Race, Ethnicity and the World Cup- Soccer is an appeal to the blood.

Race, Ethnicity
and the World Cup

Soccer is an appeal to the blood.

I have just experienced one of the greatest events in sports history, and one of the happiest days of my life. Italy has won the soccer WorldCup, and Italians everywhere are euphoric.

American Renaissance does not normally write about sports, but the World Cup is about much more than sports. It is about race, ethnicity and nationality — but the sporting aspect is hugely important, too.

Italian World Cup soccer players
Italian players.

Although I am usually good at explaining things, I’ve always found it hard to explain the joy and exultation of a sports victory to people who are not sports fans. Italy’s World Cup victory really was one of the happiest days of my life — that is how important the game was for me.

Non-sports fans are undoubtedly chuckling at the idea that a soccer game can bring out such sentiments. Again, they are difficult to explain because they come from the heart, and only other sports fans can understand them. The rest of you will have to simply take my word for it.

One thing that cannot be disputed, however, is that the World Cup is by far the most important sporting event in the world. It is bigger than the World Series; bigger than the Super Bowl. More than one billion people worldwide are estimated to have watched the World Cup final between Italy and France, and it is the only sports championship that is a true “world” championship.

One hundred ninety-four countries (virtually every nation on Earth) spent more than two years trying to qualify for the World Cup tournament, through a series of games and other eliminations. While there are traditional soccer powerhouses (Germany, Brazil, Argentina) that never have trouble qualifying, there are countries that rarely qualify, or may go for decades without qualifying. The World Cup, played once every four years, is so important that in some countries it is considered an enormous source of national pride just to qualify, even if the team fails to win a single game. Ghana qualified for the first time in 2006, and won two games before being eliminated by Brazil. Ghanaians considered this an enormous achievement and source of pride.

After the rigors of eliminations, 32 teams qualify for the World Cup. The teams are then divided into eight groups of four for “group stage” games. The teams are ranked, or “seeded,” much like tennis players, and the World Cup organizers are careful not to put the highest-ranked teams in the same group. This way the best teams do not play each other right away. Italy, for example, would never be grouped with Brazil or Germany.

In the “group stage,” each team plays one game against each of the other teams in its group. The top two teams from each group of four advance to the “knockout rounds.” These are known as the “round of 16,” the quarterfinals, the semifinals, and, of course, the final championship game. The tournament lasts a month and is very tension-filled and grueling, for players and fans alike. The whole world (except, perhaps, for the United States) basically shuts down for a month to watch the World Cup.

Italy’s World Cup victory brought out celebrating Italians all over the world. From Rome, to Italian neighborhoods in Australia and Germany, to Chicago, Manhattan’s famed Little Italy, to Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst, to my own neighborhood in Ridgewood, Queens, joyous Italians wearing the team uniform (and often with faces painted red, white and green) took to the streets, cheering, waving flags, forming motorcades and, whooping it up over the magnificent Azzurri win. Azzurri means “blue,” the color of the team’s uniform, and is the team’s nickname. Unless you were on another planet, you knew that Italy won the World Cup and that there were celebrations wherever there are Italians.

French World Cup soccer players
French players.

The joy of victory is great only because the agony of defeat is devastating. When I talked to Italians in Ridgewood the morning of the game, and to Italians in Manhattan’s Little Italy in the days leading up to the game, there was a sentiment I constantly encountered — and shared. It was a feeling of extreme nervousness and anticipation. We were confident Italy would win, but there was nervous apprehension just the same. France had a formidable team and everyone knew it.

Victory was not guaranteed. The specter of defeat and despair loomed, and that’s what made the celebratory euphoria all the more real and heartfelt. I had trouble sleeping for several nights before the game.

When victory came, the outburst of Italian joy and pride was not in response to some contrived “Italian Pride” day or a Columbus Day event. It was all the more intense because the outcome was in agonizing doubt.

Nevertheless, the celebrations by Italian-Americans all over the country did raise a legitimate and sensitive issue. Several years ago, Pat Buchanan drew attention to a soccer game in California between the American team and the Mexican national team. The Los Angeles stadium was packed with “Americans” waving the Mexican flag and cheering the Mexican team. Mr. Buchanan’s point was that whatever their citizenship papers might say, these people were Mexicans with no loyalty to the United States.

What does this say about Italian-Americans? Whom would I root for in a championship game between the United States and Italy? The short answer is that I would root for the United States. I think I can speak safely for other Italian-Americans, since I have known and lived among them all my life. But the issue would not come up. The United States is not a soccer country, and Americans never field a formidable team, so there could be no conflict of loyalties.

Throughout the entire month-long World Cup tournament, the behavior of Italian-Americans was very interesting. In Manhattan’s Little Italy, right in the heart of the famous stretch of Mulberry Street, an equal number of American and Italian flags adorned the sidewalks and shops. A huge overhead banner stretching from one side of the street to the other read on one side Forza Italia! On the other side it read “USA All the Way.”

In Ridgewood, it was common to see cars, homes and stores flying flags of both countries, especially since the World Cup finished during the week of the Fourth of July. Ridgewood’s main street, Fresh Pond Road, was the epicenter of Italian celebration. There are Italian cafes, shops and fruit stores, and the central café kept a huge American flag beside the Italian flag.

My point is that Italian-Americans, and even Italians born in Italy who now live in the United States, consider themselves Americans first. Even at the height of what was an exclusively Italian celebration, Italians spontaneously saw fit to include their American identity. From my own experience in New York City — the belly of the multicultural beast — it is clear that loyalty to one’s ancestral home over the United States is something non-white, non-European.

Ridgewood is, historically, a German neighborhood. When I was in grammar school, half the students were German. Sadly, virtually all of the Germans have moved out, but there is still a handful of old-timers. On the day Italy defeated Ukraine in the quarterfinals, Germany had defeated Argentina a few hours earlier, setting up a classic, Italy-Germany semifinal match. As Italian motorcades honked and shouted their ways down Fresh Pond Road, an occasional car would drive by with a German flag. The Italians would jeer good-naturedly, and some ran up to the car to shake hands, wishing the Germans a good match. “At least we’ll keep the cup in Europe,” was the attitude.

The point about soccer is that, perhaps more than any other sport, it is about blood. When national teams meet, it is almost the emotional equivalent of war. Victory — and defeat — reflect glory or humiliation upon the entire nation, and somewhere in the intensity of the emotions is an echo of the fear of national obliteration through war and of the primal elation of conquest. In 1969, a World Cup qualifying match between El Salvador and Honduras turned ugly and triggered a real shooting war. There were illegal-immigration problems and economic friction as well, but the war is known as the “Football War.”

Boxing used to be a sport that appealed to the blood, just as soccer does. Blacks have dominated boxing for so long it is hard to remember its heyday in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, when whites were a significant part of all the weight classes. In 1982, after years of black domination, a Long Island Irishman named Gerry Cooney was knocking out opponents left and right. He finally got his title match against heavyweight champion Larry Holmes. Naturally, whites rooted for Gerry Cooney. Sportswriter Jerry Izenberg wrote a weepy column about why Americans should be ashamed of themselves for rooting according to race. He concluded his column with the sentence, “Grow up, America.”

Rocky Marciano
Rocky Marciano.

Legendary sportswriter Dick Young then chided Mr. Izenberg as an immature liberal, explaining that ethnicity had always been the essence of boxing. When whites were contenders, the Irish always rooted for Irish fighters, the Italians for Rocky Marciano, Jews rooted for Jews, etc. Although I am a New York Mets fan, my mother became a Yankees fan back in the ‘40s because the team had players with names like DiMaggio, Rizzuto, Lazzeri and Berra.

But the Italy-France World Cup final in 2006 was not a true battle between Italians and Frenchmen. On the Italian side, all 23 players were ethnic Italians with names like Alessandro Del Piero, Fabio Grosso, Marco Materazzi and Luca Toni, but the French team had virtually no real Frenchmen at all. Anyone expecting to see players named Lafleur, Picard and Hebert would have been shocked. The team’s starting eleven had two ethnic Frenchmen. The rest were mostly black Africans — some with French names — while the team’s captain and best player, Zinedine Zidane, was an Algerian Muslim.

In Manhattan, I spoke to a restaurant owner standing outside his French restaurant, adorned with a huge French flag. “Of course France will win the game,” he told me. “I only wish there was a Frenchman on the team.”

Although I never raised the issue with the Italian fans I spent so much time with during the month-long tournament, I doubt the passions would have been so great if the Italian team had been full of black Africans instead of true Italians.

Ridgewood is not exclusively Italian (although it seemed that way during the World Cup). We have a large population of Poles, Croatians, Serbs and Albanians. All of these groups would have done as we did if their teams performed as the Azzurri did. The point is that, as always, people’s natural inclinations and affections are toward their race, blood, and ethnicity.

It was a joy to have participated in such a celebration and to see my own ethnic European group glorying in its team’s victory while never shedding loyalty to and love for the United States. I haven’t spoken so much Italian since high school. If a non-European country had won the World Cup, I’m sure the celebrations would have had a very different flavor.

As I noted above, sports bring out strong emotions. When nations meet on the athletic field, what may appear to be only a game brings out emotions that reveal our deepest attachments. The call of blood is strong. Whites have been taught they must ignore it, but every other group celebrates it. That is what makes the World Cup so much more than a sporting event. AR

Mr. Borzellieri, a frequent AR contributor and conference speaker, is author of The Unspoken Truth: Race, Culture and Other Taboos and Don’t Take it Personally: Race, Immigration, Crime and Other Heresies.

2 thoughts on “Race, Ethnicity and the World Cup- Soccer is an appeal to the blood.

  1. “23 players were ethnic Italians” ???? it´s a joke? ther´s no such a thing like an “ethnic Italian”, Italy was invaded over de centuries by barbarians,turks, north africans and so on …

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