Have you seen Borgen? It’s a Danish television series about a fictitious politician, Birgitte Nyborg, who due to a combination of circumstances is all of a sudden in the position to become the first female prime minister of Denmark (the name Borgen refers to the seat of the government, the Christiansborg castle).
Borgen’s fifty-minute episodes are European television at its very best: political drama, which is both highly intelligent and deeply entertaining, served by clever screenwriting and convincing actors.
At the very end of the first season, when the new session of the Parliament approaches, Birgitte is in a desperate situation: everything – both her government coalition and her marriage – is falling apart, she had to forsake old political friendships in order to survive as prime minister and she has the tabloids and opinion polls at her heels. Her spin doctor is trying hard to find inspiration for her opening speech in Kennedy’s famous inaugural address, turning around the question of national solidarity.
She needs a rallying cry, and she finds it in … football memories:
‘What makes the unity of a country? As a young student, I was on the Rådhuspladsen in Copenhagen on Friday 26 June 1992. Denmark had just won the European football Championship. On this evening, there was no doubt that we were one people. A people who knew the text of its national anthem by heart. And we were stupefied: over 140 years we had grown accustomed to being a nation of good losers. Regularly we got beaten by the Germans. And there, for once, it was us who beat the Germans. (…)
Each one of us, who have the honour to sit in the Parliament, represents 30,000 Danes. They have put all their hopes in us for a better future. I believe that more than ever, we need to demonstrate our responsibility, beyond narrow partisan divisions, short-term thinking, coalition politics, slander. I believe that each of us, personally, needs the others. I believe we are one body, just like our nation. I believe that there is much more that unites us than divides us. I profoundly believe that we are the same human beings as the ones who celebrated on a June evening on the Rådhuspladsen. And for those who might have forgotten the text, I quote one of the last lines of our national anthem: “Our old Denmark will remain”.’
More than a fourth of the Danish population watched the first season (of three) of this series, which is pretty much the same number of people who had celebrated the 2-0 win in that legendary final against Germany in 1992. And it’s not difficult to imagine that many among them, just like the characters in Borgen, could not help but had a smile on their face reminiscing their own personal 26 June 1992.
This quote from the fictitious, but very credible speech of a fictitious, but very plausible prime minister reminds us of just how much football’s emotional power, its capacity to transcend party lines, social classes and generations is unique. As I wrote elsewhere:
‘Football does not resolve a society’s problems. But it puts photos in family albums, which you open years later, amused and touched by yourself, with a smile on your face and a tear in your eye.’
It also reminds us that national unity, which for many seems to ‘go without saying’, always is the result of a permanent struggle to overcome centrifugal tendencies and internal divisions. Nowhere, whatever the official history books may proclaim, has it been obtained in a ‘natural’ or ‘harmonious’ manner.
And in an almost ironical twist, it reminds us that even the Danes, who come out of each global survey on well-being as ‘the world’s happiest people’ (1), seem to be in need of emotional rallying cries, lest they forget their presumably ‘natural’ solidarity.
The majority of Europeans are not Danish, and not everyone is familiar with the history of European football championship finals. But everybody will understand the message in the prime minister’s speech, because collective emotions produced by football are an experience that is shared across borders and social classes. According to the final score, football may trigger euphoria or despair, but whatever the match result, it also has the power of provoking ‘empathy’, the capacity of ‘feeling WITH the others’.
Clever screenwriting! Just slip football into the prime minister’s speech, and your entire European audience will get the message.