Political Football at the Euros

posted by Geoff Andrews at Sunday, June 24, 2012

Anticipation at the beginning of a major football tournament is always high and given the quality of players on offer as the 2012 European Football Championships kicks off in Poland and Ukraine, this one should be no different. Yet, there are several reasons to be uneasy and many causes for pessimism over the future of the ‘beautiful game’. The venue itself has become the subject of critical public scrutiny, with Britain’s decision to follow other European partners in refusing to send government ministers during the group stages of the tournament in protest at the treatment of former Ukraine PM and opposition leader Yuliyu Tymoshenko, and concerns over civil rights and the rule of law in that country.

Serious evidence of racism in Ukraine and Poland, which was made clear in BBC’s Panorama programme (‘Stadiums of Hate’) on 28 May, has resulted in fewer than normal English supporters travelling and the threat by players from several teams to leave the pitch if they become the subject of racist chants. UEFA President Michel Platini’s statement that they would be booked if they do has hardly quelled that concern.

The tournament starts against the backdrop of other serious problems faced by some of the leading teams. The match-fixing crisis in Italy has already seen the withdrawal of one squad player and has recalled earlier scandals which preceded previous tournaments. This included the even more serious ‘Calciopoli’ in 2006, an earlier match-fixing scandal that had repercussions for several leading teams and led to the relegation of Juventus then (as now) the Italian League Champions and the 1982 betting scandal which involved their leading player Paolo Rossi. As Italy went on to win both tournaments they will hope that the sense of solidarity at times of crisis – some call it a siege mentality – will work again in their favour. However, they have some fiery players, notably Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano, who can be very unpredictable.

England has faced its own ‘political’ problems, beyond the injuries to Lampard, Barry and others. As we know the omission of Rio Ferdinand for ‘footballing reasons’ has fuelled speculation that there were other motives behind the decision reasons given that his England centre-back partner John Terry will soon face trial for racially abusing Rio’s brother Anton. The decision to delay the court hearing until July – some nine months after the incident took place – has the potential to envelop England in another political storm (particularly if Terry makes any important errors) and has already accounted for former manager Fabio Capello.

The economic crisis in Europe may not directly impinge on the tournament itself but it will be significant for the supporters and many political leaders will know the boost a good performance can provide for the flagging self-confidence of the nation. Two of the countries hit most severely by the euro crisis, Greece and Spain, have quite contrasting expectations. Greece will find it tough (and could give another meaning to ‘early exit from the Euro’) while tournament favourites Spain will hope that another victory can bring relief from a rapidly declining economy and rising unemployment.

Much attention will be on the tournament hosts and Ukraine in particular, with its future as a modern European nation still in doubt. Apart from the debates about whether stadiums would be prepared in time, there have been concerns over whether the country should have been awarded the championships at all given its human rights record, as one of the most repressive of the post-Soviet states. The prevalence of racism in the stadium could lead to wider implications and the UEFA officials will be holding their breath that this does not erupt into a major controversy. Ukraine has many unresolved questions, notably corruption and inefficiency, which may implode in a very public way over the next month.

Unlike Ukraine, Poland has gone a long way to rebuilding infrastructure and tourism and is now a settled democratic state. However, there have been some major polemics concerning the hosting of the Russian team very close to the Presidential Palace in Warsaw. This location is a regular site for meeting of nationalist groups who blame a Russian conspiracy for the plane crash in 2010 which killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski. Nikoloy Komarov of the Russian Football Federation however, has dismissed any fears of reprisals and has said rather optimistically that ‘sport is beyond politics’.

The view that sport is ‘beyond politics’ has been repeated by Ukranian government officials in pre-tournament polemics. Yet, politics continues to shape the decisions of UEFA and FIFA, football’s governing bodies, regularly embroiling Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini in controversies, while the power of big business and commercial sponsorship continues to clash with fan expectations; the recent decision by the owners of Cardiff City to insist the club change their colours from blue to red being interpreted by many as putting their global brand before the local club.

However, there are now some progressive alternatives. AFC Wimbledon and AFC United have offered more democratic ownership models, while the growth of grassroots fan movements and associations like Kick it Out have challenged racism head on. Athletic Bilbao, who won many plaudits for their attacking style in recent months, recently organised a season-long Three Sided Football competition in association with the Guggenheim Museum of Art which brought together artists, writers and local players. This was followed by a three sided match played in Bilbao’s Bullring, the Plaza de Toros, involving Athletic Bilbao, a team of International migrants based in Spain, and my club Philosophy Football, which play in shirts inspired by the thoughts of Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre and Eric Cantona. The theme of all these matches was ‘Thinking Football’, namely a call to return football to its grassroots and to celebrate the simple pleasures of the beautiful game. With so many creative players on show at the Euros, let’s hope the tournament is remembered for these values.