Political Football

As some parts of Europe prepare for Jean-Claude Juncker’s “Club of the Few” while others fall by the wayside, it’s time to look back at how we got here. Nothing unites Europeans like football, and this year’s Euro 2008 tournament is turning out to be one of the best in a long time, maybe ever. What else could have us feeling sorry for Switzerland and cheering for Austria? Isn’t Europe a more harmonious entity without the English? Would Brussels be paralysed by protests today if Belgium had qualified? And would Ireland have voted No if they were in the tournament?
Part of the fun of football is the way in which it overturns the international order of power politics.

The US, Russia and China can be expected to top the medal charts in the Olympics, as usual, but Croatia had already triumphed over two of the Great Powers – England and Russia – in qualifying before beating Austria and Germany last week. Up next: Turkey, the former Ottoman Empire.
Most of Europe got a, er, kick out of Croatia’s victory over Germany last week, in what everyone was too polite to call the Group of the Third Reich. We could all feel sorry for Poland once again as Germany beat them with two goals from a player born in Poland, Lukas Podolski. More surprising was the sense of joy when hard-working Austria levelled the match against Poland in the final minute, an emotion brought on in part by the dismay at seeing co-hosts Swit-zerland get knocked out the night before by a last-minute Turkish strike.
Still, it wouldn’t be Europe if there weren’t some quarrelling and quibbling over arcane regulations. The Irish No “dramatised the inability of European leaders to persuade citizens of the benefits of complex documents that most find impossible to understand” as the Financial Times put it.
Ruud van Nistelrooy’s opening goal against Italy showed that most fans are unaware of some rules that govern the common project.
There was more of the same ahead of the France-Italy match as millions tried to work out the permutations based on the outcome of that encounter and the simultaneous Holland-Romania game, as everyone wondered whether Holland would pervert the competition rules to suit its own interests.
The second round throws the question of who’s In and who’s Out into stark perspective. France will be less enthusiastic about new EU member Romania after failing to beat them in the so-called Group of Death. Croatia’s defeat of Germany, on the other hand, sparked by 20-year-old Ivan Rakitic, is enough to guarantee them a welcome across the rest of the Continent. The long-standing question of whether Turkey should be In our Out looked to be resolved with 15 minutes to go against the Czechs, before the Turks over-came all odds and their own ambivalence to get themselves definitively In.
This is one European project that will go ahead without France, and, quite possibly, Germany. France are decidedly Out, having been too loyal to ageing stars, a policy that nearly also cost Italy a place in the next round.
In the quarter-finals Germany may not be able to cope with the vibrant Cris-tiano Ronaldo, still only 23, while Spain can count on 22-year-old attacking midfielder David Silva and the creative skills of the even younger Cesc Fabre-gas. Whoever wins out of Russia and Sweden will struggle to cope with Hol-land’s youthful exuberance. In this European project at least, if not the now stalling wider one, it’s youth and new ideas that bring success.