How the European Championship explains a divided Europe.

How Football Can Explain a Divided Europe

How Football Can Explain a Divided Europe

The Spot
Slate's soccer blog.
June 29 2016 5:03 PM

How Football Can Explain a Divided Europe

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Belgium’s players celebrate their opening goal during the Euro 2016 round of 16 football match between Hungary and Belgium at the Stadium Municipal in Toulouse on Sunday.

Remy Gabalda/AFP/Getty Images

Here are a few of the things that have happened in the past week in Europe:

Two parts of the United Kingdom, Wales and Northern Ireland, played a football game against one another in the 2016 European Championship, as if they were their own separate nations.

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An island European nation of approximately 330,000—Iceland—sent about one-tenth of its population on a journey to the banks of the Mediterranean, where their football team, led by a part-time dentist, defeated another region of the United Kingdom—England—that was playing as if it was also its own nation.

A French Republic deeply divided over the question of how—and whether—immigrants from its former colonies and their descendants can be integrated into the Republic cheered on its soccer team, made up largely of the children of African immigrants. That team defeated another European island nation, Ireland.

The game contradicted any notion that there is cosmic justice in the world. In 2009 France had kept Ireland out of the World Cup through one of the most notorious acts of cheating in the modern game, when Thierry Henry scooped the ball with his hand and in so doing set up the winning goal.* An Ireland victory on French soil feels like it would have made things right somehow. But of course that’s rarely how football—or life—actually works.

Belgium, meanwhile scored four goals against Hungary: one by a Flemish player, another by Walloon, a third by the child of Spanish immigrants, and a fourth by the child of immigrants from the Congo. Among the other players on the pitch that day were another child of Congolese immigrants, another whose father is from the French Caribbean island of Martinique, and a Mohawk-sporting child of Indonesian immigrants.

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In a week during which the idea of Europe itself has been put to the test, is there a parable in all of this? Can we look to the football pitch to understand what this place—a continent, yes, but also an idea—actually is, and might turn out to be?

There was, first of all, this: an archaeology that helps explain the Brexit vote in the very presence of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland in the knockout round of the tournament.

The fact that three of the regions of the United Kingdom—known, it is true, as “home nations” and tied together by a political compact far older than the European Union—get to play in the tournament is itself an artifact of the vexed relationship Britain has long had with European institutions.

When football’s governing body, FIFA, was formed in 1904 Britain was conspicuously absent, with the English Football Association—along with those of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland—refusing to join. The founding nations of the organization were France, Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland, and its lingua franca was French, the acronym from the organization the result of a Franco-English linguistic mash-up: Fédération Internationale de Football Association.

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It was only in 1946 that the four British football federations agreed to join what by then had clearly established itself as the leading global institution in football. But they negotiated a return not as one nation but as four. So it is that England, Northern Ireland, Wales, and Scotland are among the non-nations that exist in FIFA as nations—alongside places like Palestine and New Caledonia—and allow the organization to brag that it has more members than the United Nations. The four also are members of the UEFA, the Union of European Football Associations founded in 1954, which organizes the European Championship.

The United Kingdom, furthermore, holds four seats out of eight on the powerful IFAB, the International Football Association Board, which governs the rules of the game and is the body that determines if any changes will be made to these rules. The other four seats are filled on a rotating basis by FIFA. The United Kingdom, then, are essentially the Permanent Members of this board, whose power is considerable.

At least one of these nations has performed some lovely football here. Fans have been treated to the spectacle of a Welsh team whose play has been one of the highlights of the tournament. Gareth Bale’s stunning goals (and his excellent hair) have been a pleasure to watch. The Welsh fans (along with those from Iceland) seem to best embody what it means to be part of a nation, belting out their nineteenth-century anthem in Welsh, celebrating a “land of poets and singers, and people of stature,” whose “brave warriors” and “fine patriots” are all willing to “shed their blood for freedom,” or at least for football.

 When Wales faces Belgium this Friday in the quarterfinals, it will be an encounter between two entities representing the ironies of contemporary Europe. While Wales feels like a nation, even though it isn’t one, Belgium is a nation that doesn’t really feel like one.

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Several decades of profound internal conflict between Flemish and Walloon groups over language, culture and politics have created a curious and in many ways dysfunctional patchwork of bureaucracy in the country.

Immigration has transformed Belgium, with 70 percent of the capital of Brussels born abroad. And that city has been transformed by the project of Europe itself, its central city home to the massive buildings that govern the European Union. The recent terrorist attacks in Brussels have only increased the tensions and uncertainties around the nation’s future.

Belgium’s football success in recent years, however, has been striking: from being one of the lowest-ranked teams on the continent, absent from international competitions, they have now risen to near the top of the FIFA rankings, spending much of this past year as number one. This is the result of a concerted project by the Belgian Football Federation to improve its recruitment and training of young players. They have worked hard to incorporate all of the countries communities, notably immigrants and their children, into the process.

The results are on display each week in the English Premier League, where a series of talented Belgian players play on top teams. Of course having talented players on a team is never enough—as England has shown spectacularly this tournament—if there isn’t a strategy and a sense of cohesion and coherence on the pitch.

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The Belgian team is one of a series in Europe today in which players of immigrant background play a prominent role.

This has long been the case of the French team, which has had players of African and North African background on the national team since the 1920s. When they won World Cup at home in 1998—the last time the country hosted a major tournament—they did so with a team famously composed of delightfully multi-ethnic cast of characters, most famously Zinedine Zidane, the child of Algerian immigrants.

More recently the German team has also featured prominent players who are the children of immigrants. Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who played his last games for his nation during this tournament, is the child of a Bosnian father and Croatian mother. Though it was only in 1979 that the English team first included a black player, today they are central, and offered up some of the few bright spots in the lineup during a generally lackluster team performance. The Welsh player Hal Robson-Kanu, meanwhile, is of Nigerian background. Certain teams, however – particularly Italy and Spain—have many fewer children of immigrants on their roster.

I’ll be rooting for Belgium on Friday, and not just because that’s where I was born.

When you cheer on the Red Devils, you can’t forget that you are cheering for an idea rather than a reality, and that in a way that idea only exists on the football pitch.

The Belgium that takes shape on the pitch is actually so far from the nation it purports to represent. The team, at its best, is coherent, bringing together disparate languages and histories, a place where immigrant communities are not just welcome but understood as fundamental to the future of the nation.

With Radja Nainggolan’s Mohawk, striking tattoos, and powerful strikes on goal, Kevin De Bruyne constantly moving about the midfield and sending in his beautiful arcing passes, Axel Witsel lurking dangerous around the box, Romelu Lukaku eternally in front of goal but only rarely actually scoring, Marouane Fellaini permanently on the sidelines but looking strangely happy about it, the team is funny, and fun to watch, taking themselves just seriously enough but not too seriously.

Once upon a time the French team—particularly during its 1998 World Cup run—represented something like this too, and it still does in a sense. But the rounds of hope and disappointment around the team, both about what they could do on the pitch and the extent to which they could change society itself, have now become a bit exhausting in their way.

Each new controversy around race, immigration, and the make-up of the French team just seems like a new act in an interminable and unresolvable drama. But at their best, as in their game against Ireland, they still can deliver a burst of joy through their fluid, attacking play, and the idea of a France vs. Belgium final is certainly an attractive one.

If it comes to that I’ll feel pretty divided, though I’ll probably root for Belgium. It’s not that I harbor a hope that the Belgian team can really change the country. I’m just glad that, for a few hours, we can imagine something different, finding a bit of energy through which to confront the fact that that today’s Europe seems less and less what it could be.

*Correction, June 30, 2016: This post originally misstated that Thierry Henry's infamous handball took place in 2005.