Europe is united in its devotion to soccer, right?
Across that continent, Euro 2020 has gripped countries big and small, those that qualified and those that didn’t, because the tournament is an event that binds and builds togetherness among nations just emerging from a brutal pandemic. You might think that. But you’d be wrong. On the field and off, Euro 2020 has exposed a jarring and ongoing culture war; a series of blazing arguments that leave the lingering whiff of Trumpism behind.
Take England, that green and pleasant land. Manager Gareth Southgate and his players, when they make media appearances, should be talking about tactics and formations and speculating on who might be the best link-up man to feed the ball to striker Harry Kane. Instead, these English chaps have been obliged to respond to what the British Home Secretary said on TV the other day.
What Priti Patel said – on GB News, a Fox News clone in Britain – is that she does not support England players taking the knee as a protest against racism and that supporters who agree with her have the perfect right to boo players at matches. Yeah, she did. She gave a thumbs-up to people who boo England players in derision. Specifically, Patel said the England team taking a knee is “gesture politics,” and concluded, “I just don’t support people participating in that type of gesture.” Mike Pence couldn’t have said it better.
She’s not the only one. Other Conservative MPs have said they won’t watch England’s matches because the players have made the tournament “political.”
This is, of course, bonkers. It undermines the England team and it’s divisive. And, you know, Southgate really has enough on his plate figuring out how to beat England’s old enemy, Germany, on Tuesday in the last 16 without his own government making enemy noises.
In France, meanwhile, the return of centre-forward Karim Benzema to the national team has resulted in political umbrage and personal nastiness. (Benzema was dropped a few years ago in a very murky, messy way: There were allegations a pal of his had tried to blackmail another player over a sex tape.) Thing is, France needed Benzema to score goals and that’s what he’s been doing.
But Benzema is a lightning rod. The popular myth is that in 1998, the France team made of white and Black players, from multiple backgrounds, who won the World Cup had healed a country bitterly divided over its national identity. The team won, so the war about identity was over. No, it isn’t.
Right-wing parties in France see Benzema as the epitome of what they despise – young men from the impoverished slums called the “banlieue,” who emigrated from Algeria, or their parents did. Benzema is precisely that. He’s open about his emotional connection to Algeria, scornful of French snobbery and, yes, he’s an uncouth soccer player. Politicians from the right in France lined up to condemn his presence on the national team. One called him “merely a paper Frenchman.”
The issue, really, is assimilation. Benzema isn’t quite French enough even for those who reluctantly admire a national team made up of the children of immigrants. As many as eight of the 11 players France might field at a Euro 2020 match come from immigrant families living in the slums of French cities. But in the touchy arena of French political and social attitudes, they’re graded according to their French refinement. Notably, their best player and most popular, Kylian Mbappé, is emphatically polite, soft-spoken and not the least bit loutish.
Then there’s the Hungary issue. There must have been a massive sigh of relief when Hungary exited Euro 2020. Its capital Budapest was a venue and, in defiance of COVID-19 wariness, the government allowed the stadium to be full, packed with supporters. During the first matches played there, locals chanted racist and homophobic taunts at the players of France and Portugal. The vile slurs can easily be heard on video footage, but UEFA, the rather hopeless governing body of soccer in Europe, has merely said it would “open an investigation” into “potential discriminatory incidents.” That will take about five years to complete, probably.
Then came the Pride colours fiasco. The right-wing Hungarian government has week passed a law banning the “promotion” of homosexuality to minors. Germany played Hungary in Munich last Wednesday and the city council had requested permission to allow Munich’s Allianz Arena to be illuminated in rainbow colours in support of LGBTQ rights. This was a damn fine idea. The Allianz, where I’ve been multiple times, is a fabulous stadium that looks, from a distance, like a giant white pillow tossed in the green fields of Bavaria. Alight in the rainbow colours, which it has been before, would make a clear and rather gorgeous statement. UEFA said, “No.” The Mayor of Munich replied, “I find it shameful that UEFA forbids us to set an example for diversity, tolerance, respect and solidarity.”
There have been other tensions. What we’ve heard about here is Cristiano Ronaldo sitting down for his first pre-match press conference before Portugal’s match with Hungary and removing two bottles of Coca-Cola that were sitting directly in front of him. Rolling his eyes as only Ronaldo can, he replaced them with a water bottle, saying one word, “Agua,” the Portuguese word for water. France’s Paul Pogba, a devout Muslim, looked with contempt at a bottle of Heineken put in front of him at press conference and removed it. But those tensions easily fizzle out, like flat Coke.
Europe is at peace, everybody thinks. Just look at the shared enjoyment of soccer. But look beneath the surface and all manner of battles about social, political and identity issues are being bitterly fought. Like most soccer tournaments, Euro 2020 illuminates far more than tactics, ball possession and technique.
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