Fortunately for some, the problems have been evaded with the invention of meaningless, one-size-fits-all catchphrases. If only the bloke (and I’m pretty certain it was a bloke) who wrote the story in Genesis about the fall of the Tower of Babel had known about that 21st Century version of the Holy Roman Empire, FIFA he wouldn’t have needed to come up with all that guff about: “Of these were the isles of the nations divided in their lands, every one after his tongue, after their families, in their nations.” He could have just muttered something about “the world’s game” instead. Or my favourite, the tagline for the forthcoming World Cup in Brazil “All in one rhythm”.
Last nights match between Germany and Austria (see that intro did have a point after all) in Vienna had a classic of the genre. As the Austrian fans bellowed out a ringing chorus of boos to the introduction of the German national anthem the stadium announcer parroted out the sentiments of the insipid pre-match ceremony, and world football’s governing body’s favourite new slogan. “Fair play. Fair play.” He implored them in English, without a hint of irony to an entirely German-speaking crowd, as if it really meant something.
As if FIFA’s diktats really did transcend all of those boundaries that we have built up, and only They (with a capital T) are trying to beat down. The cynic in me chortled away contentedly, and immediately looked for the highlights of the 1982 match between the two neighbours in theWorld Cup in Spain, of which the last half an hour was as far from the woolly concept of “fair play” as is possible to be.
They knew that Germany’s 1-0 lead would see both teams through to the next round, sending Algeria on their way back home. It was called Die Schande von Gijon (the disgrace of Gijon) or Nichtangriffspakt von Gijon (The non-aggression pact of Gijon). Had Algeria not conceded two goals in the second half of their match against Chile, things would have been different, but it was made easier for the world to see that this game was a fix, a scandal, because in their eyes there was little to separate the Germans and the Austrians anyway.
Everyone knew about the past, and what they liked to do in their spare time together. They were all the bloody same. The game was also referred to in the Spanish papers as El Anschluss – echoing the sentiments suspicious of Austrian / German cooperation in the war and Germany's easy annexation of the country.
More pertinently the German team of 1982 were so dislikeable anyway, that anything they did would have been jeered by the rest of the world – a point rammed home by the shoulder of Toni Schumacher against the jaw of Patrick Batiston in the semi-final. It was even the shamefaced Das Bild who coined the phrase Schande von Gijon.
This is beside the point, for Austrian fans a game against Germany today will be the biggest they face. The jeers to the national anthem were a recognition that this is a derby that for them comes above all others. The world has changed a lot since the original Anschluss, and, lets not forget with it the probable Nazi murder of the greatest player Austria have ever created, the man with the best nickname in football – “the paper man” – Matthias Sindelaar. This was about trying to beat their all-powerful neighbours for the first time since 1986 (and that was in a friendly).
Naturally, they failed.
Despite being the better team for the majority of the game last night, Austria lost 2-1. Marko Arnautovic's exquisite run and cross from the right wing had dragged them back into the game, but it was his miss that would pass up the opportunity to equalise. It was so simple – he just had to sidefoot home – that he laid prostrate on the ground, his head in his hands, shamefaced. Arnautovic is not a man of linguistics, shall we say – though it would appear he has grown up a little this season. He is arrogant and self important, but even he would have known about the ridiculousness of the “Fair Play” plea. Whatever language it was spoken in.