Today, as two countries go into battle to prove their street-cred as the nation that produces the best footballers in the world, I’m sitting in the far-end of a corner sucking on a chuski. Because the team I was backing on Wednesday night in the semi-final against Spain got booted out of the World Cup.
But as I’ve been threatened with the prospect of being served octopus in a Japanese restaurant, I’ll support Holland tonight. After Argentina’s sado-masochistic exit in the quarter-final, and Germany’s Non-Expressionist performance in the semi-final, I’ve no real interest in investing my heart and heartburn temporarily in any country.
But you blithe patriotic spirit, who had no burning desire to latch on to any footballing nation (or two) over the last 31 days, are well within your right to ask: What’s this rent-a-nationalism during the World Cup all about, eh?
China-born, Eton and Cambridge-educated, Anglo-Irish American Professor of Politics and head of Cornell University’s ‘Indonesian programme’ Benedict Anderson’s theory of nationalism being a product of ‘imagined communities’ still holds. In the 80s when it was fashionable to think that ‘nationalism is dying’, Anderson believed nationalism to be a necessary human demand ‘to belong’. But he went beyond following flag-waving and ethnic identities. In fact, he subverted the notion of nationalism when he wrote in Imagined Communities (1983): “[Nationalism] is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.”
Nationhood, in this reckoning, is an imagined sharing of traits — the trait could be religious (the idea of the Islamic umma), ethnic (the idea of the Hindu(stani) irrespective of his or her religion), territorial (‘possession’ according to the contours of a map), or ideological (‘good girls don’t have sex before marriage’).
Rent-a-nationalism, on the other hand, is admiring communal traits — real or imagined — even though one doesn’t share them. So when I was watching the deeply painful pummelling of Argentina last Saturday, I knew that the pretty things at the back of the bar were cheering Germany because “their players are so hot!” Now, that’s as valid a reason for supporting a nation as any. Speaking about my own tribe, Bengalis support only Brazil or Argentina, not just because the two countries play ‘beautiful football’ (a de-industrialised society is only able to value ‘art’ over scorelines) but because they possess non-First World, from-rags-to-pitches characteristics that my fellowmen can and love to identify with.
Nationalism is pretend-tribal (the ‘pretend’ bit making it more powerful, not less) and sporting events like World Cup football, IPL cricket and corporate takeovers can be retro-fitted into a tribal groove. (Yess! India beat Pakistan! Yess! An Indian’s acquired a European company!)
So why don’t I, admirer of some finer points of the Spanish Inquisition, and the horror movie, El Orfanato (The Orphanage), cheer for Spain? Because I don’t like the Spanish national football side. Vamos, vamos Holland!