I don’t watch much golf but I always make an exception for the Ryder Cup – the biennial tournament that pits Europe against the United States.
Most of the commentary this year has been about the lousy weather – although one wonders what the organisers were expecting when they decided to stage the competition in a river valley at the foot of a barren Welsh mountain in the beginning of October. I am from Swansea, 50 kilometres to the west. It is the wettest city in Britain. Living in Brussels feels positively balmy in comparison.
On one level the Ryder Cup is about a bunch of middle-aged men from one side of the Atlantic trying to put balls in holes in less shots than a bunch of middle-aged men from the other side. But on another, slightly more nerdy level, it makes an absolutely fascinating political spectacle.
For a start the European side has adopted the EU flag as its symbol – conveniently forgetting that almost half the countries of Europe are not are in the Union. Usually the only people you’ll see waving the EU flag voluntarily are young federalists and kids attending the European School in Brussels. But during the Ryder Cup, alongside the occasional Welsh, English or Spanish flag, the dominant symbol is dark blue with 12 gold stars on it. It is everywhere – on adverts, insignia and scoreboards and on players’ sweaters, baseball caps and jackets. The only times I’ve seen more European Union flags emblazoned on more people is on EU electoral observation missions in dodgy countries.
“Europe! Europe! Europe!” hollered fans at the Celtic Manor course outside Newport. OK, it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!” but it is quite staggering nonetheless. Although Wales has benefited mightily from EU largesse it is still in Britain – the EU’s most eurosceptic state.
One of the reasons former French president Charles de Gaulle vetoed UK membership of the then EEC in the 1960s was because he thought Britain would be a Trojan horse for the United States. And most continental Europeans I know still suspect that when push comes to shove Britain will instinctively side with America. They should watch more golf.
Another reason the Ryder Cup is intriguing is because it is the only sporting competition I can think of where Europe and the United States go head to head. Every Olympic Games, the European Commission puts out a rather redundant press release pointing out that EU states collectively win more medals than any other country. The problem is the EU is not a nation state but a collection of 27 of them all playing under different flags.
And so it should be. No one is seriously suggesting that Germany, Spain and England merge their football teams – although England may have more of a chance of winning a major tournament if they did. The UK can’t even manage to field a national rugby or football team, instead splintering into England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
There is nothing wrong with national pride – in sporting arenas or elsewhere. But just occasionally it is comforting to see that sport can unite Europeans as well as divide them. I always giggle when I see English football fans – not renowned for their love of the EU – cheering on ‘local’ teams like Chelsea and Arsenal that are almost entirely composed of European players (itself made possible by an EU ruling.) In terms of incongruity it reminds me of the 1990s when Man Utd fans would fly the French flag at Old Trafford in honour of Eric Cantona.
The Ryder Cup is the only major sporting competition where Europe plays as one and often wins as one – Monday’s narrow victory for the Europeans makes it six out of the last eight for the old continent. I don’t want to labour the political point here – it is just a game of golf after all – but it does add weight to the argument that when Europeans club together they can be world-beaters.