World Cup flag-waving madness lost on football-crazy fans

There hasn’t been a problem not made worse by wrapping the colours around it

The surest sign of the ethical vacuum at the heart of this tournament came over the weekend when the Brazilian minister for justice sprinted to the flag in a limp attempt to cajole domestic public opinion into ignoring reality. Photograph: Reuters

The surest sign of the ethical vacuum at the heart of this tournament came over the weekend when the Brazilian minister for justice sprinted to the flag in a limp attempt to cajole domestic public opinion into ignoring reality. Photograph: Reuters

Mon, Jun 9, 2014, 06:00

It kicks off on Thursday, a whole month of the World Cup. And it’s great really. Mostly in that it’s hard to take even a minor interest in sport and not eagerly anticipate the most popular event on the planet. But there’s some queasiness in the anticipation also; nothing a doctor can cure, unless maybe a doctor of sociology, or vexillology.

It’s the flag waving you see; can’t stand it. Hate it in fact. If the world doesn’t need any more of anything right now it is flag waving. There’s not a problem that can’t be made worse by wrapping a flag around it. It’s like trying to staunch the flow of reason with a tourniquet of bullshit.

Every time an athlete does a lap of honour, celebrating individual achievement by enveloping themselves in the colours of a nation that mostly contributed only disinterest, a little part of me burps. When it comes to flags, I’m with Hendrix, only flying the freak flag high.

Football though doesn’t do freak, or subtlety. Football flags are loud and ubiquitous. Objecting to fans waving flags is as futile as objecting to alcohol in a boozer. There’s something primal in the urge to show colours, clearly some instinctive need to belong by bellowing separateness.

The GAA for instance is built on supposed differences established by scrapes of a Civil Service pencil in Whitehall centuries ago. Regional stereotyping is the mostly harmless consequence and it at least results in a geographical edge over the often random choice of an overseas soccer club to pledge allegiance to.

Sense of identity No doubt there’s a profound sociological dimension to all of it. There usually is. Once dismissed as a long explanation for why ultimately no one’s to blame for anything, sociology is an easy gag, the drummer in the college band hanging out with real academics.

However even those most sceptical of the social sciences would probably concede the change in tone when flag-waving turns national. Even at its most light hearted the nationalism card involves an undertow of “them and us” separation, pandering to the profoundly sad fact that so many feel the most distinctive thing about themselves is the random piece of rock upon which they happen to have been spawned.

So much of the next month will come wrapped in faux-patriotism, from the relatively harmless to the systematically cynical, and all of it proving how running to the flag isn’t so much the last refuge of the scoundrel as the chancer’s dying kick. Calling on the flag is what you do when the locker is empty of anything substantial.  For instance all you need to know about England’s hopes in Brazil is that Roy Hodgson insists that Wayne Rooney sings God Save The Queen.

Apparently Hodgson wishes England to indulge in more hand-on-heart posturing as the camera moves along the line, usually the preserve of young nations throwing insecure shapes rather than knowing societies who park their flag-waving nutters to the side or in England’s case, the terraces.

Since Hodgson is apparently quite a cultivated man, one can only presume such craw-thumping is a desperate throw of the populist dice in the face of the upcoming sweaty fiasco which will carry on up the Amazon. But that’s only a triviality. The surest sign of the ethical vacuum at the heart of this tournament came over the weekend when the Brazilian minister for justice sprinted to the flag in a limp attempt to cajole domestic public opinion into ignoring reality.

“All of us want our country’s image abroad to be something we can be proud of,” he said. “We want to be proud of our country.” He added the faintly sinister kicker that it is “necessary” to project a good image of Brazil.

Red-faced Brazil Even Pel

e has joined in on the patriotic riff, briefly suspending his one-man endorsement campaign to point out how Brazil’s failure to have everything pristinely neat in time is a national disgrace, and presumably a reflection on everyone. Just concentrate on backing the team “O Rei” has urged.

You can imagine such sentiments being cheered by a state apparatus keen to peacock Brazil’s supposed economic clout which nevertheless is not up to removing one-in-five of its population from below the poverty line. And anyway it’s too late now to do anything about reports of how much of the estimated $14 billion spend has been corruptly trousered.

No, there’s only time to daub a quick veneer of propriety over the favellas, make ostentatious shows of putting a cop on every corner in case all that gringo tourist cash gets the willies about travelling, and crack down on frivolous protest about healthcare or homelessness that might lower the tone.

Instead the official tone is “All in one Rhythm” – the slogan for this World Cup and a typical piece of corporate vacuity: no one allowed out of step and when everyone’s gone home and the flags put away, it will be back to the daily grind of survival.

The sociology of how those in charge get away with playing the patriotism card so disdainfully against their own people is as fascinating as it is distasteful. Maybe it’s the ultimate “them and us”. And it’s anything but unique to Brazil. We know it well in Ireland too.

Ultimately there’s an “ology” to flag waving all right. And most of us know what it really is.

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