One of world soccer’s greatest tragedies occurred on 15 April 1989 during the FA Cup semi-final match between Liverpool FC and Nottingham Forest. The match was held that day in Hillsborough Stadium, a neutral venue, in Sheffield, England. As was custom, because man’s passion is such that great violence is likely to erupt if one team’s fans are in close proximity to another team’s fans, the supporters of each club were segregated. Liverpool supporters herded into the Leppings Lane stand, a standing-only central pen right behind the goalkeeper. Outside the stadium, as kickoff approached, a large crowd gathered clamoring for entrance. The crowd became so large a bottleneck formed. The authorities decided this was too dangerous a situation and ordered the exit gates to be opened to allow for quicker entrance. Everybody piled in, mostly into the central pens. Unfortunately for those already in the central pens this deluge of newcomers pushed them up against the security fence. The security fence, a safety precaution designed to guard against the dangers of hooligan pitch invasion, in a terrible instance of unintended consequences, was the means by which, in conjunction with thronging humanity, the lives of ninety-six Liverpool FC supporters expired by human crush.
In today’s chapter Petya Rostov nearly falls victim to the same fate as the Liverpool 96. The young boy starts the day in complete secrecy. He dresses himself smartly and sneaks out the back door and heads off to the Kremlin with the idea that he’ll personally petition the Emperor for a position in the Russian army.
On the streets of Moscow Petya meets with crowds of his countrymen possessed by a fervor more feverish, and historically more fatal, than simple sports fanaticism: The frenzy of nationalism. Petya works his way into the middle of a particularly excited crowd and in the process is nearly crushed to death and passes out.
He’s eventually saved but, shortly after reviving, he follows the Tsar to the palace where, with yet another large crowd, he waits in patriotic ecstasy for his Emperor to show himself again. The Emperor does indeed show himself, this time to throw biscuits to the gathered crowd. Petya, risking yet another crush, dives into the frenzy to get at one of the Emperor’s biscuits. He pushes aside an old lady to achieve his goal. Then he goes home and informs his family that like it or not he’ll be joining the army.
There is a foul tribalism that beats in the heart of man. It manifests in many different ways. Sometimes, as it did at Hillsborough, it reveals itself in sports. Often, like with Petya today, it declares itself in the form of nationalism. And despite the rather insalubrious history of our experience with nationalism as a species it remains a popular sentiment to this day. Nationalism is a concept deeply at odds with the cosmopolitanism of A Year of War and Peace. Unfortunately, however, it is a passion deeply rooted in the human spirit.
Be neither of the green nor of the blue party at the games in the Circus, nor a partizan either of the Parmularius or the Scutarius at the gladiators’ fights.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations