Yellow Card

A Different Take on Euro 2012


Euro 2012

All photos used under Creative Commons Generic and Share-Alike Licensing.

Soon after I boarded the Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt – stage one on my trip to Norway – my German seatmate commented, “You’ve chosen a good time to come to Germany. Everyone’s happy.”

This was hardly the impression I had from the pained photographs of German Chancellor Angela Merkel that had been dominating the Internet and the front and business pages of every U.S. newspaper in mid-June, so I must have looked puzzled. He kindly elaborated, “The European Cup. Championship Football. ‘Soccer’ as you call it. All Germans are actually friendly now.”

“You seem friendly enough,” I responded, and we embarked on a conversation remarkably devoid of football, and which actually included Antonio Gramsci and Cornel West. My seatmate, it turned out, was doing Ph.D. research at Princeton.

Still, the conversation was the first experiential glimmer I had on my holiday that these days, Europe and the United States see things very differently – at least, as far as the average person is concerned. And this seems to be a matter of where the news media choose to put their emphasis and how absorbed either side of “the pond” is by its respective area’s coverage.

On the latter point, Americans win hands down – and this results in considerable confusion.

Before I left on my Norwegian holiday, a member of my church expressed his concern for me: “I hear things are bad over there,” he said. This baffled me. To be sure, the trial of Anders Behring Breivik was winding up; but Norwegian reaction all along has been nothing short of exemplary. What in the world was this member talking about?

I pondered the matter. Norway goes through strikes every May and June. They start around the International Labor Day, May 1, and run up to summer vacation time, as far as I can tell, which is suspiciously convenient timing but at least predictable. Up to July this year, briefly or otherwise, strikes disrupted some garbage collection, some schools, some nursing homes, a prison, Oslo police officers, and meteorological reports. Of these, the meteorologists’ strike seemed to be attracting the most attention. (The teachers were next.)

None of these strikes had made U.S. news, as the more recent oil workers’ strike did (nor were they really causing terrific ripples in Norwegian news), so I pressed my fellow church member on the issue. And sure enough, Norway had nothing to do with it. It’s all “over there” to Americans, and thanks to our media, all economic and all bad. He had in mind the euro, Greece, Spain, and those photographs of the seemingly agonized German chancellor.

I have to say, she looked a whole lot different when Germany took Greece 4-2 on June 22.

Nevertheless, even in non-EU Norway the parallel ran through the UEFA Euro championship  When Greece scored the first goal, all of us watching in my friends’ home in Kragerø – a Swede, two Norwegians, and two Americans – looked at one another with some perplexity. When they later pulled ahead again, I speculated that the drachma might well make a comeback after all.

My Norwegian friends were more interested in whether any of the horde of Greek fans had a job.

The fact is, in Norway and Germany – as in Sweden, Denmark, France, The Netherlands, and several other European countries, EU and non-EU – life is far from bad. People feel an economic and general security we don’t generally experience in the United States, where we worry constantly over jobs, “homeland security,” and trade deficits. Furthermore, while economically linked in the “eurozone,” these are culturally distinct nations. Those that are better off take a somewhat intellectual interest in the goings-on of their financially strapped neighbors, but the European Union lacks the sense of direct effect that permeates life in the United States.

Still, the economically unstable countries form a worrisome backdrop that I found actualized in the cup matches. As Euro 2012 narrowed down to Greece, Germany, England, France, Portugal, Italy, and Spain, I had the palpable feeling that a different battle was playing out in Poland and Ukraine – and Spain’s win, followed by a European Union bailout, has solidified the association.

UEFA Euro 2012 grabbed more European headlines and steadier public attention than euro-crisis 2012, largely because – player dramatics aside – it was a cleaner-cut set of matches. And that, Gramsci undoubtedly would have told us, is what the ruling class wants. So what does it mean that the American media engine, admittedly tiresome in both its captivation by economic matters and its reduction of all cultural life to the markets, is undermining the bourgeoisie’s distractions?

The global political economy today, in all its varied definitions, is seeing cracks in what Gramsci would have called the cultural hegemonic assumptions of the past century. Beliefs that market capitalism, American-style democracy, or universal state welfare is a natural and inevitable way of being are under constant challenge: by bailouts, by immigration, by the “war on terror,” by torrents of information exposing the practices that shore up the respective systems and the actual faces and lives affected, and doing the affecting. The contest is no longer a simple one of winners and losers; the effects ripple from the field into the stands and beyond.

Like the early stages of that match against Greece, it’s not at all clear what’s going on or how this will play out.

But there certainly is a lot of melodrama and acting taking place on the field.