Is Euro 2016 the most politically charged tournament in history?

This summer’s competition has gauged the continent’s cultural and political state

Graham Ruthven

Published: Updated:

The common interests of football and politics are often intertwined. Tribalism dictates shapes both spheres, with those who shout loudest heard clearest. Fundamentally, there are comparisons to be drawn, yet those links have never been stronger than they have been this summer. Euro 2016 is the most politically charged major tournament of all.

The sound of marching is common at tournaments like the European Championships and the World Cup, but not like as has been heard in France this summer. This kind of marching has been the sound of unrest between fans and police, rather than the sort usually associated with the pilgrimage of supporters.

First there was the violence between English and Russian fans ahead of their countries’ group opener in Marseille, with trouble continuing into the Stade Velodrome for the game itself. Russia were handed a suspended elimination from the tournament by UEFA as punishment, with scuffles continuing in Lille between the two fanbases.

Then there were protests in Paris, not concerned with Euro 2016 or anything football-related but with the labour dispute that continues to split France. 75,000 demonstrators marching through the streets of the capital, fighting with riot police, was the last thing the tournament’s organisers needed when they have so many of their own issues to address.

The crowd trouble that marred the match between Croatia and Czech Republic could also be considered political in nature, with the former’s supporters throwing flares on to the pitch in an orchestrated protest against their own country’s football association. To the outsider it was a baffling moment to witness, with Croatia’s players even pleading with their fans to refrain from causing such disruption. But to the informed it was the culmination of plenty pent up frustration within Croatian football.

So why have this year’s European Championships been so political in nature? Is there a pattern to be traced back to an original source, or have a number of different, unrelated factors combined set the tone for this summer’s tournament in France? The latter most likely provides the best explanation, but it’s worth considering the climate Euro 2016 is being played in.

Indeed, Europe is a tumultuous place right now. The ripples from November’s terrorist attacks on Paris are still being felt, with the continent wound tight as a result. Security was beefed up for the tournament as UEFA decided to take no chances over the safety of supporters, players, coaches and everyone travelling to France for the summer. They couldn’t possibly have done any differently, but such measures have contributed to a general sense of unease over the tournament.

Anti-EU messages

Additionally, this year’s tournament is set against the backdrop of the United Kingdom’s referendum on whether or not to leave the European Union, with the vote finally taking place on Thursday. It encapsulates how the continent culturally seems unsure of the way forward at the moment, also explaining why sections of the England support - not normally the most politically-engaged fanbase - have taken to chanting anti-EU messages at Euro 2016.

Football is widely seen as the ultimate exercise of escapism, but a major tournament, played over the course of an entire month, can never truly exist in sheer isolation - particularly when that tournament is played in France. In such a diverse, multi-cultural country within comfortable travelling distance an event like Euro 2016 could never really escape all that renders European society right now.

With the tournament set to contract to just 16 teams for the knockout rounds from Saturday it’s possible that the worst disruption might have passed, with the departure of eight nations and their fanbases easing the demands made of police and security forces around France. Although with Europe’s existential crisis unlikely to be solved in the next few weeks, that might not turn out to be the case.

Major tournaments like the European Championships are designed to provide a gauge of European football’s order and state, but Euro 2016 has done much more than that. This summer’s competition has gauged the continent’s cultural and political state.