Euro 2016: The power of football to unite

On the eve of Euro 2016, which kicks off in Paris tomorrow, Chris Bond looks at why this competition, and football itself, is so important.

English and French fans sang La Marseillaise in a show of unison and solidarity at Wembley last year. (PA).
English and French fans sang La Marseillaise in a show of unison and solidarity at Wembley last year. (PA).

If you’re not a football fan and the idea of another fortnight of the EU referendum debate makes you want to run screaming for the hills - then you may want to switch off your telly for the next few weeks, as it’s going to be wall to wall footy and Farage.

A dream ticket for some, for others it’s their worst nightmare. But while the EU referendum feels like it’s been rumbling on for longer than War and Peace, Euro 2016 seems to have crept upon us without the usual fanfare.

Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that the expectations of English fans, scarred by a litany of pre-tournament hype and serial underachievement, are now aligned with a more sober assessment of their team’s chances.

The competition kicks off tomorrow in France and home nations supporters are buoyed by the fact that England are being joined this time by Northern Ireland and Wales, plus the Republic of Ireland, with only Scotland left forlornly kicking their heels after missing out on the party.

And let’s hope it is a party. Gary Linker once quipped that football is a simple game. “Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.” Against England, save for a few notable exceptions, this is usually true.

But the European Championships, or the Euros as they’re also known, have a habit of springing a few surprises. In Euro 92, Denmark only took part in the tournament after Yugoslavia, which was caught up in a civil war, weren’t allowed to take part.

Despite having just a week’s notice to get a squad prepared, the underdogs became unlikely champions less than a month later having beaten mighty France, Holland and Germany along the way.

Twelve years later and Greece, footballing minnows on the international stage, pulled off an even greater surprise when they were crowned kings of Europe.

The exodus of hopeful football fans for Euro 2016 is well underway, but it’s taking place against a backdrop of terror threats across the Channel. The Foreign Office has told fans travelling to France for the tournament to be vigilant at all times, saying there was a “high threat from terrorism”, with stadiums, fan zones and train stations possible targets.

The warning came after officials in Ukraine arrested a Frenchman apparently inspired by extremist right-wing beliefs to plot a series of attacks. Intelligence officials said the man was carrying two rocket launchers, explosives, detonators, five Kalashnikovs and 5,000 rounds of ammunition.

It was a stark reminder of the huge security operation that has been moblised. It is less than seven months since the horrific attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead and the memories of that dreadful night are still raw.

Football, though, has helped play a part in the healing process. Less than a week after the deadly attacks England played France in a friendly match. Fans turned out in force for a game that was about far more than football, as Wembley rose as one for an emotional, and stirring, rendition of La Marseillaise.

It may not have changed anything but as an act of solidarity and defiance it was a powerful message to the world that “terrorism can’t win.”

Football often gets a bad rap but its popularity hasn’t dimmed over the years. In 1996 the chant was “football’s coming home” and for a brief, jubilant moment it felt like it was.

Twenty years on and Europe feels like a more fractious and uncertain place. George Orwell once wrote that “international football is the continuation of war by other means” and he might be right.

But it also has a unique ability to bring people together. And that is something worth celebrating.