UEFA Euro 2016: The Royal Roots of Italy’s Blue

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The colour of the Italian football team is blue. The origin of that can be found in the thousand-year-old history of the Savoy Family, the former Royal House of Italy, and in a medieval battle between Christian princes and the Ottoman Turks.

Four times the Italian national football team has won the FIFA World Cup. This evening Italy plays Spain for a place in the UEFA European Championship quarter-finals. The Spanish national team will be playing in the colours of their flag as is usual for most sporting nations. Contrary to this practice, the football kit of the Italian national team is not in the colours of the Italian flag, the red-white-green tricolour.

Instead the players’ jerseys are blue. The Italian nickname for the team is “gli Azzurri”, the Sky Blues. The specific variant of the colour used is called Savoy Blue indicating its ancient origins.

Blue was the so-called livery colour of the House of Savoy, one of the oldest royal families of Europe. It originated in the Western Alpine Region more than a thousand years ago. The early heads of the dynasty were vassals of the Holy Roman Emperor and ruled on both sides of the Alps: Savoy (Savoie) today is in France; Piedmont (Piemonte) in Northern Italy steadily grew into the Kingdom of Sardinia and united all of Italy during il Risorgimento in the 19th Century.

The House of Savoy (or Savoia in Italian) ruled the Kingdom of Italy from 1861 to 1946. After World War II Italy became a republic. But the national football team continued to play in blue, the colour of the Italian royal family.

The Savoy Blue, according to historians, dates back to 1366 when Count Amadeo VI of Savoy, il Conte Verde, fought the Muslim Turks under a sky blue flag with the image of the Virgin Mary surrounded by gold stars. Amadeo was a cousin of John V, Emperor of Constantinople, who was under attack by the Ottoman Empire. Ever since the sky blue colour has been connected to the Savoy dynasty.

Before the constitutional referendum of 1946 both the Savoy Blue and the arms of the House of Savoy, red with a white cross, were in the middle of the Italian tricolour. The Italian Republic removed the royal arms from the flag.

The Italian football team still wears the Savoy Blue and thus carries the torch for Italian history and the dreams of a football fanatic nation. As always, expectations are high. The goal is the gold, of course.

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UEFA Euro 2016: Northern Ireland’s out-of-use flag still in use

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Northern Ireland is a country without a flag. Almost two decades after the Good Friday Agreement the Northern Ireland Assembly still hasn’t agreed on a flag for this part of the United Kingdom. So, when Northern Ireland’s national football team plays in the UEFA European Championship later today an old and officially defunct flag will represent them.

The flag used by international sporting organisations such as FIFA and UEFA to represent Northern Ireland is the so-called Ulster Banner. It is a white flag with a red cross and has the Red Hand of Ulster on a white six-pointed star together with the British Imperial Crown in the middle. Officially, however, this is not longer the flag of Northern Ireland.

The Ulster Banner was designed for the Government of Northern Ireland which came into being after the partition of Ireland in 1921. The island’s six northern counties remained a part of the United Kingdom. The southern part of the island were to be the independant Republic of Ireland. It adopted the green-white-orange tricolour as its flag in 1922.

The Government of Northern Ireland didn’t last through the Troubles i.e. the violent conflict between Catholic Republicans and Protestant Unionists in the second half of the 20th Century. In 1972 Northern Ireland’s parliament and government were suspended and with it its flag. The Ulster Banner has been out-of-use ever since.

Direct rule of Northern Ireland from London ended after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, but the new Northern Irish legislature hasn’t yet adopted a flag for Northern Ireland. Catholics and Republicans never accepted the Ulster Banner with its British crown and “English” colours – the flag is similar to England’s Saint George’s Cross – and they likely never will.

Therefore, until Northern Ireland decides on a commonly accepted, inclusive new flag design, the international community and Northern Ireland’s national sports teams are faced with a problem.

Flags are an integral and inescapable part of football culture. National teams, their fans, championship organizers and the media use flags all the time, everywhere and in all possible shapes and sizes. A sporting nation needs to have a flag! This is why, during this evening’s match between Northern Ireland and Wales, millions of fans and viewers from all over the world will see the Ulster Banner waving in Paris.

Officially, and maybe also out of respect for Northern Ireland’s Catholics and Republicans, it shouldn’t. But it does. Hopefully the Ulster Banner together with the green jerseys of the Northern Irish team will be seen as a unifying compromise. Green is the colour of Ireland, of Irish nationalism and of Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations.

Don’t let the flag confuse you: The Kingdom of Denmark is alive and well

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Today, in the vast and fascinating world of flags, something very unusual happened. For the first time in history the flag of Denmark was replaced by the flag of Greenland on all Danish government buildings and on Danish embassies all over the world. Don’t worry, though, it doesn’t mean anything.

According to new flag rules issued by the Danish government in March 2016, all Danish state flags on government buildings are to be replaced by the Greenlandic flag, Erfalasorput, on June 21, the National Day of Greenland, and by the Faroese flag, Merkið, on July 29, the Feast of Saint Olav.

Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen has explained the new flag rules with the wish to strengthen the bond between Denmark, Greenland and the Faroe Islands, the three countries which make up the Kingdom of Denmark, also known as the Realm or rigsfællesskabet. His announcement put an end to press speculations, wittily dubbed Flagstaffgate, caused by a decree from the Minister of Finance to count all flagstaffs belonging to Danish state authorities.

What makes this new Danish practice so remarkable is the fact that from now on the Greenlandic and Faroese flags will be hoisted not alongside, but rather instead of the Danish state flag two days a year.

The Danish state flag is the swallow-tailed version of the Danish national flag and is not to be confused with the latter. Whereas the rectangular national flag is being used by civilians – lovingly and enthusiastically and in all sorts of circumstances – the state flag is to be used by state authorities only. And as such it represents the Kingdom of Denmark and is a symbol of its sovereignty over all parts of it: Denmark, Greenland and the Faroe Islands.

Imagine if once a year the Bavarian flag was hoisted instead of the German above the embassies of the Federal Republic of Germany. Or imagine if the UK embassies celebrated Saint George’s, Saint Andrew’s and Saint David’s Day by replacing the Union Flag with the flags of England, Scotland and Wales. Or imagine if Spanish embassies flew the Catalan flag on September 11, the National Day of Catalonia.

These examples are as unlikely as can be! Flagstaffs on embassies, government buildings and military installations are not platforms for symbolic gestures, it would be argued. However, this is exactly what the new Danish flag rules compares to.

But Danes are well-meaning and sometimes shockingly informal people, and there isn’t a very deep understanding of the quasi-federal nature of the Kingdom of Denmark with its ‘mainland’ of Denmark and the two self-governing countries of the Faroe Islands and Greenland. Also very few Danes, perhaps including the Prime Minister, would be able to tell the difference between Dannebrog in its national flag version and its state flag version and the appropriate use of either.

And thus it works: In Copenhagen today the Greenlandic flags on ministerial buildings have, at most, raised eyebrows among those who had forgotten that Midsummer Day is Greenland’s national day. Morning television programmes used the opportunity to invite Greenlanders to talk about Greenland and Greenlandic-Danish relations. On July 29, in an equally positive atmosphere, there will be an opportunity to focus on the Faroe Islands and familiarise Danes a little more with the Faroese flag.

The hole thing doesn’t mean anything, really. As a Greenlandic member of Folketinget, the Danish parliament, said about the new flag rules: “It’s mostly symbolic. I would like the Prime Minister to pay more attention to other, more pressing needs for Greenland.” She and many other Greenlanders want full independence from Denmark someday. The flag of Greenland may replace the flag of the Kingdom of Denmark once a year, but the Realm is still very much political reality in the North Atlantic.