European soccer tournament winner: nationalism

In one week, underrated Portuguese team reaches tournament finals while prime minister becomes EU chief, lifting national pride.

When Portuguese midfielder Nuno Maniche curled a long-distance shot into the upper right corner of the Dutch goal Wednesday night, he capped off what has been a banner week for his small country.

Maniche's goal beat Holland 2-1, sending Portugal into the finals of the European Soccer Championship tournament it has successfully hosted.

"This is a glorious moment for Portugal, a dream come true," Maniche told reporters after the game.

Two days earlier, Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Manuel Dourao Barroso was appointed to head the European Commission.

The marriage of political success with wins on the field has lifted a country that normally identifies itself with mournful, melancholic ballads.

On a continent increasingly bonded through EU common treaties and currency, as well as homogeneous social and economic policies, the quadrennial tournament offers the soccer-crazed "Old World" one of the few opportunities left for a healthy display of nationalism.

"A big part of the European process is being able to keep our national identities," says Christian Schon of Copenhagen, who spent $800 on a last-minute flight to watch Denmark's quarterfinal match against the Czech Republic. "And we all want to keep our soccer teams."

In the past three weeks, terms like "war" have been tossed around only half-jokingly leading up to matches between major rivals like Germany and Holland. Mirroring the euphoria blanketing the country after the Portuguese team defeated a strong Enligsh squad, a newspaper wrote that the win brought the country one of the "greatest collective electrocardiograms in living memory."

"This is important," says Pedro Duarte, as cars with screaming Portuguese fans drove by following the victory over England. "The young people need this, they need to know they can be proud of Portugal."

The country has invested almost $5 billion on the infrastructure, stadiums, and security needed to host the tournament. Meanwhile, Portugal's debt careened out of control and it became the first country to break the EU's Economic Growth and Stability Pact, which sets EU limits on government spending. Unemployment has also been steadily rising.

"We have a lot of social, economic, and work problems," says Paulo Vigo, a soccer fanatic from Lisbon. "Soccer is something that can unite us, that can make us feel national pride."

The belief that soccer can heal what ails the nation is a big misconception, say sociologists. Brazil's magical 2002 World Cup victory took the focus off problems of poverty and desperately needed reforms in the large South American country.

"The success of athletes has a positive effect and brings a more upbeat feeling," said Dominic Malcolm, lecturer at the Centre for the Sociology of Sport at the University of Leicester, England. "But that is likely to be temporary and not likely to overcome very serious problems."

The best Portugal can hope for in long-term benefits, say analysts, is a victory for its image. The country is well on its way.

Organizers' greatest concerns - hooliganism, which has plagued past tournaments, and terrorism - have failed to materialize, and the 1 million visitors have doubled expectations.

"It was a very friendly event," says Paolo Gomes, the deputy head of the committee responsible for tournament security, in an interview. "There are already analysts talking about a new fan culture in Europe."

Fans witnessed a major power shift in this tournament, as small nations such as the Czech Republic, Greece, and Portugal eliminated European soccer powerhouses like Germany, France, and England. The development won't tip the balance of power in Brussels, but it testifies to the equalizing power of the game, say some.

"I think the fact that bigger teams no longer dominate is fantastic," said Desmond McCabe, an Irish businessman and tournament fan. "I think it's a good example of Europe becoming more equal."

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