A political guide to the European soccer championships

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The geopolitical action in Europe may be at the leaders summit of the Group of Seven nations in Cornwall, England. But on Friday afternoon in Rome, the real battles begin. Italy hosts Turkey in the opening fixture of the UEFA European men’s soccer championships, arguably the sport’s second-most popular international tournament after the FIFA World Cup. This year’s iteration, still dubbed by its organizers as Euro 2020 in recognition of when it was supposed to be staged, is being billed as a coming-out party of sorts for the continent after months of pandemic-induced stasis.

“It will be the perfect opportunity to show the world that Europe is adapting,” Aleksander Ceferin, president of the UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, told reporters. “Europe is alive and celebrating life. Europe is back.”

A lot could still go wrong. The tournament will be staged across a complicated geography of 11 cities in 11 countries. Covid-safe bubbles will be difficult to maintain, because many participating athletes have yet to be vaccinated. Allowed attendance sizes will vary by nation. And outside the venues, traveling fans and journalists will journey through societies with varying levels of exposure and immunological resistance to the coronavirus.

The pandemic has already cast a large shadow over proceedings. Positive tests for star players on several teams, including Spain and Sweden, have plunged preparations into crisis. The national soccer bodies of various participating tournaments are trying to fast-track vaccines for their players, even as wider populations still wait for their first doses.

But there are other Euro 2020 story lines that have the attention of Today’s WorldView.

The act of “taking the knee” was first popularized by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick as he waged an often lonely fight against systemic racism and police brutality. In the United States, Kaepernick’s act became a polarizing gesture and inflamed right-wing opinion. But in a quirk of our interconnected world, his protest has arguably gone far more mainstream in Britain.

After last summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations crossed the pond, it became standard practice throughout the English Premier League season for players to drop down on one knee before their matches. England’s young, talented and diverse team has continued the practice, as have other (though certainly not all) European national teams — specifically those that have players of African descent in their ranks.

But some right-leaning English fans, like their American counterparts, are displeased with the gesture. And when Ireland played Hungary in a recent friendly in Budapest — the site of the only stadium that will be filled to maximum capacity during the tournament — Hungarian fans jeered when the Irish team took the knee.

Right-wing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban dismissed the protest as a phenomenon tied to “slave-owning countries,” one that had “no place on the sports field” and had nothing to do with his own nation. “Looking at it from our cultural point of view, it’s an incomprehensible thing, a provocation,” he said this week.

Black athletes, meanwhile, claim that the hate that gets thrown their way across the continent — including in countries in Eastern and Central Europe — is only getting worse. “I think racism in football right now is at the all-time high,” Belgium’s star striker Romelu Lukaku told CNN, suggesting that the unchecked spread of bigotry on social media was partly to blame.

What’s in a shirt? For Russia and Ukraine, it’s decades of history, memory and political strife. Earlier this week, Russian soccer officials delivered a complaint to UEFA authorities after Ukraine unveiled its tournament jersey, which depicts a map of the country and the slogans “Glory to Ukraine!” and “Glory to the heroes!” The Russians were irked by the nationalist chant, as well as the presence of a map of Crimea — the peninsular territory that Russia unilaterally annexed in 2014 — and said the use of such “political motives” was in violation of UEFA regulations.

UEFA responded Thursday, dismissing Russia’s objection over Crimea given that much of the international community still recognizes the territory as part of Ukraine. But it did mandate that Ukrainian authorities remove “Glory to the heroes!” — stitched on the shirt’s inside collar — just days from their debut match.

The slogan is part of a popular nationalist refrain that was revived amid political upheavals in 2014, but which Moscow links to World War II-era Ukrainian nationalist groups that had Nazi ties. UEFA ruled that the slogan’s “historic and militaristic significance” contravened its guidance on political symbols, even though the sporting body had approved the shirt’s design months ago. Bemused Ukrainian officials were in talks with UEFA to reverse the decision Thursday, according to reports.

The dispute comes amid a broader spike in tensions between Russia and Ukraine. Kyiv will watch closely as President Biden meets Russian President Vladimir Putin early next week. In an interview Wednesday on Russian state television, Putin warned Ukraine against pursuing further discussions about joining NATO, claiming that most of the country’s Russian-speaking population had no desire to ally itself with the West. (Opinion polls suggest that may not be true.)

“They don’t want to wind up on the firing line,” Putin said. “They don’t want to be bargaining chips or cannon fodder.”

Return of the prodigal son

“If I score, I’m French. If I don’t, I’m Arab.” That’s what Karim Benzema, a gifted French striker of Algerian descent, said in 2011 in a magazine interview. The Real Madrid forward was gesturing to his perceived mistreatment at the hands of French fans as the national team went through a fallow period.

The post-colonial character of Les Bleus — the bulk of its best players in recent decades hail from France’s minority communities — is constantly in the spotlight. In moments of success, such as the team’s victory at the 2018 World Cup, France’s stars get cast as peerless agents of national unity and strength. When things aren’t going so well, as was the case a decade ago, they are vulnerable to attacks from the right.

Benzema has spent a half-decade in sporting exile from the French team. He was ostracized in part because of his role in a tawdry blackmail scandal involving another teammate. But he also claimed in 2016 that French coach Didier Deschamps had bowed to pressure from the “racist part of France” after excluding him from team selection. Far-right firebrand Marion Maréchal-Le Pen tweeted at the time, “If he’s not happy here let him go and play for his country” — a reference to Algeria. Benzema reportedly explored seeking permission to make that switch in 2019.

But now he’s back after mending fences with Deschamps and will make what is already the most terrifying forward line in Europe even better. French President Emmanuel Macron — initiator of a state process of reconciliation with Algeria, a former colony — celebrated Benzema’s return in an interview Thursday with France’s BFM TV. He described Benzema as a “model for success” for the country’s immigrant youths.

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