A year later than planned, Euro 2020 kicks off on Friday. While the football could be spectacular — seven of the world’s top-ranked sides are taking part and there will be fans in the stands after a year of silence thanks to COVID — the politics could be every bit as interesting.
There aren’t many potential heart-attack-inducing fixtures (Serbia didn’t qualify, therefore avoiding a potential clash with Croatia) and Belarus didn’t qualify, sparing UEFA, European football’s governing body, from having to decide whether to kick them out.
But there are plenty of other potential flashpoints, ranging from Russia vs. Everyone to England vs. Everyone. Here are a few worth looking out for:
France vs. Germany
Die Mannschaft, on the other hand, are always disciplined and, as ex-England striker Gary Lineker once said: “Football is a simple game — 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.” But the French beat the Germans 2-0 in the last Euros, in 2016, and are favorites to win this time.
There’s more to it than national pride. After Brexit, the balance of power between France and Germany is under great scrutiny. There are voices in France, particularly on the far right, who are worried about what they say is the growing domination of Germany within the European project. The match on Tuesday will be closely watched for signs of who is the stronger partner.
— Clea Caulcutt
Football is one of the last ways to get Belgians to show their sense of belonging to their country. So if the Red Devils again finish as one of the top teams — and they are ranked No. 1 in the world — Belgium will surely see another rare wave of nationalism, with linguistic differences set aside while people dress in red and cheer for Kevin De Bruyne and his teammates. Mind you, coronavirus restrictions mean the mass street parties seen during the World Cup in 2018 are unlikely to be repeated.
Flemish nationalists — who want to loosen ties with the poorer, French-speaking south — will grumble no matter the result, especially as they are preparing to take back control in 2024 after being shut out of the current federal government despite having almost majority support among voters.
— Barbara Moens
Finland vs. Russia
It’s a classic David vs. Goliath story. Finland, still dumbstruck about the fact that it is part of a major football tournament for the first time in its history, will face Russia, which has participated in 11 European Championships, second only to Germany.
A former Finnish defense minister once said that the three biggest threats to the country’s defenses were “Russia, Russia, Russia.” That mantra still applies today. While a loss will see the status quo maintained, a win against its imposing neighbor — and former ruler — would give the country of 5 million the kind of international recognition it can’t get with Moomins and Marimekko alone.
— Melissa Heikkilä
Ukraine vs. Russia
As these two are involved in an actual conflict, a match between them (and the organizers are thankful it won’t be in the group stages), could see the police more concerned about fighting on the field rather than in the stands.
Tensions are already running high, with Russian officials outraged at Ukraine’s kit, which features a map of Ukraine — including Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014, and the territories of Donetsk and Luhansk, both controlled by pro-Russia separatists.
On Thursday, Ukraine was ordered by UEFA to change its kit for the championships after complaints from Russia. One of the slogans — on the inside of the shirt collar and reading “Glory to our heroes” — will have to go, although another slogan — “Glory to Ukraine” on the outside of the shirt — can stay, UEFA said, as can the map of Ukraine.
The acting head of Ukraine’s mission to the EU, Roman Andarak, told POLITICO the row over the kit was “really dangerous because Ukraine is Ukraine. It’s been set in stone.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy entered the fray on Tuesday, saying the kit is “definitely special,” in an Instagram post. The uniform “knows how to shock. It features several important symbols that unite Ukrainians from Luhansk to Uzhhorod, from Chernihiv to Sevastopol,” Zelenskiy said. “Our country is one and indivisible. Crimea is Ukraine.”
— Paola Tamma
‘Dictator’ Erdoğan misses out
Given Mario Draghi called Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a “dictator” a matter of weeks ago, it’s perhaps for the best that the Turkish leader is shunning the opening match of the tournament between Turkey and Italy in Rome on Friday — although he will attend other Turkey matches in Baku.
It does, however, mean that Erdoğan will miss the first-ever female official at the men’s European Championships. Stéphanie Frappart, who was the first woman to referee a men’s Champions League match and a French Ligue 1 game, will be the fourth official in the Turkey-Italy game. Campaign groups in Italy had called for an all-woman lineup of referees at the Turkey game after Ankara withdrew from the Istanbul Convention — a European human rights treaty meant to combat violence against women — and as a response to the sexist treatment of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during her visit to Ankara in April, when she was relegated to a sofa rather than being given a chair.
— Hannah Roberts
Baku makes it presence felt
Among the curiosities of this year’s Europe-spanning tournament is the presence of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, among the 11 host cities. While neither Azerbaijan nor Armenia qualified for the tournament, the conflict between the two neighbors has crept into the preparations. Earlier this week, Azerbaijan refused accreditation to Russian journalist Nobel Arustamyan, citing his past visits to the Nagorno-Karabakh region, where deadly clashes erupted last year, AFP reported.
Azerbaijan’s decision means that Arustamyan — a TV football commentator of Armenian ancestry — will not be allowed to cover any Euro 2020 matches, even those not in Baku. There is a single accreditation process for journalists, but all 11 host countries need to approve applicants. Azerbaijan’s footballing authorities said Arustamyan “violated the laws of our country” for visiting the disputed region without permission from Baku, according to AFP. The decision sparked anger in Russia (also a host country), and the foreign ministry said it was looking for a solution.
In 2019, Baku hosted the final of the Europa League — another UEFA competition — and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, then of Arsenal and now of Roma, who is Armenian, withdrew, citing security concerns.
— Pierre-Paul Bermingham
Taking a knee
The culture wars are also coming to Euro 2020. Footballers have been taking the knee before kickoff to show their support for the Black Lives Matter movement and to protest against racism and social injustice. That’s mainly been in empty stadiums during the pandemic, but fans will be back for the Euros — and they’re not all happy about it.
English and Irish players have already been booed during friendly matches, while other teams like Croatia are planning to stay standing. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has described kneeling as a “provocation” that has no place on the pitch.
There’s a host of reasons why fans don’t all support the gesture — including the idea that politics shouldn’t find its way into sport. Still, images (or sounds) of fans booing players might prompt even more politicians to comment in support or condemnation.
— Hannah Brenton
The auld enemy
Scotland vs. England is the oldest fixture in international football — and the latest edition will take place with a flagging Scottish independence movement in the background.
An unexpected victory over England at Wembley on June 18, something Scotland hasn’t achieved since 1999, would likely heighten nationalist sentiment north of the border. While continuing pandemic restrictions will prevent a major invasion of London by Scottish fans for the game, and reduce the prospect of trouble on the streets, the matchday will be a highly charged occasion.
Politicians in London and Edinburgh are sure to be glued to the outcome. Boris Johnson — an English prime minister of the U.K. who so far won’t say who he’s supporting on June 18 — needs a comfortable England win to quell the separatist fervor sure to be stoked by a Scotland victory. For Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, the game represents a chance for football to supercharge her independence drive.
And if England progress deep into the tournament, they could end up playing France, with whom they almost went to war over fish last month.
— Ali Walker