At a time when the whole future of the European Union as a functioning entity has been thrown into doubt, the astonishing Ryder Cup victory of “Team Europe” against the USA must come as a desperately needed psychological fillip to those employed in keeping the supranational dream alive.
After all, a Brussels press release put out at the start of the tournament quoted Androulla Vassiliou, the European commissioner responsible for sport: “This is the only major sporting fixture in which Europe plays as a single squad, rather than as separate nations, so it’s a chance for all European sports fans to get behind the same team. And as everyone knows, when Europe plays as a single team, we are a match for anyone!”
You might say that the remarkable turnaround in Chicago on Sunday night, when a seemingly impregnable fortress of a US lead was battered and then broken, proves Ms Vassiliou’s point. But this particular manifestation of European unity had actually been nothing to do with the Commission or with politics at all.
The Ryder Cup, since its first official competition in 1927, had been between players from the United Kingdom and the United States, with the addition of Ireland to the UK team after 1973; but after too many one-sided US victories, it was the dominant American golfer of the day, Jack Nicklaus, who persuaded the authorities to recast the event as one between Europe and the US. Since that change in 1979, Europe has managed to win the event more often than the previously all-conquering Americans; never more spectacularly than the one just completed.
So there were a lot of 12-starred European flags being waved at the Medinah Country Club. Yet they seemed to be out-numbered by the Saltires of the Scottish fans at the closing ceremony. The reason for this might have seemed evident when the master of that ceremony suddenly invited the First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, to address the audience – an honour reflecting the fact that the next Ryder Cup is to be held at Gleneagles. But as soon as Salmond was called to the platform to speak, the cheering from the fans instantly turned to boos. This instantaneous response had the valuable effect of reminding us that while politicians think that sporting success is something from which they might gain reflected glory (and thus more votes), the public understands viscerally that someone like Salmond has as much to do with golfing triumph as he has with the discovery of North Sea oil.
There is, I suppose, a sense in which the politicians of the European Commission could gain some genuine solace from Team Europe’s golfing exploits in Chicago: the players were representing a Union which has otherwise failed lamentably to gain popular democratic support for the trappings of European nationhood – as witness the rejection by national plebiscites of the Lisbon Treaty, which had attempted to achieve exactly that. The point, however, is that just because golf fans from the United Kingdom cheer on a European side against the Americans, it does not follow that a single one of them would be the more likely to advocate joining the euro (the most important element of pan-European supranationalism); and the real reason those fans are cheering the European team is because it includes all the best of the British.
More significantly in the context of the current crisis afflicting the euro, the fact that Europe’s Ryder Cup team was captained by the wonderful José Maria Olazábal, or that the putt retaining the trophy was sunk by Germany’s Martin Kaymer, does not make it one iota more likely that Berlin will be less tough with Madrid when it comes to negotiating terms for a possible bailout of Spain. (The only inference we might be able to draw from Kaymer’s nerveless finish, knocking in the decisive six-footer without a flicker of concern even as the watching millions on television must have been almost unable to look, is that it will make the England football team still more convinced that they have no chance against Germany in a penalty shoot-out.)
But one should always be wary of seeking political meaning in sporting success, which too often leads to a form of hubris. This, as the tragedians of Ancient Greece taught us, is inevitably succeeded by nemesis. It is exactly what happened to modern Greece. In 2004, it was not merely the host of the Olympics: it won the Euro 2004 football tournament, the European basketball championship, and for good measure, the Eurovision song contest. As the Greek-born economist Vicky Pryce has observed, the nation was suffused with an unjustifiable sense that it was “on top of the world”. This was at the same time as it was building up completely unsustainable public-sector debts – not least in funding various Olympic sports stadia at hugely inflated cost.
Perhaps an even starker illustration of the complete disconnect between sporting success and economic and political good health is provided by the German Democratic Republic. That nation of barely 17 million beat the mighty US to come second in the medals table of the Olympic Games of 1988: yet within two years it had ceased to exist.
If Eurosceptics, despite these warnings of deriving false messages, insist on re-interpreting the Ryder Cup victory of Team Europe in a way consistent with a desired political outcome, I can provide them with some interesting statistics from last weekend’s event. While it is true that a German sealed Europe’s retention of the trophy, over the competition as a whole all the heaviest lifting was done by players from the United Kingdom (which provided seven of the 12 team members): and the only Team Europe players who failed to win a single match were those not from the UK. This is hardly surprising. A look at the current official World Golf Ranking list reveals that while the UK has four players in the top five (Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Justin Rose), the highest-ranked player from the European mainland is Spain’s Sergio García, down at number 19.
This suggests a mischievous thought, that we reinstate the original Ryder Cup format of the UK versus the USA: two genuine nation states, mano a mano. We would, of course, employ the same argument that Jack Nicklaus used back in the late 1970s, but in reverse: that it is clear the US has been struggling for a long while, and, if they want a chance to win, we are sportingly willing to make it a little bit easier for them.