Football as a catalyst for patriotism

Lyubov Borusyak
10 July 2008

Russia has never seen such an explosion of interest in sport broadcasts as it did during the Euro-2008 championship. Hundreds of thousands of mainly young people took to the streets in the capital. People were talking of nothing but football. In Moscow, 63% of the television audience watched the final match between Russia-Netherlands. In the semi-final between Russia and Spain it was higher still at 70%. These figures are unprecedented. The only possible exception is the New Year message of greetings by the Russian president.

At the same time, viewing figures were modest for the championship round when the Russian team did not play. They were even lower than the Euro-2004 championship, in which the Russian team did not qualify. Other striking events included a speech by the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church in Russia about football on 22 June, and a debate about whether Channel One could show broadcasts of football matches with the Russian team.

You may be tempted to say it's only sport, only football. But you can learn a lot about a society through football. What we were watching during those three weeks in June 2008 were not just sporting events. They were significant striking social events. For sport is a celebration of patriotism.

Russian commentators used to call major competitions ‘celebrations of sport', especially in the Soviet Union. This maybe a cliché, but it contains a good deal of truth. In television broadcasts of the Euro championship, we saw carnival elements on display: fans' faces painted in national colors, carnival clothing, and behaviour that would be impossible under normal circumstances. And it was not just a carnival, but a patriotic carnival: with national flags, clothes of the same colours etc. During the championship, football becomes a national idea, a symbol of national unity for all the participating countries. Victory becomes proof of the value of the nation, the flag and the national identity. There are traditional models of behaviour, ways of reacting to both victories and defeats.

In most countries, these symbols, models and rules of behavior evolved long ago and became part of culture. In Russia, for various reasons, it's quite different. Firstly, in Soviet history sport was seen for too long not as a celebration, as a patriotic game, but almost as war, even if it was a sporting war. Secondly, our society is now divided, and contains very few common national values. We don't know how to react to sporting events. Above all, we don't know how to show our patriotism, our love for our country, when an occasion arises that brings us together.

In recent years, in what they're nowcalling this ‘age of stability', we've started to feel an urgent need for a national idea round which we can rally. Patriotism is obviously important for any society today, but we have not been able to find anything that brings us together. To some extent xenophobia has fulfilled this role: the idea of us being ‘good' and them, ie everyone else, being ‘bad'. We've scoured our ‘great history' for a national patriotic idea to gather round. But we haven't even been able to find any historical figures to unite us.

If Pushkin really is ‘our everything', then our attitude to Lenin, Stalin and other significant historical figures is divisive. They may be geniuses for some, but for others they are villains. Pride in our victory in the Great Patriotic War is probably the only completely shared basis for patriotism. But as time goes by, the role of that victory as the foundation of national pride and patriotic feeling will inevitably fade. This would probably already have happened had the importance of that victory not been upheld by the institutions of the state- from school to the media.

For Soviet propaganda sport, played an important role as the bedrock of patriotic feeling. The ‘outstanding success of Soviet sportsmen' was supposed to (and for many people really did) prove the pre-eminence of the socialist system, which created all the necessary conditions for human development.

As the main rivals of Soviet sportsmen were Americans, the battle between them became part of the Cold War. On Soviet television, sport was accorded a place of honor, and the streets really did empty during broadcasts of figure skating or hockey, so beloved by Leonid Brezhnev. But as sport was promoted by the state as an ideological activity, there were groups of people who did not agree with this approach and ideology, and watched competitions in order to root symbolically for the other side, and support their rivals from the capitalist world.

Russians lose interest

From the late 1980's to the early2000's, interest in sport dropped off in Russia. There were many reasons. For a start, sport just did not seem serious to people struggling to come to terms with their changed circumstances. When life was so hard, it seemed like a lot of childish games.

There was also the feeling of envy. People were outraged by the colossal sums sportsmen earned. It was not fair that they should get so much while ordinary people earned so little. The media was forever telling people how many millions of dollars a footballer or hockey player had been bought for.

In the Soviet period, sportsmen were called amateurs. People couldn't understand it. What right did amateurs have to earn so much more than we professionals who are doing something that really is important? Sportsmen were accused of being unpatriotic. They would leave poor Russia for the West in pursuit of their millions in the West, then not want to play for their home team or play half-heartedly, because they had stopped being true Russians.

This was what people thought of the tennisplayer Anna Kurnikova, and to some extent of Maria Sharapova too, who both live in the West. When Sharapova played at the Kremlin Cup, many fans threw their support behind the ‘real' Russian players, and saw her as a millionaire with an American passport.

One of the main reasons why people lost interest in sport was that Russian sportsmen performed so much worse than they had in the Soviet period. When things get tough, you only cheer for winners - real or potential ones. If a sportsman or team has little chance of winning, you lose interest: everything's bad enough as it is, without them losing all the time. It did not matter what kind of sport it was: all that mattered was winning.

Take hockey - one of the most popular sports in the victorious Soviet period. In 2000, the World Hockey Championship was held in St. Petersburg. The so-called ‘dream team' was made upentirely of Russian players from the US National Hockey League. The media kept talking up the strength of the team as the favourites to win. President Putin came to the championship, and the honour of the country was hanging on this team now playing in their home turf. But the team lost and left the field in shame.

After that, interest in the hockey championship plummeted - to such an extent that for several years, Channel One and Rossiya television did not even bother to buy the rights to the World Hockey Championships. They knew these broadcasts would cause their ratings to fall,and give their competitors the edge while they were on.

Searching for national identity

Then, after a decade and a half, at the beginning of the 2000's, people started becoming interested in sport again.They were still only interested in success, of course. But as living standards began to rise, people started to feel the need of a patriotic idea. The search for a national identity was part and parcel of the re-establishment of a normal way of life. People looked for it in old Soviet values, and in new achievements. Sport was in many respects a suitable vehicle for these sentiments.

For example, for a long time people showed no interest in a figure skating, a sport really popular during the Soviet period. The stadiums were empty, and broadcasts of the World and European Skating Championships got low ratings. So television only showed these competitions at night, if at all. This was despite the fact that Russian figure skaters were achieving excellent results, and winning time and again.

A few years ago, things changed. Public interest suddenly rose dramatically. No one expected this, least of all the trainers and skaters. It was not the sport that changed - the athletes continued to perform as well before. The audiences had changed. Now they were seeking an outlet for their patriotic pride. If interest has fallen away recently, it isonly because Russian figures skaters have stopped winning so much.

An even more telling example of the link between sport and patriotism is the winters sports biathlon, which combines cross country skiing and rifle marksmenship. Unlike figureskating, this type of extended winter sport was not previously popular with audiences. But in recent years the audience for this biathlon has increased considerably.

It became popular for two reasons. First,the Russian team was performing impressively. Second, it lasts a long time and can build public support. The stages of the competition are shown regularly over the course of almost half a year. Viewerscan root for potentially successful sportsmen over an extended period, rather than just for a couple of short matches. Biathlon also became a television fixture because of its regularity. Viewers became familiar with the sport and its people.The broadcasts were watched like soap operas.

It is also no coincidence that at the 2004 Summer Olympics synchronised swimming drew large audiences. This was a sport many viewers had never suspected existed until Russian women began winning one medal after another.

Thanks to these sporting victories people began feeling that they belonged to a great, victorious power. Watching them on television is therapeutic. It heals social complexes - Russia is strong, we are strong, we are winning. ‘We can do it!' This has become one of the foundations of patriotism.

‘The world is against us'

But Russian competitors and teams did not always win. In fact they have often lost. Unsuccessful competitions are not popular. They do not collect large audiences. But they provoke lively arguments. People say: they're beating us! They're inspired by negative patriotism, the familiar search for enemies. When our athletes are judged, and accused of taking drugs - they are `being prevented from winning' on the international arena.

This is essentially an aggressive form of comfort for people who dream of the continuous victories of Russian players. Unfortunately, the media actively encourages these xenophobic impulses- the idea that hatred of Russia, an international conspiracy, lies behind any loss or shame.

There are two kinds of patriotic rhetoric.On the one hand, our people are winning because Russia is ‘rising'. On the other, our people are losing because the whole world is against us. Until 2008,the second discourse predominated, as there were not many successes. But this year the situation changed.

As we all know, first the Petersburg team Zenit won the UEFA Cup in football. A few days later Russian hockey players became world champions. Then the singer Dima Bilan won the Eurovision Song Contest. It is not important what Bilan did to win. He took part in a competition, and brought victory to Russia. The social function of a musical competition like this perfectly fits the criterion of sport competitions.

Happening as they did over a veryshort time, it became clear that this was no accident. If they have stopped ‘holding us back', then Russia really has risen, become a great power. Nowbeing a patriot is not only necessary, it is a matter of honour. The fact thatall these events are unconnected is not important. Victories are good anyway. Indeed,it is even better that they happen in different fields: Russia is not just strong, but strong in everything. This was the national mood at the start ofthe 2008 European football championship.

Football as a national idea

Thousands of Russian fans went to the matches in Switzerland and Austria. Sports bars in Russian cities were packed, everyone rooting for the team together. After a victory by the Russianteam, people took to the streets. Cars were draped in Russian flags, and young people painted their faces in its colours. Flags, caps and badges with Russian symbols were sold in shops, in the metro and on the streets.

The Russian integration into European style football rituals is not equally distributed across the country. It has become firmly entrenched in Moscow, somewhat less so in Petersburg and other large cities, and much less in the provinces. Once again, Moscow occupies a special place in the landscape of Russian culture. It is a rich European capital. After Russia's victories against the Greek and Dutch teams, hundreds of thousands of people, mainly young, took to the Moscow streets. And the crowd was jubilant, not aggressive. This did not happen in other cities. Lacking the experience, people showed their enthusiasm more locally.

The Russian team got into the championship partly by accident, a lucky turn of events that did not depend on the team. So at the start of the championship neither the fans nor the media knew quite how they should feel about it, or how to root for the team. Werethey outsiders who had got into the championship by accident, or full members of the European football process? People needed to know. For football is not just a game. How should we behave before the first match, and during it? How should we take the first results?

At first, no one saw the football championship as another link - potentially the most important - in the chain of our victories from Zenit to Bilan, as a new sign of the rebirth of Russia. It's easier in other countries where people just cheer for their team, and see what happens. This is fine as long as your country does not have an inferiority complex. If it does, then it is hard to back your team wholeheartedly. Afterall, you might be backing losers. Then what would you do? How would you explainwhy things had gone wrong? And who was responsible?

The fans were disappointed by the team'sfirst game - Russia lost to Spain 1:4. Youcould tell by the betting, the way people talked, the discussions on the internet. The state media was still optimistic, though this was clearly notsincere, just part of their job. But because of the way sport is used by the state (victory being confirmation that a policy is correct, defeat that it isnot), the liberal press, the opposition, gloated over the defeat.

The victory chorus

Then came the three victories in a row, each more impressive than the last. And each match proved further confirmation of political and patriotic victory. For the people, each victory meant the success of Russia, not just in sport, but in the widest context.

The country was moving in the right direction, becoming stronger. And for the opposition media, it was a chance toshow their patriotism, their closeness to the people. For them it was important to be able to show their ‘pure', non-ideological patriotism. They were not ‘western mercenaries',‘traducers of all things Russian' but patriots, cheering for its future, happy for its success. It was, in a word, a way of being able to ‘wriggle out' of traditional accusations.

Only a marginal politician like Valeria Novodvorskaya could make an anti-sport statement during this time. This confirmed her marginal status, which is part of her image: ‘In my view, it's not a rise in patriotism, but in idiocy. If anything in our country is rising, it is idiocy. And in the most vulgar and strident form. To start with, I reallydon't like football. And I really don't like sport. People are no longer individuals. They become part of a screaming crowd. They'reprepared to kill for their favorite team, and destroy half of London or Paris. If it goes on like this, I think sport should be banned.'

People of every political hue competed to demonstrate their sporting and patriotic feelings. They had to work quickly, as the championship did not last long. What's more, sport is unpredictable and every victory could prove to be the last. So everyone declared their love for football, the Russian team, and thus for Russia - State Duma deputies, members of government, media representatives, athletes from all other sports, representatives of different religions and artistic figures. Never before had almost identical statements been heard from people of opposing political views, regardless of gender, age, education, income, ethnicity or religion.

Almost every media report began with an announcement that people were watching football, unable to tear themselves away, screaming with delight when a goal was scored. An official who came onthe radio to talk about a state exam began started by apologising that she had lost her voice while watching the football match. It was important to show she belonged to the people, as the state exam had been seriously criticized. How can you do this without mentioning football?

While the competition continued, everyone from politicians to artists wanted to get in on the act. Anyone taking part in a radio or television programme felt obliged to prove their patriotism by saying they had lost their voice, that their entire family was talking about nothing else over breakfast, lunch and dinner, about Gus Hiddink and Andrei Arshavin. If they could name names it was even better, as it proved that they really were watching with the entire Russian people.

On 21 June, the Russian team won the quarter-final against the Netherlands, and was considered one of the favorites of the championship. The next day, 22 June, Patriarch Alexei found himself in adifficult situation.

On the one hand, the Day of Memory and Mourning was being celebrated in a country where the Great Patriotic War is revered. On the other hand, the church could not ignore the sensational victory of Russian footballers, especially as it had not happened 67 years ago, but the day before. The Patriarch was at a loss: how could he talk about two quite different events, when they were both so valuable? How could he say the right words about one event, but tactfully mention the other as well?

A compromise was found, combining the two events in one phrase: ‘The mourning today that we feel on the anniversary of the outbreak of the Great Patriotic War is mitigated by our joy over yesterday's victory by the Russian team,' said Alexei II, speaking to soldiers at the Moscow military district, after a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin wall.

This statement produced contradictory reactions. Some said sporting victories and mourning for the dead were completely different and should not be combined in the same phrase. Of course this is true. But after a match which had such incredible public resonance, he couldnot avoid mentioning it. Two boys who were born after the victory match were called Gus by their happy parents, in honor of Gus Hiddink. Perhaps now that the euphoria is over, the parents have changed their minds.

There is another very striking example: Gus Hiddink was declared the winner... of the Moscow international film festival. The president of the festival, Nikita Mikhalkov, founded a special prize for him, ‘For best direction of Euro-2008'. And the prize was not given directly to the winner: Mikhalkov handed it over to Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov to give to Hiddink.

The victories of the Russian team played a very important social function. But the team did not win the gold medal. They lost to Spain in the semi-final. It is symbolically significantthat the first and last games in the championship for the Russian team were against the same team. The bitterness of defeat was relieved because the Spanish team proved the strongest on the continent.

Before the last match of the Russian team, fans prepared thoroughly: two hours before the start of the match young people with flags began gathering in the streets of Moscow, wearing appropriate clothes. Flags were on sale literally on every corner, at every metro station. All these plans were built on the experiences of the previous two winning matches.

But the team lost 0:3. This couldhave led to violence, fights and broken windows at least, as often happens on such sad occasions in some parts of Europe. Yet none of this happened in Russia. It turned out that the two weeks of patriotic spirit were not connected with the opposition of ‘us versus them'. It was simply a mass display of positive, not negative, patriotism.


But the next day, there were very few people to meet the losing footballers at the airport. It was in marked contrast to the large jubilant crowd that was seen when the hockey players returned to Moscow as world champions. With their loss, even in the semi-final, the footballers destroyed the fragile idea that ‘we can do anything'. It turnedout that we (or the footballers?) can do many things, but not everything.

Two years ago, when the German footballers who came third in the World Championship returned home, they were met by a crowd of 100,000. These people did not so much want to congratulate them on their victory, as support them after their loss in the semi-final. Russian fans have learned to enjoy victory, but cannot provide real support after a defeat.

This is no accident, becausefootballers have raised the social and emotional feeling of the country to such an extent that it seemed if they had won the championship, the nation's capabilities would have become unlimited. But this was not to be. A few days ago, football was the national idea of the country, but it is an idea too fragile and dependent on events.

In any case,the European Championship showed that thanks to sport, people in Russia can feel their unity and be proud of the country, in most cases quite sincerely. And this is a result no less important than a bronze medal.






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