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euro 2012

A woman paints the pattern of a soccer ball on her face at the Euro 2012 fan zone in Kharkiv, some 480 km (300 miles) east of Kiev, June 7, 2012. Four Ukrainian cities will host matches for the Euro 2012 soccer championship.VASILY FEDOSENKO/Reuters

Whither the Euro zone? Is Greece in or out?

For the next three weeks those puzzlers, which have bedevilled the financial world for months, take on an entirely different meaning. The Euro in this case means the UEFA European Football Championship and Greece's in/out status will be decided on the soccer field.

Sixteen European countries, most of them members of the European Union, have qualified for Euro 2012 and, in the context of Europe's tangled economic problems, this soccer tournament transcends a sports competition. Rarely has a sporting event featuring national teams happened at a time when its meaning is so livid. Some might say the Euro soccer extravaganza – 80 per cent of TVs in the 16 countries are expected to be tuned to the soccer – is a three-week vacation from reality in Europe, but it's not as simple as that. International soccer articulates more than a game of two teams chasing a leather ball.

Many of the countries competing at Euro 2012, in Poland and Ukraine, have essentially surrendered their national sovereignty to outsiders – to the IMF, to international banks and bondholders in remote cities. In that context, the Euro tournament is a rare chance for old-fashioned nationalist self-expression to flourish.

For a while, Greece is not an economy hanging by a thread, its future determined by the whims of bankers and politicians in Germany. Greece is an independent country with a national team fighting for the glory of Greece. And for Greece, Euro 2012 has massive emotional significance.

In 2004, Greece came from nowhere in the soccer world to become champions of Europe. That summer, its economy was flourishing and the Summer Olympics were about to unfold in Athens. It was the apex of the period before the crash. One could say that Greece's triumphs led to the cockiness that caused the economic crash. Greece was, briefly, a somebody in Europe, thanks to two sporting events.

Now Greece's place in Europe is back on the soccer field, represented by a team that can't help but be motivated to prove the world wrong about Greece and its famous economic collapse.

The Republic of Ireland is in a similar position. The rise of the Celtic Tiger economy paralleled the tiny country's remarkable success at three World Cups and one Euro tournament. When Ireland's economy soared, the soccer success stopped. Then came the bank crisis, the embarrassing bailout from the EU and austerity. And the soccer success returned.

While only 6,000 Greek supporters are expected in Poland (none were visible in Warsaw on Thursday), Ireland will have more than 20,000. Oddly, in Ireland there a nostalgia for the old days when traipsing around the world following the soccer team was done on the cheap, in battered old cars and by sleeping in tents in city parks. When Ireland qualified for this Euro, the official tourist agency for the tournament sensibly offered a layaway plan. Few could afford to splash out thousands of Euros instantly. But, pay 35 or 50 Euros a week and you could get there, eventually.

Even Spain, the favourite to win Euro 2012, has more at stake than soccer. Spain has the highest unemployment rate in the industrialized world, with 24.5 per cent of the entire work force idle, and it is 35 per cent for its youth population. It's deep into recession and its banks deemed shaky. But this is Spain's era in world soccer – World Cup champions and Euro champions since 2008. Its club teams are the most feared in Europe. Spain does one thing very well – play soccer. A distraction from the economic crisis is necessary but succour from soccer success can have a knock-on effect – a boost in confidence, an optimism that Spain can thrive again.

Portugal, too, has a crisis economy. But it has the best striker in European soccer – Cristiano Ronaldo.

Italy has horrible woes. A teetering economy, high international debt and even, once again, the whiff of scandal about corruption in its soccer system. The Italian prime minister even suggested recently that professional soccer could cease in Italy for two years to weed out the problems. The manager of Italy's national team briefly mused about Italy withdrawing from the Euro, the tournament, not the currency.

If there is a way for Italy to face up to its horrific situation – the economy, the corruption, the political stasis – it is by proxy through its beloved soccer. No soccer at home, no soccer success internationally and Italy would be bereft but maybe that heralds the stark look at itself that Italy needs.

Even for Germany, engine of the EU, the national soccer has deep political and cultural meaning. Angela Merkel is a huge soccer fan, attends many games and has firm opinions of players and tactics. But the German national team is way more than a downtime distraction for Merkel. It's a tool to shape Germany to her liking.

Two years ago, Merkel delivered a speech that sent shock waves around Europe. "The approach of multiculturalism, to live side by side and to enjoy each other, has failed, utterly failed," she said. Those shock waves were propelled by the unease that still accompanies any official announcement from Germany, which ventures, however vaguely, into the areas of what it means to be German. To some, Merkel was brave in saying the unsayable. To others it was a sop to anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim extremists.

But there is another two-word interpretation of what Merkel meant: Mesut Oezil. He's the starlet of the German team, a player of enormous skill and speed. He emerged at the last World Cup and now plays for Real Madrid. Oezil is a third-generation Turkish-German and a practising Muslim. He can be seen on the soccer field reciting the Quran before games. A few days before her speech on multiculturalism, Merkel marched into the locker room of the German national team, embraced Oezil and had her photo taken with him. German soccer officials were furious but Merkel was unapologetic. The photo said it all – Oezil represented her kind of integration into German society. How Germany's multicultural national team does in Poland and Ukraine can mould Merkel's Germany.

There is yet another twist to the nationalist self-expression that the Euro allows. For reasons that an anthropologist might best understand, soccer fans who flock to tournaments indulge in childish celebrations of stereotypes. The Irish dress as leprechauns. The Dutch dress head to toe in orange and many wear clogs. Some French men attend games wearing a beret, false mustache, and carrying a plastic baguette. Every cliché is honoured with humour. The tournament allows that, in a way that the politics and economics of a European Union cannot.

Co-host country Poland, in the EU since 2004 but with its own currency, the Zloty, has embraced the celebration of national stereotypes with gusto. Its theme song for Euro 2012 chosen by public vote in a TV competition, is Koko Euro Spoko, which translates as "clucking cool Euro" and is sung by a folk band of singing grandmothers called Jarzebina, who dress in traditional long skirts and head scarves. Some Poles were outraged by the cliché-soaked Jarzebina, but the majority adored the self-mocking humour of it.

The official Ukrainian theme song is Davaj, graj (Go, play), a piece of generic Euro-disco sung by Ruslana, a generic-looking disco queen. Which doesn't bode well for Ukraine's enjoyment of the Euro or its grasp of the tournament's true meaning.

That true meaning lies in the intricacies of nationalist expression and fervour, both serious and joking, that are woven into the texture of this soccer extravaganza as much as goals, soccer tactics, red cards, yellow cards and astonishment at the referee's decision.