Who should Mennonites cheer for in soccer’s World Cup?

Netherlands! At least ethnic Russian Mennonites should, those whose ancestors came to Canada primarily in the 1870’s, 1920’s, or 1950’s and still form a good portion of the Canadian Mennonite population.

First let’s acknowledge that soccer is far and away the most popular sport in the world, dwarfing even the Olympics in terms of relevance, and relegating such North American-centric championships like the Stanley Cup and Super Bowl to the status of quaint regional curiosities, barely surpassing caber tossing and camel racing in importance.1200x775xNetherlands-National-Football-Team-2014-WC7_jpg_pagespeed_ic_cX7oCyWOHz

Mennonites have historically distanced themselves from worldly matters but only a few ultra-traditional offshoots still maintain a semblance of rigorous isolation, which is becoming harder to maintain in our ever-shrinking hyper-connected world, and as Mennonites expand their global reach perhaps it is time to contemplate connections to such cultural touchstones like soccer allegiance.

Most soccer fandom is based on identification with nation-states, a sometimes forced, but seemingly enduring mindset. One only has to drive through ethnic enclaves in any of our major urban centres during World Cup season to observe the visceral connection to long departed motherlands that endures through generations. Mennonites have migrated through various regions in our history, but we have remained stateless, so consideration of our allegiances must be more nuanced.

The first obvious candidate is Russia itself. Catherine the Great let us settle in her domain and Tsarist authorities didn’t bother us too much for a generation or two. Thanks, but Russia is a difficult country to root for recently, for much of the last century in fact. The Mennonite experience in Russia did not end well. Many ethnic Mennonites in Canada have horrific stories involving the treatment of their relatives in Russia. There are too many harsh memories. Russia is out.

In any case the area where Mennonites lived near the Dnieper River is part of what is now Ukraine, which did not exist as a distinct country at the time. Mennonites did not specifically identify with their ethnic Ukrainian neighbours, although some of our cultural elements, like borscht, seem to have Ukrainian roots. Politically, I suspect that most Mennonites are backing Ukraine in their current disputes with Russia, but transferring those sentiments to soccer allegiance seems a bit contrived.

Going further back in history, Germany is another possibility but it also did not exist as a defined nation-state during our sojourn in that part of Europe. Even though we picked up the language, it was in Prussia where we lived. One could argue that Prussia is not and never was really German but rather the future Poland.   Rooting for Poland is a bit of stretch and Germany also has some nasty baggage from the two world wars. Mennonite history might have unfolded dramatically differently if Germans hadn’t made their disastrous forays eastward where Mennonites, peacefully minding their own business, were subsequently unfairly implicated through association with German aggression. Language notwithstanding, let’s reject Germany.

That leaves Netherlands as a logical locus for our geographic identity and hence soccer allegiance. 16th century Holland, admittedly also not a nation state in the modern sense and part of the Holy Roman Empire at the time, is as far back as most Mennonites can reliably trace their family history. One could claim that since Anabaptism originated in Switzerland we should root for that country, and it’s admirable record of neutrality has some parallels with Mennonite pacifism, but the historical detail is lacking. Most Mennonite historians would agree that although there was some migration and refugee movement from Switzerland to Holland, Mennonitism grew primarily among the indigenous Dutch population and the extent to which individual Mennonite family names should be attributed to either native Dutch or prior Swiss roots is speculative and uncertain at best. Menno Simons himself was Dutch.  Most of the cultural features that make up Mennonite ethnic identity primarily emerged once we as a people left Holland for points east. For purposes such as soccer allegiance when we need to pick a country, I nominate Netherlands.

Certainly there may be exceptions to Mennonite identification with Netherlands. People whose family history has routed through places like Mexico or Paraguay might have some understandable affinity with those national teams.   Overseas missions have been a long-standing Mennonite tradition and someone who has a decade long connection with, say, Nigeria or Brazil could still feel a strong connection to a place that may well have been where they first experienced the pleasures of the beautiful game. On the whole though, this is a call for Mennonites to cheer for Netherlands in World Cup soccer. I don’t expect many Mennonites to be betting on the outcomes or watching the games in the bars of Little Italy, but perhaps we can aspire to contribute more enthusiastically to water cooler discussions in our offices and staff rooms. Go Netherlands!