There was a throwaway line in the flurry of articles about Milan in March-April 2007 after their qualification for the Champions' League finals, about Rino Gattuso, interviewed about the Istanbul final in 2005, saying that for a long time it was unbearable for him to think of anything associated with that night. Istanbul just some Turkish city, penalties what penalties, that sort of thing. Liverpool just the home city of the Beatles.
The reason I think of this on the brink of a crunch game against fake rivals France that is not likely to throw up great football or shining examples of sporting spirit is that I take comfort in the fantasy that Rino, or perhaps his good friend Marco Materazzi, will line-up opposite the French with their heads held high, and on cue after the opening bars of La Marseillaise, will boom "LOVE, LOVE, LOVE!" at their opponents.
It might insult the national sentiments of the French, but then it might also get Nicolas Anelka to smile.
I am interested in human behaviour during the blaring of the anthems. One of pop culture's frequent tests of the measure stupidity among the public is to stop people on the street and demand them to repeat the words of the national anthem [at least, this happens frequently on youth channels on Indian TV]. I suppose the footballing population contains the same pecentage of people who cannot tell you the words of their anthem as the wider populace. Choosing to keep mum and let the others get on with it rather than expose your powers of intellectual retention as weak is a courteous way of doing things.
Surely there are those who choose this method to register a social protest, and I generally applaud the gesture. It would be silly to take a chance to represent your country and not give your very best while playing, but if you wanted to express disgust with your government's policies, or at the way they treat your community, or simply because you don't like patriotic fervour, this seems like a highly visible yet perfectly honourable way to do it. The trouble is, I'm not sure if anyone among the throng of mute footballers at Euro 2008 is doing this. I'm a little disappointed.
On the flip side, of course there is something appealing about a grand gesture of solidarity. Before their opening game against Austria, every starter on the Croatian team raised hand to heart before they started to sing. Perhaps in a different political situation, or against different opponents, it may have seemed less benign. What may seem like swaggering arrogance in one country - or one sport, or one tournament - is a simple mark of committment in another. If the Indian football team ever qualified for a World Cup, I wouldn't be displeased to hear a familiar ditty before the start of a match. Of course, it would mean nothing if they didn't bother to play their best after the singing, which is what will ultimately matter to those who like such a thing as 'national pride' to be quantifiable and result-based. We'd never heckle them at the airport for anything less.
I've been boring everyone I meet with news of my morbid fascination with Marco van Basten. The graven image in those videos and YouTube pages has suddenly drawn breath -- in rather a scary, Darth Vaderish fashion, appropriate to the buzzcut and the blank, focused stare -- and become a very alarming but intriguing human character. For someone who went into the tournament with roughly the same number of question marks over his head as Roberto Donadoni, he's certainly pulled ahead. [Donadoni has helped with that, no lie.] I think I could live with his winning streak continuing, just to see those goal celebrations.