Savir's Corner: Euro 2012 and the euro

Without some good old Israeli xenophobia no event is perfect.

Soccer can unite (photo credit: shimon samuels)
Soccer can unite
(photo credit: shimon samuels)
The European soccer championship, Euro 2012, which ended on Sunday with Spain’s victory, brought to the attention of the world for three intense weeks a new, united Europe – despite frictions – but more a Europe of the people than of governments.
A Europe of common values, conflicting passions and of a new, young generation, more integrated than their leaders, enjoying the freedom the union offers.
Take one of the superstars of the competition, the young and masterful Italian striker Mario Balotelli, who brought the German favorites to their knees with two splendid goals. Wearing the blue of the Squadra Azzurra, he is African by descent, his parents having moved from Ghana to Palermo.
Before the gamesm the 21-year-old feared racist outbursts against him, yet the young Mario was celebrated by Italians and by soccer fans from all over the continent admiring his creative skills, as do the more conservative British when he scores for his league team, Manchester City.
A Ghanian superstar wearing the national colors of Italy, playing for a British team, becoming overnight a young European hero – think about whether this would have been possible even a few decades ago. Even in Israel, we decided that Mario is “ours,” as his adoptive mother is Jewish.
This is a reflection of a more multicultural Europe, encouraged by the Brussels EU government and by the Swiss UEFA leadership. UEFA is in many ways a reflection of the EU, promoting freedom of movement of people and players. The values of “Respect” and a staunch “No To Racism” are promoted in their campaigns and advertising.
They also attempt to be inclusive also of weaker soccer nations, as exemplified by the hosting of the games by Poland and Ukraine, and by the inclusive “Europa League” that aims to encourage and include also weaker teams, such as ours.
The latter is the brainchild of UEFA President Michel Platini, the former French captain who gained European Cups for the Tricolore who works today for the integration of all of Europe. One needn’t be too brave to dare say that Platini is more of a household name than the President of the EU (Jose Manuel Barroso).
In Warsaw, Gdansk and Kiev throughout the month of June many aspects of Europe surfaced – some of a more integrative nature; some less so. All defining a new Europe of the people, mostly of the young; a kind of “European Spring.”
The integration was best expressed by the enormous happenings in the streets of the Polish and Ukrainian cities. Tens of thousands of fans in their national colors, chanting their local chants, consuming endless amounts of beer, and who despite the frictions and one or two outbreaks of violence (specifically between Russian and Ukrainian fans) blended into a colorful collage of joy and jubilation – the Irish green, the Spanish Roja, the Dutch and Ukrainian orange.
This was matched by record TV ratings for all games, with more than 200 million viewers glued to their TV sets at the same moment, expressing conflicting passions, but like the fans at the games, in a peaceful manner.
The integration is also expressed by the movement of players across borders – take the Real Madrid stars in the Germany-Portugal game – Ronaldo, Khedira and Ozil.
Mesut Ozil, the superb German middle-fielder, of Turkish origins – at the soccer EU, Turkey is in.
Immigration is a challenging issue for most European countries. The number of immigrants in the EU is approximately 50 million, mostly from non-EU countries, among them more than 9 million Turks, 5 million Arabs, 5 million Africans , 4 million South Asians, etc.
This problematic phenomenon was not reflected in Euro 2012. On the contrary. Take the German and French, not generally known for their tolerance to strangers. The German “Mannschaft,” the youngest team, represented the black, red and gold, yet their players were not just blonde strikers, but also Sami of Tunisia, Mesut of Turkey, Miroslav and Lukas of Poland. The French Tricolore was represented by the Muslim Ribery, Benzema and Nasri, and the African Malouda, to the great chagrin of Marine Le Pen.
Some of Europe’s tensions were also reflected in Euro 2012. Much was written during the games of the wealthy and the poor. On one side Germany, dictating austerity measures in return for aid, and on the other Greece, Portugal, Italy and Spain, etc.
It was most obvious during the Germany- Greece game, with fears of anti- German outbreaks by Greek fans, specifically against the Chancellor Angela Merkel, who jumped up at every German goal. In the end, Germans and Greeks shook hands and embraced.
In the battle between South and North, on the soccer field the South won – three of the final four were Spain, Italy and Portugal. There was also East versus West at the Euro. The East represented by Poland, Russia and Ukraine and the Czech Republic.
Despite expectations to the contrary due to the imprisonment of former Ukrainian Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, the Ukrainians have received much praise for their hosting, as have the Polish.
The Russians, despite losing, were supported by many European soccer fans for their attractive game. Supporting Andrei Arshavin is more appealing than supporting Vladimir Putin.
And then there were the Brits, not the greatest enthusiasts of the EU, but the greatest enthusiasts of the Euro championship, their famous brigades of fans carried the Union Jack, with pride and chanting, through the Polish and Ukrainian bars and stadiums. Indeed, a Europe of the people.
And the world watched. In the United States, still relative newcomers to “soccer,” there were record TV ratings on ESPN – for once admiring the European continent. For three weeks Europe was again at the center of world attention, as London will be in August. The Middle East was no different; all games broadcasted on live TV, a good diversion for Middle Eastern news obsessives. This was true for Israelis and Arabs alike. I can testify that most of my own conversations with Palestinian friends in the past three weeks have had much more to do with Euro bets than with settlements. We were out, but at least together.
In Israel itself, TV ratings skyrocketed. Fans of different countries, gathering in bars, in kiosks, or before giant screens on the beaches of Tel Aviv, somewhat envious of Europe, for once modest regarding our own (soccer) capacities.
Politics did not affect the support of teams, as used to be the case some years ago when all of Israel supported the Dutch for not giving in to the Arab oil boycott. Today it is acceptable to support the “hostile” Russians, the “pro- Palestinian” Spanish or even the German “Mannschaft.”
And yet without some good old Israeli xenophobia no event is perfect. The most popular post-game TV show was named The Whole World is Against Us (“HaOlam Kulo Negdenu”), where the moderators made fun of our inferiority complex vis-a-vis the European soccer superpowers.
This was mainly expressed by the hilarious comedian Shalom Michaelshvilli, of the Trio “Ma Kashur?” (“What’s the Connection?”). And indeed, you had to ask yourselves, what is the connection? Between us, our region, and Europe, the EU and the Euro – probably very little.
Too little.
On the serious side of this great sports event, there is an expression of a European continent more united than before, a Europe grown past its historical past conflicts, establishing a joint system. One that despite economic problems and tensions works quite well on the governmental level, but as expressed in “Euro 2012,” is more than anything a Europe of the people, a Europe of a new, young generation.
The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.