White on White
I haven’t watched every game, and I may not have been paying attention, but I don’t think I’ve seen a single cutaway to a non-white face in the crowd at this tournament. I was particularly struck by this during the match between Croatia and the Czech Republic, when all the players were white too, along with the coaches and the officials. (There are no non-white referees. Does UEFA ever think about things like this? I doubt it.) That game was one of an increasing number at which violence has erupted in the stands. Croatia’s fans are notoriously racist but there were no ethnic minorities around for them to target; they beat each other up instead. Euro 2016 has been characterised by its white-on-white violence.
The Croatian team has not always been so ethnically homogeneous. Eight years ago the national side included the Brazilian-born Eduardo, one of the country’s most popular players, who had become a naturalised Croat when he was signed by the Dinamo Zagreb youth team. This seemed to mark the start of the diversification of European football, as players switched nationality at the same time that they moved clubs. (Eduardo had calculated that he was more likely to get into the Croatian national team than the Brazilian one; today that would not be such an obvious call.) It hasn’t happened – the melting pot never materialised.
I can’t remember a tournament with less diversity on view than this one. It is especially apparent among the teams from the fringes, west as well as east, south as well as north. The Iceland team contains no black players and neither does the Russian one. But nor does Spain or Italy. My seven-year old son asked me why the Icelandic players are all ‘Something-son’ and the Croatians are all ‘Something-ic’.
There are exceptions, of course. The French national side remains thoroughly diverse, as are the Belgian and Portuguese teams. But the real stand-out is England. If France win this tournament, there will no doubt be similar hopes and fears expressed as when the country won the World Cup that it hosted in 1998: can a rainbow team represent a nation riven by racial tensions? The ethnic mix of the French side remains a source of political controversy and potential animus. But for England it passes without comment. We take it for granted. By all accounts the England dressing-room is a pretty unified place. Even more striking is the bond that clearly exists between the team and the fans. England’s supporters tend not to be a mixed bunch, but they identify with a team that is.
Watching England’s fans at Euro 2016, it’s easy to make assumptions about them. I would be pretty confident that most of them think we ought to leave the European Union, which is one reason the Remain campaign must be pleased that England look set to progress to the next stage, which will keep many thousands of them in France beyond Thursday. Though more sinned against than sinning, a significant minority still like a fight. It’s tempting to think they represent the ugly side of the nation, at a time when our politics is as ugly as it has been for a generation. But that would be a mistake. Compared to much of the rest of Europe, the England on display at Euro 2016 is a country at relative peace with itself and with the forces of change that surround it.