An Italian Soccer Metaphor For Europe's Troubles

Buffon with his Italy teammates after World Cup elimination.
Buffon with his Italy teammates after World Cup elimination.


This was not how he wanted to say goodbye. Gianluigi "Gigi" Buffon's tears were featured Tuesday on the front pages of Italian newspapers, and not just the all-sports publications. At 39, the legendary goalkeeper played his final game for Italy's national team Monday night.

For the first time since 1958, the four-time world champions have failed to qualify for the 2018 edition of the mother of all international sporting competitions: soccer's World Cup. Following Monday night's draw against Sweden, Italians are trying to quantify just how big a disaster this is for a country where the sport is a rare source of national pride and unity. Milan-based sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport ran a banner headline Fine ("The End"), and compared the elimination to the "apocalypse." Rome-based La Repubblica called it Italy's "flop." Meanwhile, Milan-based daily Corriere della Sera had its own lineup of metaphors: "nightmare," "epic novel," "curse."

Corriere della Sera, Nov. 14, 2017

Yet, speaking for a moment for non-Italian soccer fans, I'd say that it's also bad news for the big event next summer in Russia, for the sport itself — and in some way, for the whole of Europe. Let me explain. For starters, this is no swipe at Sweden, which was the better team over the two confrontations. But for those of us who love "the beautiful game," the FIFA World Cup without Italy will miss a big chunk of its beauty. It would be like an Olympic basketball tournament without Team USA or a rugby World Cup without the All Blacks of New Zealand. With Italy staying home, it's as if the planet's soccer family was heading to Russia one member short.

But as a multinational and mobile European, I can say that Italy's absence prompts an even deeper reflection. My natural allegiances, soccer-wise, go (in this order) to Portugal, France and Germany, all of which have long-running bitter rivalries with the squadra azzurra. Like every Frenchman, I still have painful memories of that long, hot 2006 summer night when Zinédine Zidane headbutted Marco Materazzi and earned a red card — as Les Bleus went on to lose the World Cup final on penalties. That night was Zidane's last game as a professional player. And he went out through the back door. Like Buffon did Monday night.

So why, watching from my current home in Germany, do I feel sadness rather than Schadenfreude? Perhaps it's a timely reminder of what it means to be a European, at a time when the continent's identity is being put to the test on a daily basis. I, for one, have no desire for Europe to meld into a single supra-state run out of Brussels. This is a continent rich in culture and history, made of great and flawed nations (and proud regions), which should find new ways to push each other to play to win in a world that gets more competitive every day.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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