Brexit and borders: why Europe badly needs Euro 2016

Football fans can be tedious at the best of times, but we’re rarely as sanctimonious as when discussing the social, cultural and political importance of our game.

You thought that 22-year-old’s inability to clear the first man with a corner kick was down to poor training? I’m sure we can find somebody to tell you it’s symbolic of the colonisation his ancestors faced. Somebody, somewhere, is writing a blog about how the Syrian conflict could be ended through a robust game of three-and-in.

American Football has the Superbowl but Association Football has the Hyperbole.

All that notwithstanding, it really does feel that Europe badly needs Euro 2016. Not since the RAF was the main airliner in German skies has the continent been quite so dysfunctional.

Britain wants to leave. Austria and Slovakia are building borders. Poland and Hungary’s democracies look about as legitimate as a Fifa expenses claim. Greece is collapsing under EU-imposed austerity and a union-wide belief that a country’s obligation to protect refugees is entirely dependent on its geographical proximity to them. Across the continent, political forces are rising that are so archaic they make Martin O’Neill’s sense of humour seem forward-looking and progressive.

These are relatively grim times to be European. Opinion polls in Britain suggest that by the time we reach the knockout stages only 15 of the 24 countries taking part in Euro 2016 will be members of the EU. The fact that the Brexit vote is scheduled for just the day after the group stages end leaves open the tantalising prospect of England crashing out of Europe twice in a week. Those campaigning to remain in the EU will be hoping the count doesn’t go to penalties as that would surely seal their fate.

For once many in England will be relishing an early exit from Europe.

Of course, the EU and the European Championship are not linked — one is a temporary coming together of independent nations which critics argue has grown too commercial and too large and the other is a sports competition — but the situation does highlight the extent of European disunity. Two countries taking part in Euro 2016 — Russia and Ukraine — are essentially at war with each other and could meet in a second round match in the Paris stadium where militants from one of the other competing countries — Belgium — attempted to massacre supporters of two others — France and Germany.

In the midst of all of this, football can play a positive role. Twenty-four countries, with a combined population of about 720 million people, will take part in a sporting celebration over the coming weeks. A significant number of the participating countries — including the hosts, France — are increasingly internally divided. It is difficult to think of anything with a greater unifying potential than an international football tournament simply because football is the one thing that people from all backgrounds and cultures participate in. That may sound like a line from the sanctimonious football fan playbook, but it’s the truth.

According to the online NetBet Multicultural Championship tool, Romania is the only country in Euro 2016 whose squad is entirely comprised of players neither born outside of the country nor born to immigrants. Thirty-one players in the competition are representing a country other than their country of birth, while a further 96 are sons of immigrants. The website calculates that 65 per cent of the French squad have non-French backgrounds, while the figure for Belgium is 57 per cent.

Having both recently been victim of appalling acts of terror that have brought religious and ethnic differences to the fore, the streets of Belgium and France will, over the coming weeks, see immigrants and natives rally under one flag. The lasting impact that this will have is debatable — the feel-good factor generated by the multicultural French team who lifted the World Cup in 1998 did not appear to last — but it does give an opportunity, at least in the short-term, to foster a sense of unity.

On a wider level, Euro 2016 may just rekindle that sense of European identity that has always seemed a bit vague but over recent times has begun to vanish entirely.

Of course, there is always the chance that the sporting rivalry will serve only to remind us how much we hate each other — that Austria’s clash with Iceland will reopen old wounds over the awful war of 1235 we’d all forgotten about, or that by Wednesday evening the streets of Tirana will be thronged with people burning croissants after another Gallic handball. Stranger things have happened. Greece won the bloody thing in 2004.

Euro 2004: the most unlikely event in European history, and arguably the most tragic.

But maybe this can be a tournament to bring us together. Maybe this can be a tournament where a Belgian of Arab descent, an Austrian forward born in Pakistan and a Muslim midfielder wearing the blue of France can make people realise that diversity is strength.

It’s a long shot, but sometimes in football that’s all you have.

First published on on June 9th, 2016.

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