Although most American sports fans are not paying attention to the climactic moments of the World Cup drama that’s been playing out in South Africa, most of the rest of the world is paying close attention. The finals, which will match Spain against The Netherlands, take place Sunday, July 11.
Having just returned from Europe, I could not avoid these games, although my own preoccupation was in getting nightly baseball scores and how my favorite team was doing.
When it comes to Europe, incidentally, I love the way current news, even sports news, almost always manages to bring up some historical irony, paradox or coincidence.
Five hundred years ago, this year’s matchup could not have occurred because Spain and The Netherlands were one country ruled by the same king. Phillip II was a Spaniard who married the queen of England, thus also making him king of England. Phillip lived in The Netherlands, but came to believe that the Spanish part of his vast empire was more important than was the rest of his kingdom. So he moved back to Spain and heavily taxed his Dutch subjects, provoking a revolution that eventually separated the two countries.
The leader of the Dutch revolution was a man named Prince William of Orange, and after Phillip II had him assassinated, his son became king of the Netherlands. Later, he also married another royal Princess Mary of England, and so he also became king of England. The English later made a German, George I the king of England, and that Hanoverian German line of the British throne continues to this day — although the royal family had the good PR sense as the 20th century world wars with Germany approached to change the royal family name to “Windsor.”
Actually, World War I was fought mostly between large kingdoms whose heads of states were cousins. King Edward VII, the son of Queen Victoria (who had married her first cousin, a German prince), was the cousin of German Emperor Wilhelm II, the grandson of Queen Victoria. The mother of Czar Nicholas II of Russia was an English princess, and later Danish princess, and sister of Edward VII and daughter of Victoria. The Czarina Alexandra was the first cousin of Wilhelm II.
Before 1914, all of these folks used to hang out together at fabulous parties during holidays at various castles, palaces and resorts owned by them or the nobility over which they presided in opulent 19th century splendor. More recently, Queen Elizabeth II, the United Kingdom’s current chief of state of the United Kingdom, married a Greek prince who was, like her, a great-great grandchild of Queen Victoria, but also directly related by blood to the last Russian czar. Even today’s heir to the British throne, Prince Charles, has married the direct descendant of the woman who was the mistress of his great-great grandfather, Edward VII.
Confused? It gets much more complicated than this. I haven’t even mentioned the blood relationships of the other European royal families to the Hapsburg dynasty, which ruled Austria-Hungary for 300 years and was the other large kingdom during World War I. The Hapsburgs intermarried so much that they developed their own genetic deformities.
Since I know most readers probably don’t care about World Cup soccer or European royalty, I only mention this in light of the current crisis in the European Union, where leaders have been trying to advance their tentative economic cooperation into a true political union that would take away the remaining sovereignty of each member nation.
If the European leaders of a century ago were closely related to each other, played and socialized with each other, and then fought some of the bloodiest wars in history against each other, what makes anyone think that the Europe of today will give up their national and cultural identities, and turn their governments over to bureaucrats? I have suggested in previous columns that such a political union simply is not going to happen any time soon (if ever). Should any proof be needed, just try to imagine a future World Cup in which all of Europe is represented by just one team.
Right now, the Flemish half of Belgium is trying to secede. The Scots are trying to break away from the United Kingdom, as are the Welsh. The Catalans have their own parliament, and would like to separate from Spain, as would the Basques. As for the former Yugoslavia, it is now broken up into numerous small independent countries, and they are still fighting. Czechoslovakia is now the Czech and Slovak republics, respectively. There are separatist impulses in Romania. Andorra, San Marino, Lichtenstein, Monaco and Vatican City remain as microscopic nations placed as punctuation marks scattered throughout the continent.
The dreamers who thought up the notion of Europe as a single nation were bureaucrats who put mechanical efficiency and centralized power ahead of anything that Europeans might wish for themselves. The nations of Europe will always have an economic interdependence on each other, but language, culture and customs of a 1,000 years cannot, and should not, be dismissed by bureaucratic fiat.
Just look to the World Cup finals for why this is so. Aupa Espana! Hup Holland! May the better team win, and may they all come back for the next World Cup.
Barry Casselman of the Preludium News Service is an author, journalist and lecturer who has analyzed presidential and national politics since 1972.