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Border Hopping
Better than the United Nations

And on the eighth day god created football

Tomorrow night in Athens, Liverpool and AC Milan, two of Europe’s best soccer teams, will square off in the Champions League final — the Super Bowl of European football. What are an American-owned team from England and a team from Italy, owned by an occasionally corrupt and recurrent Italian prime minister, doing in Greece, and why should anyone this side of the Atlantic care? Europe’s experience answers both questions.

The Champions League is an unusual concept in sports. It takes the top three or four best soccer clubs from a couple of dozen countries in Europe, randomly splits them into eight divisions, then squares them off in a league of their own over the course of a season in addition to the clubs’ regular games back home. The teams and their fans crisscross the continent during the eight months of competition, replicating the atmosphere of the World Cup or the Olympics without limiting the advantages to one city or one country. As a sporting and business event, the Champions League is a huge success, filling stadiums, shooting up television ratings and filling clubs’ coffers. But it’s also a cultural and political benefit to Europe, adding cohesion between nations in a continent best known, for two millennia before the end of World War II, for its astounding lust for savagery. A peaceful, civilized Europe is a recent phenomenon (and a precarious one, as the Balkan wars reminded us in the 1990s).

The European Union in its various incarnations since 1957 has done a lot to ensure that stability. As odd as this may sound, soccer, and year-long competitions like the Champions League plays a useful role. Proximity breeds familiarity, compromise, accommodation. No European (Britons included) is ever allowed the illusion of thinking his country a cultural or political island. Sports in general and soccer in particular do their part to force interaction.

In comparison, the United States — a nation that prides itself on being the epicenter of globalism and communication — remains painfully ignorant about its neighbors. Canada doesn’t register in most Americans’ consciousness. Mexico is every immigration issue’s punching bag. The Caribbean are a bunch of hotel rooms and Central and Latin America might as well be in Antarctica. True, most Americans couldn’t be bothered with Nebraska (or any of the 50 states and 5,000-odd counties not their own). But it’d be worse without the linkages of sports. Imagine the cultural (and eventually the business) benefits of Champions League-like linkages across North and South America. Starting any kind of discussion involving soccer in the United States is a lost cause. But this could apply to baseball, which doesn’t provoke gag reflexes in the heartland and is played throughout the hemisphere.

The capacity of sports to bring nations together can be overblown. The Olympics are orgies of nationalism on an international stage: Flags loom bigger than athletes. Soccer’s World Cup is only a little less orgiastic as the players’ star power sometimes transcends jersey colors. And no history of violence will ever be complete without a fat chapter on soccer’s contribution. Police forces still don riot gear whenever Turkey and Greece have a match or wherever in Europe English fans roam. Catholic-Protestant sectarianism in Scottish soccer has all the rabidity (if little of the blood) of Sunni-Shiite sectarianism. The 1970 war between El Salvador and Honduras began at a World Cup qualifying match, just as the first burst of violence between Croats and Serbs flared at a 1990 soccer match between the two sides. At a soccer match in Syria in March 2004, one side of the stands was full of Kurds chanting “We will sacrifice our lives for Bush” while Arab fans on the opposite side brandished praise for Saddam Hussein. They brawled. Days of bloody riots spread to other cities and were violently put down by Syrian police. Final toll: 36 dead. Riot police anywhere south of the U.S.-Mexico border love it when Team USA visits: They get overtime.

And yet it would be ridiculous to deny the power of sports to bring people together just because on some occasions fans live up to the origin of their name (fanatics). It’s inexplicable that a nation so hung up on sports and so enamored of misnomers like the “World Series” wouldn’t see the opportunity in routinely living up to those cross-border concepts, as Europe has, with all the attendant benefits of cultural interaction and, of course, more chances to show off local chauvinism. It won’t bring peace in our time. It might be an interesting way of discovering that countries north and south of American borders exist as more than annexes to America’s needs and appendices of its neglect.

The Champions League final will be shown live on ESPN2 at 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday and will be rebroadcast on ESPN Classic Thursday at 5 p.m. The illustration is by phil H. See his great photography here.

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