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(No) Més que football

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11 July 2021
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null - © David Pisnoy

Op-ed

As a German-speaking South Tyrolean with a rather peculiar surname, one is not used to it any other way. With a regularity that is probably a hundred times higher than that of the official language group affiliation declaration held in South Tyrol every ten years (and awaiting us again this year), one is confronted with the question: "Well tell me, do you feel more Italian or Austrian (in rare cases even German)?" Almost always, the questioner, whether Italian, German, Belgian or Argentinean, already has the answer he or she expects from me in mind and the interlocutor almost refuses that I contextualize my answer. It can't be that difficult to answer a simple question! A or B? And woe betide you if the answer does not correspond to the pre-formed concept in the interlocutor's head. Yet society is not A or B, not even in this Alpine province.

Now imagine: it’s the European Football Championship, and the Italian team is playing the most matches possible. After the group stage at the latest, identity was made an issue before pretty much every game. Of course, sport triggers emotions and we know from elsewhere that a club can be més que un club, (“more than a club”, the motto of the FC Barcelona that hints to the Catalan identity the club aims to represent).

The identity questions started with the match against… Austria: Local and national journalists wanted to make the most explosive story possible out of it in the run-up to the match: it was reported that the "derby" would divide the South Tyroleans. “A sensitive, even explosive match.” But was it really? Or was the match just a pretext for placing prejudices?

This anti-Italy attitude of the German-speaking South Tyroleans was a bit artificially invented in the lab (scandal sells and clicks count…), and the attitude among South Tyroleans was quite different: Some kept it diplomatic by wishing victory for the better, others, such as the president of South Tyrol Arno Kompatscher, confirmed once again that he was a fan of the Azzurri. No outcry, no scandal whatsoever for the German-speaking South Tyroleans. That must have been disappointing for the media, and one or two of the journalists probably thought: The variables don't add up. It can't be that it's okay for everyone that president Kompatscher is for Italy. Sure, it's probably more delicate elsewhere and at the moment I can't imagine Puigdemont, Torra or Aragonès openly supporting the Spanish team in an interview. But actually, we should consider ourselves lucky that – for once – a matter is not political but free of conflict in our tiny province. It's football, no més que futbol! At least no more than elsewhere. When a group of alleged fans of the Italian team caused some incidents in the streets of Bolzano/Bozen after the match against Austria, the ethnic conflict was again an issue in the media - apparently it was just a handful of drunk idiots.

Of course, it's true that there are quite some Germany and FC Bayern fans in South Tyrol. But not Austria. That may sound disrespectful now and my Austrian friends may forgive me. But in my childhood, the Austrians were competitive in skiing, but not really to be taken seriously in football. Even Herbert Prohaska, who has been commentating on football matches on Austrian TV for years, is an Italy fan through and through, and so are quite some Austrian friends of mine.

And the very fact that some South Tyroleans are for Germany, and not for Austria, is proof that it is not really a question of identity, even if the media would like to project the Catalan tension with the national team onto us. The reasons are probably much more trivial: some German-speaking South Tyroleans cheer for Germany because German teams - including the glorious national team of 1990 with Beckenbauer and Matthäus - have held their training camps in South Tyrol; because in the past, public TV ZDF and ARD broadcast the Bundesliga and Champions League games (and commentate in German), while you had to pay subscriptions to see certain matches on Italian TV; because as a child you might understand Schweinsteiger's interviews better than Buffon's; because the German team was also simply strong and successful for quite a while... I mean, fan life is more pleasant when the team is victorious.

At the latest during the match between Italy and Belgium, the strongest title contenders according to many experts and football fans, the Red Devils, who many already saw in the final, the European Championship finally arrived in our squares: mega screens were set up in South Tyrolean mountain villages, it was a celebration in pubs and private homes. And at the end of the match, the playlists included Seven Nation Army as well as Un'estate italiana, a hit that is currently the Italian equivalent of England's Sweet Caroline, and which has accompanied the Azzurri and their victories in this tournament. Incidentally, a hit composed for the 1990 World Cup in Italy by – one often forgets – a South Tyrolean, Giorgio Moroder. South Tyrol in football fever. What is nothing unusual for me and many others may not fit into the A and B-concept for outsiders. So much football mania and Italophilia where one would not expect it according to textbooks and history classes.

Then about the Italy vs. Spain match, some said that the Basques and Catalans wished Italy victory and the South Tyroleans wished the Spaniards victory. Well, I don't know enough about the Basques and Catalans. But isn't it a dangerous metaphor that misses the reality check? Isn't it a superficial platitude that simply makes for a good story? Of course, I live in my bubble, like everyone. But in my (German-speaking) environment, among my acquaintances, friends and family, I don't know anyone who was against an Italian win. Even schoolmates of mine, whose political views I wouldn’t be able to assess, have posted loud praises for Mancini & Co. on social media. I know people who don't want to know anything about football, that yes, others are indifferent or against the business behind the football scenes, like elsewhere. But I don't know anyone who is against the Italian national team on principle, just because they are Italians.

I'm the generation that made its first football memories during the original notti magiche (I was seven, in Rimini and it was loud, very loud), that cried with Baggio and suffered in 1998 and 2002, that partied through the night in 2006 (I was twenty-three, in Rome and watched the match at Circus Maximus)... My siblings, cousins and I used to wear our Maldini and Del Piero jerseys to our summer evening volleyball matches on the picturesque Alpe di Siusi/Seiser Alm, and we covered the wooden walls of our grandparents’ alpine hut with Panini stickers of the Italian 1998 team. More variables that one wouldn't expect, especially not in the mountains at 1,900 meters above sea level. The stickers are probably still there, just like the fond, and sad, memories. These moments leave their marks.

But when it came to sport, even my grandpa, who was born in 1923, shortly after South Tyrol became part of Italy, was always cheering for the "Insrign" (ours), meaning the Italians. Again, variables that don't fit into the concept: My grandpa was the generation whose school years were marked by fascism, which banned German language from school and public life, his father opted for Germany in 1939 (to grandpa's incomprehension but he was too young to choose himself), and up to the end of his life my grandpa was a member of the Schützen, a patriotic association – probably more out of comradeship and habit than out of political conviction and patriotism.

In the run-up to the final, there is still no end to the identity questions, or rather they are being asked even more often: On which channel will you watch the game? Well, you must know that in South Tyrol we have the privilege of watching the final on four (or more) channels and two languages: RAI (Italy), ORF (Austria), ZDF (Germany) and SRF (Switzerland). In addition, there are private channels, pay TV, etc. A simple question, you would probably think. But when I say that I watch the matches on RAI, the reaction is often astonishment, almost disbelief, and it makes me feel I have to justify my choice: it's the emotions, the expertise, the volume and the quick commentaries that have become part of my football watching experience and that distinguish RAI from the other channels. But the surprising reaction would be no different and would have to be contextualized in the same way if I said that I would watch the final on SRF, ZDF or ORF. I could actually zap and compare the analyses. Funny note: the commentator on RAI will be a South Tyrolean, Stefano Bizzotto.

When I am asked questions like the ones mentioned above, I have the feeling that expectations (or is it prejudices?) are projected into me, into all people belonging to my language group, that I as a private person cannot identify with mostly.

So, while today, according to polls, almost the entire EU (and surprisingly even the majority of the French) is hoping for an Italian win, South Tyrol will not be a Gallic Asterix bastion either, but - regardless of language groups - there will be those South Tyroleans who meet in the squares to shiver and cheer in blue jerseys and celebrate throughout the whole notte magica, those who watch a football match from beginning to end for the first time in their lives, and those who go to bed early and are glad that there will be space for other, more important topics again from Monday on.

Just like my peculiar last name alone does not disclose much about my political affiliation, my “football identity”, and many other things, society is not A or B. It is not what we read in textbook or learn in history classes. Society changes, probably much faster than the rigid, conservative and sometimes outdated concepts that we have of it. Let’s just have a reality check every now and then.

Petra Malfertheiner

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