For the past five weeks the general vision of the world has been slightly impaired –blurred, let us say- by a happy anomaly in the shape of football. During this period nothing really has come to a standstill, nothing has actually been prevented from happening, yet, somehow, everything has seemed to matter that little bit less. The World Cup is over. Thankfully. Football will slowly return to the sideline where it belongs and –slowly- hostage soldiers in Gaza, astronauts in outer space, missiles dropped into the barren depths of the Pacific Ocean will regain prominence in the news, on our dinner tables.
Awkwardly enough, football has been on the back foot for the last couple of weeks, anyway. Sure, Italy’s victory in the final of the World Cup means that sporting cycles have been closed –Italy reaches the final of the World Cup every 12 years, wins every other final it contests-, that matters of honour have been redressed –Germany won the cup in Italy in 1990, Italy in Germany in 2006-, and that despite defeat and embarrassment the greatest footballer of the nineties, Zinedine Zidane, has been rewarded by FIFA with a final trophy to add to his collection: the Golden Ball (the award given to the best player of the tournament). Fair enough: Italy deserved to lift Jules Rimet’s trophy as much as anyone else (which is not to say much, for no team really impressed); and Zinedine Zidane did find some of his form of old to the delight of those who regard him a footballer of the category of Johann Cruyff, or Franz Beckenbauer.
Technical details of this sort aside, what has hit the headlines more and more during the past month has been the social aspect of a celebration which has enshrined the values of, yes, physical prowess and fair play, but also solidarity, graciousness and above all tolerance. Never was Germany happier. Never was Europe -in fact, the world- more at awe, more pleasantly surprised, with German behaviour –that is, with German hospitality, enthusiasm and friendliness. When prompted, Franz Beckenbauer –head of the organising committee of the World Cup- has found his eloquence lacking in describing the unique phenomenon brought about this year by the wonder of football. Horst Koehler, the German president, has been more successful in his attempt, explaining that through football, patriotism has become for the first time a feeling that draws people from different countries together, rather than setting them apart.
One of the innocuous events to fly past most of us largely unacknowledged in the last few weeks was the ninetieth anniversary of the battle of the Somme. Somewhat inexplicably, there is still one living British veteran from a battle that took place in 1916, Henry Allingham, who at age 110 still attended the memorial service at Thiepval to pay homage to the 20.000 British soldiers who lost their lives on the 1 July 1916, to the hundreds of thousands who would die over the following five months, a generation already lost sunken deeper in the mud of death.
What is most tragic about the battle of the Somme is not the cruel incompetence of the British high command, who unscrupulously sent at least half of those 20.000 men to their graves but, rather, the fact that a realistic opportunity to stop a senseless war and spare so much suffering –not to mention change the course of the bloodiest of all centuries- was missed by the sort of stupid selfishness commonly referred to as honour. Equally, the hardest thing to come to terms with when looking at World War I, the Great War, is that, although inevitable, it was unnecessary. The power struggle that prompted Europe to self destruction was propelled by an over-zealous obsession to protect and advance national interests at all costs, faster and better than anyone else; the power struggle that prompted Europe to self destruction was guided by a blinding patriotism. However, precisely because of this shared malady –patriotism- it is impossible to distinguish “good” and “evil” elements between the nations involved in World War I. Unlike World War II, the polarisation of the world that prompted World War I hinged on a set of shared interests which each group wanted to monopolise.
By August 1916 the promise of a quick war “to end all wars” had already timed out; the strong German offensive had been stopped and repelled at Verdun; the Western front faced stagnation by the river Somme; the Eastern front saw Romania joining the entente, declaring war on Austria-Hungary; the German coalition, though still hundreds of miles away from home soil, were for the first time on their back foot; most importantly, the patriotic fervour which had fed the machinery of war earlier on had died out through all of Europe. The time was ripe to formulate a mutually satisfying truce to safeguard peace for another 10 or 15 years (no more, surely). It was not to be.
It was not to be because honour would bear nothing short of absolute victory, because the past glory and future esteem of the Empire, of the Kingdom, of the nation were on the line. Henry Allingham would have to witness a lot more death and destruction in his lifetime before he could finally enjoy a meaningful period of peace. But if, in fact, we can truthfully assert that patriotism has become a tool to draw people from different countries, different backgrounds, different cultures together, rather than set them apart, then perhaps –only perhaps- we have learned our lessons –perhaps we have learned our part. Given: football is marginally more trivial than world domination. However, it seems to me that writing history just for the sake of it can be more futile –and ever so much more tragic- than hitting the back of the net with a football.