When Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party won an overwhelming victory in the first Zimbabwe independence election in January 1980, the country’s cricketers were perturbed. They asked if this meant that they weren’t part of South Africa anymore and would have to stop playing in its domestic Currie Cup competition. It was an absurd enquiry. The apartheid South African state was then at the height of its international isolation, not to mention that many of the largely white cricket team had been fighting Mugabe in a bloody civil war for the last few years. Mugabe explained to the cricketers that it just wasn’t on. But then—showing a proper sense of priorities for a life-long cricket fan—he gave them a special dispensation to play out the last few months of that Currie Cup season.
Healthy political units need their members to think of themselves as engaged in shared projects. But this needn’t demand the familiar division into nation states, with just one body wielding legitimate power over any given place on the surface of the earth. There are various other possible models, including federal structures with nested powers, and even overlapping authorities with differentiated responsibilities (think of the European free trade, monetary, and immigration unions, all of which involve different sets of countries).
In the modern world, national sporting success can do much to unite a fragile nation state, as Nelson Mandela realized when he co-opted the traditionally white rugby ‘Amabokke’ as part of his rainbow project. But in other cases national teams cement identities that cross-cut official states. There are a surprising number of sporting countries that aren’t represented in the United Nations.
Last month Scotland voted on whether to leave the United Kingdom. But in sporting terms Scotland is already as independent as could be. As far as soccer, rugby, cricket, field hockey and most other sports go, Scotland is no more part of the United Kingdom than Peru is. The rivalry with England could not be more intense. The annual Scotland-England soccer match was one of the great sporting fixtures, until the fans’ excesses led to its cessation in 1989.
(Incidentally, doesn’t it bother you that these four provinces represent Ireland in the Heineken European club rugby competition? They aren’t clubs. They’re provinces. It reminds me of an old exchange between Henry Root, the spoof letter-writing alter ego of the humourist William Donaldson, and A J Ayer. I’m still tracking down a copy of The Henry Root Letters, but I remember it going something like this:
“Professor Sir A J Ayer
The Wykeham Professor of Logic
Dear Sir Alfred
Yesterday evening I was enjoying an association football match on television between Tottenham Hotspurs and England. However, when my daughter Doreen came home from the local hostelry, she exclaimed ‘This isn’t a football match, it’s a category mistake!’, and switched channels.
I am puzzled. Doreen has not been the same person since she started her philosophy course at the University of Wolverhampton. Perhaps you can cast some light on the matter.
Henry Root, Esq.”
To his credit, Ayer was happy to play the straight man. He wrote back politely explaining that “a category mistake” was Gilbert Ryle’s term for a muddle, and suggesting that Doreen must have been disquieted at the idea of a club playing a whole that it is part of.)
Along with Northern Ireland, Wales also suffers in the sporting autonomy stakes. They have their own rugby and soccer teams all right—indeed these are both currently world forces in a way that Scotland’s are not—but when it comes to cricket they are simply absorbed into England, Rhodesia-South-Africa style. The governing body of the team that lost the Ashes last winter is the “England and Wales Cricket Board”, but the team itself is “England”. The distinguished and very Welsh cricketer Robert Croft was once asked what he felt about playing for the old Saxon enemy. “Ah,” he explained "When I play cricket for Glamorgan, I think of myself as representing Wales; but when I play cricket for England, I’m representing the British Lions."
Actually, in these less hegemonic times, we now take care to refer to the “British and Irish Lions”. Another oddity. Every four years the rest of the British Isles joins in the Irish pretence that history never happened. When it comes to battles with the rugby giants of the Southern hemisphere, we stand united as one nation. The political incoherence of this construction does nothing to dampen the intensity of the sporting contests. No northern rugby fan over forty will ever forget Jeremy Guscott’s last-minute game-winners against Australia and South Africa.
The Spanish football club Atletico Bilbao requires its players to have Basque ancestry or upbringing. I must say that this offends my cosmopolitan sensibilities. It strikes me as racist. I’m surprised that it’s allowed under European law. You’d think that it violated anti-discrimination rules, not to mention laws against restraint of trade.
All right, perhaps it’s my intuitions that need examining. When exactly did football clubs stop being emblems of local pride and turn into commercial bodies subject to competition law? In any case, it seems to me that FIFA and Spain could well take a leaf out of the home nations’ book. Why not give the Basques a proper national team, and excuse Atletico Bilbao from trying to cross categories? No doubt this would be resisted by opponents of Basque independence. But the British examples suggest that it could actually help to keep Spain united, working to make the Basques happier with devolved power in a federal Spain. Maybe the Catalans would like to become separate FIFA members too—though on reflection their contributions to recent Spanish successes might persuade them to stay federated in football (perhaps even after they become politically independent, on the Irish model).
And then there is the Ryder Cup. Every two years all the golf fans of Europe, many of whom you would normally expect to find on the Eurosceptic right, join together in frantic support of the team that plays the United States. Perhaps this augurs well for the future of a federal Europe. But before we draw any political morals, I need to explain some things about golf fandom.
The first thing to understand is that every adult golfer who is not American has just one concern when watching any professional golf tournament—they don’t want an American to win. Have you ever noticed that European TV golf coverage often displays an “International Leader Board” listing the scores of all the leading non-Americans? The sole point of this is to keep track of the prospects of some–any—non-American victory. It seems that this attitude is shared by the players as well as the fans. The English golfer Paul Casey was asked before the 2004 Ryder Cup to confirm that the teams’ rivalry was friendly. His response was “No, we properly hate them”. Afterwards he said he was joking, but I’m not sure.
But I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, their sentiments were nothing but a mirror image of my own. I can appreciate that Phil Michelson and Bubba Watson are charismatic magicians on the golf course, and may well be charming companions off it. But I will happily sit up until 3am to watch a journeyman like Graham McDowell beat them in a major.
What is going on here? I’m pretty sure that it’s to do with golf rather than America. I count myself as an Americophile. Many of our family holidays have been spent motel-hopping across the States. And I don’t feel the same about other sports. For example, I felt nothing but pleasure when Andre Agassi completed his career grand slam in Paris in 1999, or the USA women’s soccer lifted the world cup before a 90,000 crowd in the Rose Bowl that same year.
Maybe it’s down to the way that America dominated golf for decades after World War II. Or perhaps it stems from the time that Deane Beaman, the PGA commissioner, made it so difficult for Seve Ballesteros and other European stars to compete in American tournaments. And we can’t ignore the determined provincialism of the many American golfers who rarely test their skills in the rest of the world. (One of them—can anybody help me track this down?—decided to skip the Open one year because he had doubts about the hotels. “As I see it,” he explained, “once you leave the States, you’re camping.”)
So I wouldn’t be too quick to assume that the fervour of the Ryder Cup followers is a harbinger of European unity. It's more likely that the Pringle-sweatered blimps in the members’ bars are united by their dislike of the opposition, rather than any enthusiasm for the European project. Still, who knows? As we have seen, sporting arrangements often uncover political affinities that cross-cut official state boundaries. I wonder if pan-European sides in other sports would get the supporters whooping along with the Ryder Cup fans.