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How football reflects, filters and shapes a culture's self-image,
This review is from: Football Against The Enemy (Paperback)
Football Against the Enemy deserves classic status, even if for no other reason than it was one of the first books to use football as a topic for 'serious' cultural study.
Often poorly written, far from scholarly in its arguments, and suffering from the fact that history has overtaken it, the book still convincingly demonstrates how cultures use football to reflect, filter and shape their self-image.
For example, Kuper argues that Dutch fans take their team's matches against the Germans so seriously because they think they should and not because of any historic sporting enmity between the two nations.
The generation that lived through Nazi occupation saw no significance in Holland-Germany games, but the 1988 European Championships heralded an invented tradition of Germanophobia - created in part to support a Dutch pose of heroic resistance against Teutonic plans for world domination.
Similarly, Kuper says that Argentinians see Maradona's `Hand of God' goal against England as part of a wider tradition of folk tales that tell of the downtrodden poor using wily, inventive and crafty tactics to defeat their rich, powerful landlords.
The English, on the other hand, have painted themselves as the perennial underdogs: a nation of hard-but-fair heroes who always go down fighting (but inevitably go down), and it is hard not to view multiple England penalty-shootout defeats and thrown-away half-time leads without considering how many World Cups the team would have won had the country chosen to see itself instead as Machiavellian over-achievers like the Italians did.
Such hinted insights dominate the book, which mainly consists of examples of how football teams can become a focus for cultural identity - an argument that was so common and obvious, even in 1994, that it has become a platitude. Kuper uses the example of how ethnic groups in the former USSR supported the football teams that (surprise, surprise) represented their local area; in the case of the Baltic states, the areas would become nations in their own right, leading to much happiness among local football fans - although one suspects that non-fans would have been equally or more delighted by their country's sudden independence.
Football Against the Enemy was written during the Yugoslav war, a conflict that is frequently said to have started with a riot at a football match between Red Star Belgrade (ie, Serbia) and Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia) in 1990.
This urban myth is complicated by subsequent animosity between Dinamo Zagreb and Hadjuk Split, bitter Croatian enemies with a pre-1990 'tradition' of uniting against Serbian teams, and rivalries between Red Star - the club supported by football thug-turned warlord Arkan - and their Belgrade rivals Partizan, a club that attracted many of the city's Bosnian fans.
Such complex rivalries, and the forces that shape them, are frequently described in the football magazine FourFourTwo in more detail and with more clarity than Kuper can manage. That said, he can justifiably claim (like Nick Hornby) to have helped create the environment where a mass-market sports magazine can devote a two-page spread to geopolitical history, as seen through the prism of football.