After more than three weeks of competition, Euro 2016 is proving to be far more than just a simple football tournament. From the opening game the obvious nerves of the security services have made it seem less like a European mini World Cup between 24 qualifying nations and more like gladiatorial combat between two rival belief systems – liberty, equality and fraternity defended by all the powers the third French Republic has to offer versus the medieval extremism propagated through the internet by the relatively new thug on the block, the Islamic State.
The game of football has always echoed the politics that surrounds it, from Real Madrid and Barcelona being on opposite sides of Franco’s dictatorship, to the brief “Football War” fought between Honduras and El Salvador in 1969. Yet today it appears to be even more embroiled in politics than ever. During the group stages and prior to the UK referendum result, England supporters were heard shouting pro-Brexit slogans along with the usual xenophobic mantras at passing French shoppers in Marseilles. To cite the Euro 96 tagline, football isn’t so much coming home this time as going out and looking for a barney.
Watching the renowned Russian Ultras breaking up the street furniture and brawling their way across France, it was difficult not to think of Putin or the current mess he is orchestrating in Ukraine. Both teams are already safely out of the tournament, but imagine if Russia and Ukraine had been drawn together? Never mind the odd flare and a punch-up, these opposing supporters would have been launching mortar shells at each other from opposite ends of the ground. A pitch invasion, impotently observed by the referee and his pocket book of fluorescent cards, might have involved air support and heavy artillery.
The French Trade Union movement is also taking advantage of the situation to protest the government’s proposed employment reform laws. Some fuel depots, ports and power plants have been blockaded, accompanied by the usual amount of noisy sloganeering and ancillary hooliganism. However, everyone loves a football tournament, especially if your team is doing well, and so daily life goes on.
In the same week 51.9% of the befuddled British public voted to leave the European Union, an unimaginative performance by the England team also ensured their exit from Euro 2016. Subsequently, both managers, in the forms of David Cameron and Roy Hodgson, have felt the need to resign, while voters and football supporters face a similar period of uncertainty and the same troubling thought that they may have been duped by the incompetence and vain ambition of those in charge.
In one sense the main objective of the European project has always been that rival European countries should be able play each other at football rather than have to resort to warfare. However, in spite of unprecedented Welsh progress, a divided Britain, recklessly encouraged to hark back to the days when Britannia ruled the waves, has narrowly decided that they think they are better at the latter.
Strangely, victory for our hospitable French hosts will not depend on their ability to reach and win Sunday’s final. It will be in showing the world they can host an international sporting tournament while defending themselves from terrorism. In this contest with the IS the best the French can hope for is a nil-nil draw, without extra time and penalties, reflecting a zero body count and the absence of any major terrorist incident. Putting the situation into perspective I’d like to be able to say “after all it’s only a game,” but clearly for some, it isn’t.