Ostensibly, it was just a badge on a shirt. Or more specifically, a faint pattern stitched around a badge on a shirt. To the untrained eye, it was simply an outline map of Ukraine woven into the country’s football strip ahead of this summer’s Euro 2020 tournament, delayed from last year by the pandemic. But for anyone familiar with the intricacies of post-Soviet geopolitics, it was a piece of thread with connotations. For the map of Ukraine included the peninsula of Crimea, which remains under Russian control after being annexed in 2014. Emblazoned inside the collar were the words “Glory to the heroes!”, a nationalist slogan that has gained currency in Ukraine since the popular uprising that ousted the then president Viktor Yanukovych in 2013-14.
Lest there be any doubt about the metatext, the head of the Ukrainian football association, Andrii Pavelko, declared that the map would “give strength to the players because they will fight for all Ukraine… from Sevastopol and Simferopol to Kiev”. Sevastopol and Simferopol are both in Crimea, and naturally the launch of the shirt was met with an equally provocative response from a Russian foreign ministry spokesperson, who likened it to a Nazi rallying cry. Deploying the sort of legalistic gymnastics in which it is well versed, Uefa approved the use of the map, but banned the slogan on the grounds that it was a “clearly political” statement.
The Ukrainian shirt affair was only the start. From the moment the first ball was kicked in Rome on 11 June, Euro 2020 has provided not just a feast of football, but a canvas for many of the continent’s political tensions. No sooner had Uefa navigated a careful path through the Ukraine kit conflict than it was embroiled in a new dispute over the vicious repression of LGBTQ rights by Viktor Orbán’s government in Hungary. Black-shirted members of the far-right Carpathian Brigade have been a conspicuous presence at Hungary’s games, chanting homophobic slurs and flying anti LGBTQ banners. In response, many players, spectators and politicians have sported rainbow colours and issued statements of solidarity with the LGBTQ community. One fan waving a rainbow flag even invaded the pitch during Germany’s game against Hungary.
Uefa’s response to all this has been shamelessly equivocal. It forbade the lighting up in rainbow colours of the Allianz Arena in Munich for that game, and there were reports in the Dutch media – later denied by Uefa – that some Netherlands fans were prevented from bringing rainbow colours into the official Uefa fan park in Budapest ahead of their last-16 match against the Czech Republic. Meanwhile, it continued to endorse the odious Orbán regime by considering Budapest as a potential venue for the final and semi-finals if Covid measures prevented the games from being held at Wembley.
On the pitch, matters have been no less fractious. The Austrian striker Marko Arnautovic, who is of Serbian heritage, was banned for one match after reportedly taunting Ezgjan Alioski, his North Macedonian opponent, with the words “I’m f***ing your Albanian mother”. The decision by several countries including England, Wales and Belgium to take the knee before games in protest against racial injustice has been met with staunch hostility, often from the team’s own supporters. A Greenpeace protester who parachuted into the stadium in Munich during a game between France and Germany caused at least two injuries.
Europe’s flagship tournament has never been free of political controversy. Politics has always bubbled away under the surface, most notably in the quiet arrangement by which certain countries – Spain and Gibraltar, Kosovo and Serbia, Russia and Ukraine – are kept apart in the qualifying draw. An event of this size, with the global audience and stage it offers, is ripe for exploitation by those seeking to advance a cause. But there are underlying factors contributing to making this year’s Euros perhaps the angriest in living memory.
For one thing, the dispersal of matches across 11 cities, from Glasgow to Baku, has diluted what has traditionally been as much a local cultural phenomenon as a continent-wide spectacle. Part of the appeal of these tournaments is the sense of congregation, of fans and players from all over Europe converging in a single area, of borders temporarily being lowered. By contrast, Euro 2020 has been the Zoom Euros, a remote, multi-centred tournament that in this era of bubbles and isolation has seemed to reinforce rather than dissolve our apartness.
But the bitter and divisive tone of this tournament is also a reflection of broader trends. The original European Nations’ Cup in 1960 seemed to tap into the optimistic spirit of postwar European cooperation that also helped inaugurate many other institutions – the European Economic Community, the Common Agricultural Policy, the Eurovision Song Contest. Through Cold War crises, the enlargements of the 1980s and 1990s, and more recently through its embrace of illiberal regimes in Hungary, Azerbaijan and Russia, the history of the Euros is in many ways the history of Europe: a battle between the centripetal forces binding the continent together and the centrifugal forces pulling it apart.
As this summer’s tournament nears its climax, with the western European nations favoured to dominate, perhaps we will see politics fleetingly taking a back seat to the football. But from shirt designs to rainbow protests, kneeling footballers to wailing politicians, the Euros has already shown us the true face of modern Europe: a divided and rancorous continent, whose appeal to common values feels emptier and more nebulous than ever.