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Austrians taunting the French with baguettes is the kind of nationalism we can all get behind

Football is a good outlet for defanged nationalism but light-hearted spaghetti japes should not be mistaken for signs of unity in a fractured continent

Football may once have been a closer expression of its nations’ values and aspirations but now it is divorced from the political milieu. Photograph: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images

In the wake of the second World War, the commanding heights of Europe made several overtures to unite the fractured continent. The Treaty of Rome – which established the European Community, a precursor of sorts to the European Union – would herald an economic and political arcadia (so the thinking went). The Treaty of Paris, meanwhile, established the resoundingly unglamorous European Coal and Steel Community – another supranationalist project that sought to unite nations around a common good rather than individual interest.

There is an irony, then, that the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), founded in 1954, and Eurovision (first aired in 1956) were also designed to heal the spirit of a continent only recently at war and still without true reconciliation. As the political and economic project sought to unite the international community, football and a song contest pitted them against one another. By allowing nations to exercise their nativist passions on the football field or in a pop song perhaps could be enough to keep them away from pitched battle.

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There has been a successful version of this defanged nationalism on display at the Euros this past week. Albanian fans on Sunday were seen playfully snapping dried spaghetti in front of their Italian counterparts, who dropped to their knees in jest at the disrespect paid to their national dish. Austrians took inspiration and taunted the French with baguettes. It’s twee and harmless and exactly what we might want from a contest designed – in part – to launder Europe of its darker and more jingoistic inclinations.

In the 1990s, Britain’s politics was endorsed, propped up and ventriloquised through Brit Pop. Now Starmer has no cultural hinterland at all

But we should beware the football-as-downstream-of-politics analogies. For all the lighthearted spaghetti japes, Europe is hardly a picture of cloudless unity. It is inevitable that the championship – starting just after the elections and running concurrently to the United Kingdom’s and France’s general elections – will be studied closely through the lens of its continent’s politics. Teams will be excavated via all the fissures that have emerged over the past weeks – the fractious right, the nervous centre, the divided youth. It is a tempting way to understand the climate: football, after all, is far more compelling than the fussy process of reselecting Ursula von der Leyen as commission president; far more thrilling than the bureaucratic contours of the European People’s Party’s centrist coalition. But this thinking is limited: football as an expression of national identity has always struck me as a rather tenuous proposition.


Let’s take a look. If Keir Starmer really does deliver the feted landslide – beating even Tony Blair’s 1997 success – and the England team win the Euros, we in the UK will be treated to sprawling state-of-the-nation essays. Many will claim that this was the moment England recaptured its civic nationalism, its quietly patriotic values; the moment it wrested power back from the swivel-eyed Brexiteers and the so-called little England Faragists. It’s a neat yarn but no reflection of reality: this election is a wearying foregone conclusion, born out of Conservative failure rather than love of Starmerism. Farage is succeeding. What parallel can we extract from that for English football? Would Gareth Southgate really seek a parallel for his team in a wearyingly dull election and widespread apathy?

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Meanwhile in France the team is anathema to the nation’s apparent rightward jaunt. As Marine le Pen had a fantastic weekend over the European elections and Emmanuel Macron was bounced into calling a snap election (a risky gambit), the football team stands in stark contrast. On Tuesday, the French captain Kylian Mbappé cut a statesmanlike figure: “I’m calling for a vote against extremists that want to divide the country,” he said. “I want to be proud to wear this shirt, I don’t want to represent a country that doesn’t represent my values.” How ironic that a team full of players with African origin is the poster of French sporting aspirations while Le Pen’s immigration hawk party seeks victory at the polls? Les Bleus are not downstream of the National Rally, and the National Rally can claim no parallel in Les Bleus.

And if we zoom out, we will find similar discordance between the imagined panacea of football and the reality on the ground. The European right is divided − movements born out of nationalist self-interest were always bound to clash; the centre has held insofar as it has recast itself as a right-wing version of the concept; the young are not linking arms in choruses of Kumbaya but instead are overseeing a political splintering along gendered lines that could hold for generations. For all the excitement and good cheer and bon homie patriotism of football, we should be terribly cautious at any attempts to explain the world through its lens.

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This is part of the broader split between politics and culture. In the 1990s, Britain’s politics was endorsed, propped up and ventriloquised through Brit Pop. Now Starmer has no cultural hinterland at all. Football is the same: it may once have been a closer expression of its nations’ values and aspirations but now it is divorced from the political milieu − France and England are perfect evidence. As politics and culture retreat into their silos, the Euros have little explanatory power for anything beyond the football pitch. Beware the snake oil salesmen who claim otherwise.