Football United or Europe Divided ? The Issues of Identity that Beset UEFA’s Euros
16 juillet 2021
When the then Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) president, Michel Platini, announced in 2012 that he wanted to stage the 2020 European Championship as a ‘Euros for Europe’, identity was always going to be a central theme of the event.
Badged as a celebration of the competition’s 60th anniversary, rather than being hosted by a single nation Platini’s intended birthday party was planned as a multi-venue event. Nineteen cities expressed an initial interest in hosting games, with thirteen eventually being selected.
Creating a coherent tournament identity across so many venues was never likely to be straightforward, but Covid-19 and the consequent controlling of fan numbers in stadiums exacerbated the situation (even if the number of host venues was further reduced, to eleven).
Yet even until the last kick of the tournament, when England player Bukayo Saka’s penalty was saved during the Final’s shootout, identity remained centre-stage at this year’s Euros. The English players Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho had also missed their penalties, leading to racist statements being made about the three of them on social media.
This further fuelled an intense debate that had already been raging about what it means to be English. Fans from Wales and Scotland (who also qualified for the competition) were left to look on and instead question what it means to be British and European, particularly as this was the first European national football tournament since Brexit.
Yet questions of ethnic identity and nationality were not simply the preserve of the British. Karim Benzema’s return to the France squad and the national team’s early exit from the Euros led to worrying splits amongst squad members. Matters of identity also reared themselves when Austrian player Marko Arnautovic, of Serbian origin, shouted abuse at two North Macedonian players, who are of Albanian origin.
The action had started early, even before a ball had been kicked, when Ukraine released images of its team shirts just ahead of the tournament. The shirts included in their design an image of the country showing Crimea as part of Ukraine, in addition to patriotic messages celebrating Ukrainians who fought during the 2014 Maïdan Revolution. Russia complained, and UEFA demanded that the slogans should be removed.
However, the geopolitical unease simmering behind the scenes of European football was perhaps best illustrated by the large crowds drawn to the Puskas Arena in Budapest, Hungary. Whilst venues such as Munich’s Allianz Arena staged matches with restricted numbers of fans due to Covid-19, the Hungarian government allowed more than 60,000 people into the capital city’s biggest sport venue.
One of the reasons for this was, according to Britain’s The Guardian newspaper, the country’s extreme right-wing prime minister Viktor Orbán’s ‘strange obsession’ with football. Having spent almost €2.5 billion on football since Orbán came to office, Hungary welcomed the Euros whilst appearing to put the tournament centre-stage in a domestic cultural war.
It was therefore no surprise that episodes of racial and anti-LGBTQ behaviour inside the Puskas Arena were eventually reported to UEFA. Indeed, European football’s governing body ultimately ruled that discriminatory actions had been evident and that Hungary’s national team will now have to play three future matches behind closed doors.
There was, however, a certain irony to UEFA’s ultimate ruling, as earlier in the tournament Germany’s Munich’s Allianz Arena, had requested permission to light-up the stadium in rainbow colours. The request was made in response to Hungary, in the midst of the Euros, passing an anti-LGBTQ law, which was widely criticised by human rights groups. UEFA turned down this request, though Germany’s team captain Manuel Neuer wore a rainbow armband (most notably when his team played Hungary).
There were countless other socio-cultural and political flashpoints at the Euros, though questions of economic identity also played a part in the tournament. A common question amongst many fans of European football was ‘what do those Chinese words being displayed at the side of the pitch mean?’.
Euro 2020 had more Chinese sponsors than it did European ones, raising all manner of questions about what China was seeking to achieve from the tournament, about globalisation, and about the relative decline of European industry.
Among the other sponsors, Qatar Airways drew attention for both human rights issues and the environmental damage that flying inflicts upon the planet. Russia’s Gazprom went into the tournament having just received a US sanctions waiver amid Washington’s concerns about Germany’s growing dependence on Moscow-sanctioned gas deals. The corporation’s environmental record also fell under the spotlight when an environmental activist parachuted onto the pitch during a match.
Although the Euros Final at Wembley will be remembered for Italy’s victory and, probably, for England’s dysfunctional hosting of the match, few have noted that it was also a Puma (Italian team, German brand) versus Nike (England team, American brand) game. Indeed, little reference was made to the boycotts in which both were embroiled at that point.
For Puma, the company was being targeted by activists who claim that it supports Israeli actions in Palestine by supplying the Israeli national team. Their argument is that Israel’s Football Association (which is, coincidentally, a UEFA member) is actively engaged inside illegal settlements on Palestinian land.
For Nike, the has been troubling brewing for some time. Having announced its intention to boycott cotton supplies originating from Xinjiang Province in China, the US apparel brand has recently found itself facing a Chinese consumer backlash. Indeed, one of the Euros unanswered questions is just how many of them decided not to buy European national team shirts because of the boycott.
Ultimately, it can be concluded that European football remains one of the world’s biggest sport events, an economic bonanza for sponsors and commercial partners, and a socio-cultural celebration of everything European. However, in a changing world that is encountering profound geopolitical and economic challenges, the word ‘European’ somehow seems like an inadequate moniker for the complexity of what the continent’s football has just encountered.
This article belongs to the GeoSport platform, developed by IRIS and EM Lyon.