Could football be the key to the European debate?

Euro 2016 could be as destructive to David Cameron as the 1970 World Cup was to Harold Wilson.

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There has been much middle-class hand-wringing about whether 200,000 Glastonbury goers - never the most socio-economically or politically diverse demographic - will have registered, or remember to use their proxy or postal votes before they depart for Old Worthy Farm to roll in the mud.

But this has obscured a far more significant voter participation issue – will the involvement of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland in the Euro 2016 championships strengthen support for the Remain or Leave camp?

The largest football festival in Europe, which kicked off this weekend, goes on for 30 days – that’s nearly as long as the EU referendum debate we have already endured. It will outlive that debate too - as England’s footballing fate is decided in the coming month.

Football has long been a national obsession – and it has grown its audience in recent years. A UK record audience of 23.2 million watched the England football team get knocked out of the Euro 2012 tournament. The previous peak came when 17.4 million watched England lose to Portugal in Euro 2004.

This national obsession is also one of the key regular points of interaction British citizens have with Europe - across the domestic and international football schedule, whether it’s the multinational make up of professional teams, or the myriad cups and tournaments that open up city breaks across the continent and visitors from overseas flocking to all corners of the UK. As an example of our role in Europe in action that animates rather than bores or alienates citizens, could Euro 2016 yet inject a dose of much needed passion into the remaining ten days of the campaign?

An estimated 70,000 England fans have fled these shores to Marseilles to watch the Euro 2016 matches live. With all-too-familiar reports of England fans involved in brawling, coupled with strike action by French air traffic controllers, and the overshadowing warnings of a terrorist incident at an international sporting contest – issues of crime and disorder, workers’ rights, and national security are all being given a new impetus and focal point as the story of Euro 2016 unfolds. The latest suggestion that England – and Russia – could be expelled from the tournament following this past weekend’s incidents could be a game-changer were it to come to pass.

It had been widely predicted – although experience teaches it is rarely a good ideas to make such a prophesy, particularly after Saturday evening’s result - that England win their group when it concludes in seven days’ time, there is a strong possibility Romania, Poland, Turkey or Germany will be waiting in the wings as the team’s next opponent. We will find out by Wednesday 22 June – and in case you hadn’t clocked, that is the evening before polling day. That each of these potential encounters would be politicised before it has happened is inevitable – even though the result of that encounter will not be known until the referendum outcome is determined.

Of course England could crash out in the group stage before the nation votes on its future, and maybe English backs will be turned on Euro 2016 before they could even be turned on the EU. Perhaps Wales, Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland will fare better – and will be adopted as England fans ‘ second team, just as the latter often were during the 1994 World Cup where Graham Taylor’s England had embarrassingly failed even to qualify.

It is not the first time that the result of a football could have significant consequences for British political history either. England's unexpected loss to West Germany in the 1970 World Cup quarter-finals just four days before voters ejected then Prime Minister Harold Wilson from office was a far cry from the World Cup victory four years earlier, which perhaps exemplified the mood of his early years.

But even by 1970 three weeks before the election, Wilson had held a 7.5 point lead in the Gallup poll coming off a strong performance in that year’s local elections, only for this to be reversed over the course of a campaign during which Alf Ramsay’s England struggled to recreate the glory of 1966 and crashed out.

Damage to national pride at a time when big questions are being asked could do many strange and unpredictable things to our sense of place in the world, including our place in Europe. As the legendary Liverpool manager and socialist Bill Shankly once said “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it's much more serious than that."

It is quite clear now that this is serious. We’re nearly in stoppage time. For those of us who realise we must reach beyond our own echo chambers to change the minds of our fellow citizens, we could do far worse than change the Euro 2016 story before the final whistle is blown.