even printed a montage of the Polish coach Leo Beenhakker (a Dutchman) holding aloft the heads of Michael Ballack and Germany’s coach Joachim Löw. But Beenhakker and his players were furious with the story. The newspaper was humiliated. It presumably won’t try that again this summer. True, you still get the odd football reference to Nazis and wars — English fans imitating RAF bomber planes at England-Germany games or Dutch fans in 2006 wearing orange “Stahlhelme, modeled on old Germany army helmets — but it’s almost always done tongue-in-cheek, as a silly joke. The war is being used to spice up what are now really just football rivalries.

International football is ceasing to be treated as a reenactment of Europe’s horrible past. In fact, to some degree international football is ceasing to pit one country against another. More and more, fans watch tournaments with transnational loyalties instead of the old single-minded nationalism. I first noticed this at Euro 96, when Nike came up with a great poster for Eric Cantona, posing in front of an English flag: “’66 was a Great Year for English Football. Eric Was Born.” Nike felt confident in mocking old-style 1966 nationalism and appealing to transnationalism instead.

In 1996, the Premier League was just becoming an international league for the first time and you were seeing some new transnational expressions of fandom. United fans had a song for Cantona based on the Marseillaise. Arsenal fans briefly sang Allez les rouges for their Frenchmen, and when the German striker Uwe Rösler became a cult hero at Manchester City, the club’s fans wore T-shirts saying: “Uwe’s Grandad bombed Old Trafford,” in honour of the Luftwaffe’s handiwork. In 1998, when France won the World Cup, the headline in theDaily Mirrorwas, “Arsenal Win the World Cup,” above a photo of Patrick Vieira hugging Emmanuel Petit.

It was getting harder and harder to tell the different national teams apart. Before the 1990s, each country had had its own style, and that style was seen by most people as an expression of national character: the Germans were machine-like, the English played like warriors, the French were fragile artists and so on. But from the 1990s, as players increasingly moved between countries and played more international club football, they all started to become the same. Michael Owen told me that he’d grown up a European player, not an English one — and you saw it in his dives. Pre-Owen, the English had always considered dives as a marker of cowardly foreignness and to some extent they still do; but it’s harder to see things that way now that English players also dive and also kiss teammates on the cheeks and sometimes also pass like continentals. Today’s European footballers have joined the transnational wealthy class, which is more at home in first-class airport lounges than in the streets of their own countries. Members of this class live like their millionaire foreign peers, and so Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Mesut Özil are now more like each other than they are like their ‘normal’ compatriots. Increasingly, when we watch international football, we know that we are watching cosmopolitans rather than our own countrymen. In the vicious Holland-Portugal game of 2006, when players kept getting sent off, two of them, Holland’s Giovanni van Bronckhorst and Portugal’s Deco, sat down next to each other on the bench and chatted while the match finished. They were teammates at Barcelona. In the next round, in the Portugal-England quarter-final, Cristiano Ronaldo helped get his Manchester United teammate Rooney sent off, but after the game Rooney sent him a friendly text. It’s harder to feel blindly nationalistic about international football when the protagonists obviously don’t.

Fans were even starting to choose which national team to support. I went to Brazil’s first match at the 2006 World Cup, against Croatia in Berlin, and tens of thousands of people showed up in the famous canary shirts. But walking around the stadium before the game, I realised that very few of them were Brazilians. They were Germans, Japanese, Brits, people from everywhere who wanted a share in the Brazilian magic. Or there were the four guys in Argentina shirts I saw in the metro after one game in 2006 who suddenly started speaking German. I don’t know how many people support national teams other than their own, but my sense is that it’s a growing phenomenon.

It’s no coincidence that in the last 15 years post-nationalism has invaded football, because in the same period post-nationalism has become the underlying ideology of the global economy. Marx said, “The ruling ideas of each age are the ideas of the ruling class.” For more than 150 years, from the early nineteenth century until the late twentieth, the ruling idea was nationalism. As the historian Eric Hobsbawm has pointed out, nationalism suited the new means of technology that were then emerging: the train, the highway, and the radio and later TV that taught peasants the national language. These technologies helped create the nation.

But as technology improved, nationalism became redundant. The new technologies have created a supranational world: cheap flights, fast trains over long distances, international financial markets, the internet and cable TV channels that have helped teach the young generation the new global language of English. English, inevitably, has become the language that fans use to talk to each other at World Cups. In this new world, national governments just don’t matter that much anymore. National governments in western Europe have forfeited their main tools of the past: wars, national currencies and national borders. The most important laws now tend to be made in Brussels. Belgium recently went a year without a national government — a caretaker administration kept an eye on things — and nobody noticed. National governments are becoming redundant. This is the backdrop to the decline of nationalism in international football.

The enmities that get people in Europe going these days tend to be supranational too. Except in Greece, you rarely see politicians campaigning on a hatred of Germans. Rather, the great popular motivating forces in Europe of the last 10 years have been anti-Americanism, during the Bush administration, and more significantly, hatred of Muslims. For many Europeans, Muslims have replaced Germans as the feared Other. The Euro-crisis has created a new, supranational reconfiguration of enmities: now it’s northern Europe against southern Europe. The Dutch don’t hate the Germans anymore; they identify with their fellow northerners in the fight against supposedly feckless spendthrift southern Europeans.

Of course, most people today still support their national football teams, but this support is less serious, less of a life-and-death matter than it once was. This spring I visited Bilbao. Of course lots of people in the city identify primarily as Basques, not as Spaniards. And when Spain won the World Cup, I’m told that not many people risked running onto the streets drunk wearing red Spain shirts in the more Basque-nationalist medieval quarter of town. But in the newer commercial district, lots of fans did go out into the streets to celebrate Spain’s world championship. In the past in Bilbao that sort of behaviour could have got you badly hurt, but not anymore. In Barcelona too, the capital of Catalonia, in 2008 and 2010, there were large public celebrations of Spain’s victories. I suspect it’s not that the celebrating hordes felt intensely Spanish and were out to make a political point. No: they were just enjoying the party. This is a kind of party nationalism, a holiday nationalism, where you paint your face with the national flag but wouldn’t dream of dying for your country.

That leaves one last question: if people don’t feel very nationalist anymore, what do they feel? Well, there’s one thing they don’t seem to feel: European. There’s a longstanding idea in Brussels that what the EU really needs is a “Europe” football team. In 1982 the Adonnino committee, led by the Italian MEP Pietro Adonnino, proposed measures for creating European sentiment: a Eurolottery, the blue flag with the gold stars and European sports teams.

Today only one such team exists: every other year Europe plays the US in golf’s Ryder Cup. Even that tends to be an essentially British-Irish team with a handful of continentals thrown in (a seven-five split in 2010). Nobody outside Brussels has shown any desire for EU teams in other sports. But 20 years after Adonnino another Italian tried again: in 2004 Romano Prodi, then president of the European Commission, proposed sending a united EU team to the next Olympics in Beijing. His spokesman pointed out that if such a team had competed at the Athens Games, it would have won nearly three times as many medals as the top country in the medals’ table, the US. However, Prodi’s suggestion was laughed out of the room.

In a Eurobarometer survey for the Commission in 2005, 63% of Europeans claimed to be “proud” of being European. But almost all of them were proud of their own countries too. Euro-patriotism doesn’t replace nationalism; it accompanies it. The two feelings are complementary.

Euro-patriotism is widespread but rather weak. In that same Eurobarometer, only 12% said they were “very proud” of being European. The rest was only “fairly proud”. Nobody ever ran drunk out of his house waving an EU flag. Football tournaments are still carnivals of nationalism. Nonetheless, Brussels can be “fairly proud” of what it has achieved these last 56 years: all those national flags and painted cheeks are the last, toothless manifestations of old European nationalism.

So what do people feel now? If they aren’t so nationalist anymore, what is their identity? Look at Twitter and see how users identify themselves in their short public biographies. Surprisingly often, they describe themselves as supporters of giant football clubs. You might have a guy called Ahmed, who gives his location as “Bangladesh”, and then describes himself not as a Bangladeshi or as a Muslim, but, usually in English, as, “FCB till I die”, or “You’ll Never Walk Alone – Liverpool FC”. In a way these Twitter biographies are statements of identity: who you are, how you want to be seen by others. These people are using an international medium to identify as international people. When you spend some time on Twitter, you start to feel that the old nation versus nation set up of European championships and World Cups is a bit kitsch, outdated. Hobsbawm makes the point that nationalism is a comparatively recent invention, no more than 200 years old. In football and outside football, it now seems to be on the way out.


This article appeared on Episode Four of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.