Summer 2000 in Portugal felt like a truly great time and place to be alive. The sun shone, the beer flowed and there was an atmosphere of alegria; where I was, people filled the praças of Guimarães to watch on the giant screens which the local council had kindly provided as the national football team swept all before them in the Euro 2000 football championship.
They didn’t prevail in the end, beaten by an only slightly superior World Cup-holding French side in a foul-tempered (semi-) finale. But the shouts of ´Port-u-gal! Port-u-gal!´ were to echo throughout my life over the following four years. And not only when Figo & Companhia were strutting and grunting their stuff on the pitch; occasionally I’d turn the corner on a sunny day in Lisbon to be confronted with a left-wing demonstration which would inevitably conclude with raised fists and cries of ´Viva Portugal!´ In fact, sometimes it seemed that a lot of the people gathered to hear someone speak were suffering patiently, hands clenched in readiness, in the rarely forlorn hope that they would have the opportunity to give vent to their frustrated nationalist impulses, regardless of any political affinities.
Portuguese nationalism, then, takes much of its form and energy from football, and the national devotion to football is partly a consequence of nationalism. After all, who are the best-known Portuguese people in the world? And just as football makes up a large part of the national discourse, nationalism tends to colour Portuguese attitudes to the rest of the world. People look to Figo, Christiano Ronaldo and José Mourinho to provide them with affirmation of an identity which is based first and foremost on not being Spanish, English, Brazilian or, while we’re at it, Welsh.
The continued promotion of football as a national project and as a projection of national self-esteem led to Portugal’s hosting of Euro 2004. Although a great success, especially for the Greeks, it led to problems. The people who own and run Portuguese football clubs are often, like Florentino Perez, also owners of large construction concerns and also, as their association with sport and money seems to dictate, very closely involved with the decisions of local councils. So when the lucrative contracts for the building of the not-entirely-necessary brand-new Euro 2004 football stadiums were being handed out, they tended to do rather well. As they often do – in 2004 itself, as part of an investigation called ‘Golden Whistle’, the Presidents of a number of clubs were put under investigation, kept under house arrest or, in the case of the President of the football league, sent to prison.
I want to make it clear here that I’m not suggesting that these problems do not occur in other countries. I happen to know more about Portugal because I lived there for five years. Professional football – and again I’m talking about the thing we see on TV, not the game played on the beach, in the park or, while we’re at it, on a football field – is all about corruption, whether it’s the odd case of match-fixing or dodgy politicians or tycoons looking to ingratiate themselves with the hoi polloi.
Here I have a bias to declare: I am no more a fan of dodgy businessmen or corrupt politicians than I am of football. I am also not a paid-up member of any nationalist organisations. For me, nationalist attitudes are generally inseparable from racist ones, and to say that football has in many places a problem with racism is a bit like saying that some Christians occasionally got injured as a result of gladatorial lion-feeding combats.
As I said, those cries of ´Port-u-gal! Port-u-gal!´ echoed throughout my life down the years in countless frustrating and depressing conversations with what were basically Portuguese nationalists, and on my very last night in the country, as horns beeped and flags were waved in celebration of the defeat of Holland in the semi-finals of Euro 2004, I couldn’t help but find it a bit nauseating and more than a little bit pathetic. Surely 10 million people could find some other way to identify themselves than with 11 men chasing a ball around a patch of grass?
Today’s conclusion, then: Professional football – and it should be made clear here that da da da in a park etc etc etc – somehow manages to encompass so many of the idiocies, injustices and cruelties of our modern age, that perhaps one day, in a less idiotic and more just world, it will go the same way as the games in the Coliseum.