Not Just Another Match
England played Argentina in the quarter-finals of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico four years after the Falklands War. It’s hard to say what may have been going through the mind of Diego Maradona when he scored his two goals – the first with his fist, the second with some of the most astonishing footwork ever seen on a football pitch – but he later wrote in his autobiography:
This was revenge. It was like recovering a little bit of the Malvinas. In the pre-match interviews we had all said that football and politics shouldn’t be confused, but that was a lie. We did nothing but think about that. Bollocks was it just another match!
When people say that politics don’t belong in football, they usually mean politics they disagree with. The day before the Euros kicked off, Tory MP Brendan Clarke-Smith, a virulent opponent of Black Lives Matter, praised the Scotland team for ‘taking the politics out of football’ by their decision not to kneel before games although they did later join England in taking a knee ahead of their match.
On 18 June, the Tartan Army celebrated a goalless draw against the Auld Enemy, only the second 0-0 score line of the tournament so far. But when Billy Gilmour, one of Scotland’s most dominant players, tested positive for Covid soon afterwards and had to withdraw from the tournament, their fate was all but sealed. On 22 June, their hopes of progressing were dashed and Scotland left the Euros after a Modrić masterclass: Croatia 3, Scotland 1.
Many Scotland fans will now lend their allegiance to Anyone But England. When Andy Murray was asked in 2006 who he would be supporting in the World Cup he cheekily replied: ‘Whoever England are playing against.’ The riposte caused tennis fans to brand Murray ‘anti-English’, a label which took some time to shake. If he made the comment now I think it would be more readily accepted. After years of Conservative government that very few people in Scotland voted for, why not Anyone But England?
Dieter Reiter, the mayor of Munich, asked UEFA to light the Allianz Arena stadium in rainbow colours ahead of last night’s match between Germany and Hungary. UEFA declined, and issued a statement arguing that their decision was not political but rather ‘the request itself was political, linked to the Hungarian football team’s presence in the stadium’. On 15 June – in the middle of Pride Month – Hungary had passed yet another anti-LGBT law, banning educational materials in schools and pre-watershed TV shows from featuring gay people. The rainbow is ‘not a political symbol’, UEFA claimed, ‘but a sign of our firm commitment to a more diverse and inclusive society’. That assertion meant UEFA had to drop its investigation into Germany’s captain and goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer, for wearing a rainbow armband: if it officially wasn’t a political symbol, then Neuer couldn’t get in trouble for wearing it.
Lighting the Munich stadium in rainbow colours would have meant more to the communities who needed to see it than to those who don’t. Pernille Harder, a UEFA ‘Equal Game’ ambassador who plays for Chelsea Women and Denmark, urged the organisation to take the situation seriously and ‘reconsider moving more Euro games to Budapest’. Instead, a pitch invader waved a rainbow flag as Hungary sang their national anthem.
Meanwhile in the US, the Las Vegas Raiders player Carl Nassib has become the first openly gay American football player to come out while still playing in the NFL. And Megan Rapinoe, the OL Reign and US Women’s National Soccer Team captain, who was a vocal critic of the Trump administration and has spoken out on equal pay, racism and homophobia, is one of the new faces of Victoria’s Secret underwear. Better to boycott the brand entirely but as she doesn’t fit an overtly femme stereotype, although still white, slim and athletic, I can see the statement Rapinoe thinks she is making.
The group stage ended yesterday with four games: first up, Sweden beat Poland 3-2 while Spain, following a pair of lacklustre performances, crushed Slovakia 5-0. Later in the evening, Portugal played France while Germany took on Hungary in a pair of nail-biting 2-2 draws. France had already qualified, but as the score lines shifted over the ninety minutes the other three teams jostled for position in the group table. Both Portugal’s goals came from penalties taken by the age-defying Cristiano Ronaldo (I can’t quite believe he’s 36). Germany came back from the brink against Hungary with an equaliser in the 84th minute to finish second in the group. This means they’ll be facing England on 29 June, when a lot of the people who say that politics has no place in football will no doubt find themselves singing ‘Two World Wars and One World Cup’.