Europe is bracing itself for the finals of the European Championships 2004, or ‘Euro 2004’ as it is more commonly known, this weekend.
With flags flying across Europe, all eyes will be focused on Lisbon this Sunday and the finals between Portugal and Greece.
Euro 2004 is no ordinary soccer match. The Euro Cup is a tournament that takes place every four years and determines the best football team in Europe. Through a series of qualifying matches only 16 teams become eligible to compete for the coveted title of European Champion.
This year, the host nation is Portugal and every television set in the United Kingdom, and the rest of Europe, has been tuned into the action there for the last three weeks.
For those of us Americans who can’t really relate just imagine the Olympics, the World Series, the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals and the Stanley Cup all rolled into one. It may come as a surprise to you back home, but soccer — er, football, is the most popular sport in the world.
So forget about Kobe Bryant, Barry Bonds or Keyshawn Johnson. We’re talking about guys like Thierry Henry, Zinedine Zidane and David Beckham — names that are largely unknown in the States but evoke rock star-like allegiance the world over.
Not that I’m an expert on the sport — far from it. As a typical American, I grew up with baseball, basketball and (American) football. Soccer was a “girl’s sport.”
Since the tournament started, London has been awash with the flag of St. George — a white banner with a red cross signifying the flag of England. It was everywhere — on car antennas, on shirts, on billboards, in building windows, on women’s underwear. Some of the more devoted supporters, as fans are called here, wore it like a cape, draping the flag over their shoulders.
Headlines for “Euro 2004” screamed from every London newspaper— their pages devoted to historical data, analysis, and predictions. Players who are teammates in Europe’s professional clubs have become temporarily rivals and foes during the tournament.
National pride wrapped up in a soccer jersey
As an expatriate who has lived in London for the past three years, it was odd and amusing to witness such unbridled patriotism centered on a sporting event.
I mean, do we as a nation get so worked up over our major sports events? Well, I guess if your team happens to make the Super Bowl or the World Series, then sure. But our sports fanaticism is highly localized in its fervor. We root for the Yankees or the Lakers or the Packers, not for an entire nation.
So, in order to fully embrace the moment, I too headed down to my ‘local’ for the big match between the U.K. and the Euro 2004 host, Portugal a few weeks ago. For those of you who are unfamiliar with colloquialisms across the Atlantic, a “local” is what our British cousins refer to as their neighborhood bar.
But my excitement to check out the scene soon turned to jaw-dropping disbelief as I looked through the pub’s plate glass window. Inside, a swarming mass of humanity was literally packed into the pub like a New York City subway train during rush hour.
“Geez, all this for a soccer game?”
As I pushed open the front door I was assaulted by a loud cheer — for what, I am not exactly sure being completely ignorant of the rules of the game. Smiling apologetically and mouthing, “excuse me” and “terribly sorry” I stepped on toes and bumped into beer glasses to find my friends.
Everyone was transfixed by the action on the two large-screen television monitors. I met up with my party and we inaudibly mouthed greetings. As I was handed a cold bottle of beer, I looked around at the packed bodies around me to see a few brave Portugal supporters huddled in one corner draped in their national flag.
All of a sudden the crowd started to chant – or, I guess sing - something I could’nt really make out. About two bottles of beer later, I realized that they are singing “En-guh-luhnd, En-guh-luhnd, En-guh-luhnd!” The main instigator was a portly redheaded guy who would — when the occasion called for it — hoist his pint of beer and lead the rest of the crowd into singing a song about “En-guh-luhnd.”
The funny thing was, nearly everybody in the pub knew the words to every song and chant this guy belted out. All around me people were singing or shouting — even screaming at the television monitors.
And when England screwed up, they retreated into baffled silence, shook their heads, muttered an obscenity or put their face in their hands. “Rubbish!” our redheaded cheerleader would exclaim at every England gaffe. Others silently stared at the television with intense concentration — as if they could collectively will their team to victory.
It was hard not to get caught up in the hysteria. Pretty soon, I was clapping and singing- albeit unsuccessfully- with the rest of the crowd.
But what struck me as I was surrounded by this crush of drunken, sweaty bodies was a sense of community and nationalism. It was nothing that I had ever experienced at a sporting venue in the States. This was not just about a team winning a game. It was a shared identity coming together for a brief, raucous moment.
And there was nothing arrogant or ostentatious about this show of support. People were just caught up in the excitement and possibilities for their country. Although I am not English, it was a good feeling — something we Americans have probably not felt in a long time. For the next two hours, hardly anyone moved away from those screens — entranced by the drama unfolding in Portugal.
All of Europe transfixed
And it wasn’t just the English or the Portuguese watching. It was the whole of Europe and quite possibly the world. This was a competition that involved the mutual respect and participation of other nations.
We have a “World Series” in baseball but does the world actually participate? The Super Bowl — come on, who plays American football except — well, Americans? We revel in what our definition of “sports” should be and dismiss everything else as frivolous.
There is something entirely different about being a fan of your local team and being a fan supporting your nation in a major international competition. That difference has everything to do with a sense of togetherness — a sense of community that transcends a mere parochial outlook.
In the end, England lost to Portugal in what we would call overtime. It was a crushing blow —silencing the entire pub. A group of England supporters magnanimously congratulated the small Portuguese contingent.
So the British fans will have to put away their St. George flags until playoffs for the World Cup. But, you can be sure that they will still be watching this weekend — just for the love of the sport.