In the end football didn’t ‘come home’ – nor was it meant to. Euro 2020 was not designed as a celebration of England’s long association with the codified form of the game in the way the 1996 tournament had been. Instead, it was the ‘Eurovision’ of the now-disgraced former UEFA president Michel Platini Set out in 2012 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the competition, it spread games across a number of countries in a celebration of European football (not political) unity.
Indeed, sporting events have a long history of being used for expressions of political agendas dating back to ancient times. Most famously in the modern era was the Nazification of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Even the European Football Championship, in its former guise as the European Nations Cup, saw its first edition affected by political grandstanding; General Franco withdrew the Spanish team in 1960 when they were drawn to play his ideological enemies, the Soviet Union, at the height of the Cold War.
Meanwhile, war-time enmities have also played a part in previous competitions. Memories of the Second World War were a strong motivation for Dutch fans to celebrate so strongly when defeating West Germany in the 1988 semi-final in Hamburg, and even to this day the War is referenced by English fans each time they play Germany. More recently, the vicious Balkan Wars of the 1990s have made their presence felt, with Yugoslavia excluded from the 1992 competition due to UN sanctions. Meanwhile, Albania qualified for the 2016 tournament after being awarded three points from a qualifier against Serbia in Belgrade that was abandoned after violence erupted arising from tensions over Kosovo. The controversy in this tournament over Marko Arnautović’s goal celebration that allegedly targeted North Macedonia players on account of their Albanian origins shows that football remains an arena for highlighting the divisions from that period.
Platini’s vision never entirely came to pass, as Euro 2020 highlighted both the best and worst in sport’s capacity to bring people together and to reinforce divisions. No other country represented these complexities as clearly as the UK. Before the tournament there were large elements within the Conservative establishment who opposed England’s players taking the knee before matches to highlight discrimination not just in football but wider society, where players continue to receive unacceptable racial abuse from those who hide behind the anonymity of social media and even in sections of the established media. Home Secretary, Priti Patel’s criticism of the move as ‘gesture politics’ and saying that people were ‘free to boo’ it, together with Tory MP Lee Anderson’s assertion that he would not support the team unless players desisted from the stand, were hardly consistent with leadership of a progressive society.
Meanwhile, there was rabid nationalism in a section the Scottish press ahead of the final between Italy and England. The front-page mock-up of Italian coach, Roberto Mancini dressed as William Wallace under the headline ‘Roberto You Are Our Only Hope’ was resonant of the worst jingoistic excesses of the English press over the past 40 years, especially in the light of the mutual respect engendered by the England v Scotland match in the group phase.
However, beyond taking the knee, the diverse nature of England’s squad which acted with a complete unity of purpose has seemingly generated a similar reaction across England in creating what the journalist and academic Sunny Hundal has described as ‘a new English identity: confident in its diversity and tolerance, illustrative patriotism’. Arguably, this has been most powerfully seen in the backlash of ordinary Englishmen and women to the vile abuse received by Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka on account of their skin colour following their penalty shoot-out misses in the final. Large sections of the public have also seen through the crocodile tears of the Home Secretary regarding the team’s treatment, and have taken her to task for helping to create a climate to ‘stoke the fire’ of racism as Tyrone Mings commented in the light of her comments. Hopefully, it will be a catalyst for real change.
Unfortunately, expressions of intolerance were not confined to England. The Hungarian FA was fined for the racist abuse of players by sections of the home support in Budapest, whilst UEFA begrudgingly allowed German and English captains Manuel Neuer and Harry Kane to wear rainbow armbands in their second-round clash, but refused permission for the Munich authorities to light up the Allianz Stadium in those same rainbow colours. Confusingly, as an institution UEFA had already pledged its support for the LGBT community and Pride month and had the players wear the ‘respect’ logo on their jerseys, but then took no action as rainbow flags were taken away from spectators in Baku.
In some respects, the European coming together envisaged by Platini did happen. The sight of Finnish fans chanting Christian Eriksen’s name in unison with their Danish hosts after the player suffered an on-field heart attack, was one of the most heart-warming moments of the past month. Moreover, in the face of COVID-19 travel restrictions, the presence of thousands of expatriate supporters behaving impeccably to support their teams in cities like London, Rome and Amsterdam was vindication of the benefits of more than half a century of freedom of movement following the Treaty of Rome, rather than the narrow anti-immigrant discourse of Brexit.
Indeed, Italy’s final victory over England has been viewed with a degree of relief across Europe, especially in the light of the graceless and violent behaviour of too many of the English fans before, during and after the match. If Britain and Ireland’s bid to host the 2030 World Cup is to be successful, it will need to demonstrate that the British – the English in particular – can interact with its neighbours in a collaborative way that is founded on mutual respect and that is able to overcome international divisions in the post-Brexit era. However, sport will likely continue to remain a political football.
Mark Orton is an independent researcher specialising in national identity and sport, and recently passed his PhD at De Montfort University defending his thesis on Football and National Identity in Argentina 1913–1978. You can find him on Twitter @MarkAOrton
Cover image: EURO 2020 – Final Crowds at Wembley Stadium before kick-off at 8PM London time, 11 July 2021, courtesy of Kwh1050 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:EURO_2020_FINAL_Wembley_Stadium_London_11_July_2021_(j).jpg (Accessed 17 July 2021)