Friday, 10 June 2016 10:43

Euro 2016 — What to expect from the European festival of football

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Unbenannt 1
Photo courtesy: Isabell Wutz; Photo: ais3n (flickr), Licence: CC BY-NC 2.0; Photo: Stewart (flickr), Licence: CC BY 2.0; Photo: Aljeandro De La Cruz (flickr), Licence: CC BY-NC 2.0; Photo: Raimond Spekking (Wikimedia Commons), Licence: CC BY-SA 4.0; Photo: Nazionale Calcio (flickr); Licence: CC BY 2.0; Photo: Adam Kliczek (Wikimedia Commons), Licence: CC BY-SA 3.0; Photo: Szater (Wikimedia Commons), Licence: no copyright; Photo: Christian Kadluba (flickr), Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0; Photo: FrankieF (Wikimedia Commons), Licence: CC BY-SA 4.0

Tomorrow, on the second day of the 2016 European Championships, the Xhaka brothers will walk out to face each other. Granit, the younger, is perhaps the more famous and has just sealed a big money transfer to Arsenal. He represents Switzerland, while his brother Taulant will be wearing the colours of Albania.

This situation is illustrative of the way in which migration, which continues to be one of the hot-button issues across the continent, has penetrated sport, too. Mr. and Mrs. Xhaka were Kosovan Albanians who emigrated to Switzerland shortly before their sons were born. Football's occasionally arcane nationality rules meant that the brothers could, in essence, choose who to represent from several options. The Swiss team is a particularly strong example, with stars such as Xherdan Shaqiri and Valon Behrami sharing a similar background too, but sides such as France, Belgium and Germany also present stories on the same inclusive theme. They are European in every sense, sides which have taken in the best and most talented regardless of circumstance.

Indeed, one of the sadder moments of the build-up was the racist outcry when a German confectionary manufacturer printed a picture of Jerome Boateng on the packaging of one of its products. Awful as this is, it's a reminder of the fact that in many ways, the multiculturalism of many national sides is, for want of a less soppy phase, heartwarming. The irony that vast swathes of the European population who have spent the past eighteen months bemoaning migration will spend the next few weeks cheerfully supporting teams full of players whose families fled earlier conflicts is a poignant one.

Photo: Steindy (Wikimedia Commons), Licence: CC BY-SA 3.0
Albanian national football team with Taulant Xhaka. (4th from the left, front row)

Of course, as with most sporting events, political narratives like this will impose themselves on the games whether the players or coaches like it or not. Another is the ongoing fear of terrorism, given the recent attacks in Brussels and Paris. It is hard to, metaphorically, move for in-depth pieces examining the implications on this tournament of last November's events in Paris.  The best is perhaps this, by the BBC's James Gheerbrant, and it feels difficult to improve upon his discussion. Essentially though, there is a feeling, as there was 18 years ago when France hosted the 1998 World Cup, that this tournament is important for the country at large — that the success of a team full of young stars such as Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann, and of the hosting team, might unite France a little in the face of threats both internal and external.

Whether this happens, of course, remains to be seen. The cliché of the somewhat combustible French national side has been borne out several times at recent tournaments. (And they have had a worrying number of defensive injuries too, although that might bode well for a high scoring competition...)

Elsewhere, there are ways in which what happens in France might affect our futures. Humorously, or terrifyingly depending on your point of view, some in the UK have suggested that England's success or otherwise on the pitches of Marseille and Lens could influence the coming 'Brexit' Referendum.

For fans, this may end up being the last festival-esque internation tournament for a while. It is a struggle to see Russia or Qatar putting on particularly fan-friendly World Cups, whilst the next European Championships is slates to be a special pan-European affair. (Held across 13 cities Europe-wide, it's likely to be logistical nightmare too, but this writer may be pleasantly surprised.)

International football itself has not exactly had the best year or so, with its governing bodies beset by revelations about endemic corruption. Euro 2016 will be the biggest (apologies to the centennial Copa America) tournament to take place under the auspices of the new FIFA President, and a smooth tournament could help Gianni Infantino's standing.

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Photo: Guillaume David (flickr), Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Stade de France where the first match of the tournament takes place: France vs. Romania.

All of this said, perhaps the background is beside the point. There is certainly enough on-pitch action timetabled. The newly-expanded 24 team competition has allowed some new faces to take their place at a major football tournament. Iceland and Albania have both qualified for their first top-class international event, whilst Wales, Northern Ireland and Slovakia will be gracing the European Championships for the first time. There's also space for a Hungary team for the first time in decades, although the fear is that their current side will struggle to live up to the legacy of Ferenc Puskas or Sandor Kocsis.

Traditional continental powers such as the French, Germans and Spanish start out as favourites, but this tournament has always had the potential to surprise (Greek and Danish victories in 1992 and 2004 respectively are up there with Leicester City's Premier League victory when it comes to unpredictable triumphs) and teams such as Poland and Sweden who are both armed with lethal and charismatic strikers in the shape of Robert Lewandowski and 'I am Zlatan' Ibrahimovic will fancy their chances. A talented Croatian side could also do well, and though I said I'd finished talking politics, wouldn't it be fantastic for a side from the former Yugoslavian bloc to triumph. Austrians may also be hoping that an exciting team— 'dark horses' according to many pundits— which is built around Bayern Munich's David Alaba can distract from their own recent political drama.

What this means is that, on the back of one of the less predictable football seasons in a while (at least in England) there is much room to be optimistic about the sporting action lying in wait for us. It's not hard to find a storyline or two to follow over the next four weeks, even if you're not inclined to watch hours of football. Me, I'll be following them all and hoping that a few dozen football matches will, at the very least, entertain and thrill people across Europe.

Somehow, I've made it to the end of this piece without mentioning that Iceland is the smallest nation (with a population of roughly 300,000) to ever compete at the European Championships. Their match against traditional heavyweights Portugal could be some game. I'll let you know how it goes.

All in all, the tournament is poised very nicely indeed — there's a lot at stake over the next month or so.
Last modified on Friday, 10 June 2016 12:10

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