Monday, 11 August 2014 00:00

A team for Europe

Written by Ana Röell
Dutch football fans
Photo: Ana Röell
Fans celebrate after the Netherlands' opening victory against Spain


Ana Röell looks back on an emotional night of football during the World Cup and reflects on the power of sport to unite people of all backgrounds.

Whenever I start thinking about a more united Europe, I like to look for unifying elements around me. And last month there was one particular aspect that could be neither missed nor ignored: the football.

I'm from the Netherlands and when a huge loss was predicted for our first World Cup match, I felt naïvely positive that this would be the case (we were playing against the former champions Spain, after all). I decided to watch the match in a popular cafe down the street – one that is usually known as an alternative place and attracts a large variety of people. Young and old, well-heeled or practically homeless, businessmen and hooligans, and even several street "gangs"; an unexpected crowd had prepared itself for the game by dressing up in our national colour and drinking loads of beer.

At first, I was surprised to see the supporting crowd bound together in orange and I began wondering how things might turn out. After the opening ceremony and my first beer, some intense squabbles broke out behind me, and the tension between a number of individuals began to grow. Then it was time for the kick-off, and the game began. Eyes glued to the screen, everybody was watching as if they were the ones on the pitch, embodied by our players. For a moment, we were all one and the same; one great happy nation. 

Yet our luck was about to change. The opponents seemed stronger, and a near miss saved us from a Spanish goal. The ambiance in the café changed and the quarrels behind me turned into full-blown agitation. Tables were pushed and beer thrown. Gradually, I began to worry about the ruckus behind me, yet the game continued. Spain proved their strength and power in the field, striking their first goal  viciously: 0-1.  And then the fistfights started; even at the back of the café there was commotion.

Eyes glued to the screen, everybody was watching as if they were the ones on the pitch, embodied by our players. For a moment, we were all one and the same; one great happy nation.

I decided the match alone was not enough for me to stay put in the middle of a violent crowd, but just as I was leaving, our team scored marvellously. What a comeback! And then again – within a short space of time it was 2-1. Surely victory was ours for the taking... I looked around the cafe. The sight was unbelievable: crowds that had just a minute ago been beating each other up were now drinking beer together, lined up arm-in-arm to cheer for our team. All of their initial differences played no part once the prospect of victory set in. By the end of the game, which we won in extraordinary fashion, the universal feeling of unity was overwhelming.

Even though the World Cup came to an end on 13 July, and we were sadly eliminated in the semi-finals, this remarkable evening of our first match remains etched in my memory. Can we not translate or expand this national impact to a European level? What if we were to create an intercontinental championship, a European team? The Ryder Cup, for example, is  proof that a pan-European team can be successful. In this golf tournament, the team from Europe is more than a match for their American rivals. But in football, nothing similar has been attempted. And no matter how different people or groups are, there is, in my opinion, no power more unifying than that of sport.

Sport can be a diversion. Nelson Mandela even proclaimed it "more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers." Sport creates hope, and the power to inspire is a power to bring people together. Other forms of culture – such as literature or music – may lead to individual appreciation, and once discovered will also help to inspire or express a shared pride. But watching sports together creates an immediate bond. It is a form of shared appreciation that we Europeans need to embrace.

For the sake of natural competition, national teams should, of course, continue playing World Cups against each other.  But in the prospect of a continent-wide team, I see the possibility of a more diverse European feeling and an opportunity to experience a new sense of border-defying unity.  Europe, the field is ours!

Last modified on Monday, 11 August 2014 17:57

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