By Federico Arcuri
If you are spending your summer break in Europe, it is almost impossible that you have not heard of the latest football tournament, a mediatic event capable of keeping millions of people in front of the screen for hours: the European Football Championship. Being Italian, I was significantly exposed to – and enjoyed – this event, and I found it interesting to observe how meanings that go beyond sports, in particular regarding politics, were attached without hesitation to such a tournament. Moreover, I observed two main different views among my friends: some of them – not exclusively football fans – enjoyed the atmosphere created by the tournament and decided to let themselves undergo the usual ‘ritual’ of cheering for their nation of belonging. Others, on the other hand, criticized football fans as masses of conformists screaming for 11 millionaires running behind a ball, supporting a corrupted and unequal institution. In my opinion, the enormous popularity of EURO2021 inevitably leads to the consequence that significant political and ideological meanings are linked to it. This mass media event should be therefore seen as an important manifestation of popular culture and, as such, it has to be analyzed in order to understand the political momentum of our times.
The economic significance of large sports events is not a secret to public opinion. For instance, it is not surprising to see that Italian GDP is estimated to grow by 0,7 % – 12 bn – after Italy’s victory, and exports are expected to grow by 10%. This is due to the fact that such an accomplishment highlights the country’s attractiveness to the rest of the world, and brings the public’s attention to it. The revenue of the European tournament is steadily growing: EURO 2016 in France generated 1.93bn – a third (34%) upon the prior edition 2012 – and the current edition is expected to have gained even more money. Whereas the economic value of the tournament is well known, its political value is often underestimated, and two articles recently published by The Economist further reinforced this idea: “Football, after all, is a potential ally of every ideology, a perfect canvas on which to project a worldview. […] Where there is attention there is politics, and football is simply too big to ignore.”
I could concentrate on many countries where political debates have been generated by the tournament. For example, the issue about LGBTQ+ in Germany and Hungary, or the ‘Jugoslavian’ tensions between Albanian and Macedonian players. Or, for instance, tensions between Russia and Ukraine, as the latter had a map that included Crimea printed on their shirt. However, I will concentrate on the example of Italy, as its victory generated different reactions from the public, reflecting the polarized political atmosphere of the country. Moreover, due to my origins, I had the opportunity to closely explore this phenomenon. In the following sections, I will explain different interpretations of Italy’s victory.
Firstly, Italy’s win against the hosting team, England, has been widely celebrated by the public and part of Italian politicians as a ‘European victory’ over Brexit. This is exemplified by the new Italian – explicitly Europeist – prime minister, Mario Draghi, as opposed to Brexit-sponsoring Boris Johnson. As the European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni declared on the night of the 11th of July: “Bruxelles is marvelous, completely tricoloured”, claiming that a vast majority of mainland Europe rooted for Italy, in the name of the Union. This ‘pan-European’ instrumentalization of the tournament has been obviously widely employed by Italian left-leaning politicians. What is particularly remarkable is that a huge part of Italian public seems to have internalized such a metaphor. On the other hand, predictably, right-wing politicians such as Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni have not accepted the Europeist interpretation of the victory. Rather, they stressed the patriotic value of the triumph, which showcases Italy’s rise after difficult years, and it symbolizes the country’s right to stand up to Bruxelles to demand its rights. This is emphasized through a discourse that tends to divide Northern EU countries from Southern countries, derogatorily referred to as “PIGS” (Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain) at the times of the debt crisis. For instance, the North VS South narrative became a useful tool for Italian eurosceptics during the pandemic, when multiple European countries (the Frugal Four) opposed the idea of the EuroBond. Curiously, the so-called “PIGS” are the only countries to have won the European Football championship in the 21st century.
Secondly, another line of differentiation among Italian politicians was the debate about the #blacklivesmatter movement. During the tournament, multiple teams decided to “take the knee”, a symbolic gesture that condemns racism, started in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis. In this context, Italy’s team adopted a very Italian strategy: opportunism. Oddly enough, Italian players decided to take the knee only when the opponents did too. Does this ideological confusion reflect Italian people’s overall indifference towards the topic? – Comparing this odd attitude with Italy’s ease in changing alliances during WWI and WWII is ironically tempting. Predictably, the debate was heavily instrumentalized by Italian politicians, as Mr. Salvini strongly criticized the gesture of taking the knee, even celebrating the players who didn’t do such a gesture. Moreover, Salvini attacked a specific observation made by The Economist in the above-mentioned article, which mentions the Italian team’s lack of people of color. Salvini claimed that meritocracy should go beyond these ‘politically correct’ considerations.
But the issue here is deeper. Why are there less Italian black people in sports? The first reason is simply that Italy’s and Spain’s immigrant population is smaller and more recently formed than England’s and France’s. The second reason, however, is that Italy’s citizenship can be only inherited, following the principle of “jus sanguinis”. This means that the children of two foreign people who lived in Italy for their whole life but are not Italian citizens, cannot apply for an Italian citizenship until they are 18, despite growing up in the country. That’s why multiple political parties, including PD, are promoting another paradigm, “jus soli”, which means that citizenship can be acquired by birth within the territory of the state. Even if most jurisdictions adopt a combination of both concepts in their nationality law, a part of the Italian political scene is not ready to change. And this is reflected by popular culture, for instance in football.
In conclusion, I found it very interesting to remind myself how people – both politicians and civil society – choose to interpret the result of a sport competition for the purpose of sustaining their own point of view about complex ethical and ideological debates. This demonstrates how popular culture plays a fundamental role in such political debates, as it may help some individuals or some ideas to gain legitimacy. Accordingly, this shows how football and sports events can be analyzed in a similar way as other manifestations of mass culture. It is time for some intellectuals to leave their ivory tower and understand that human experience can only be understood if it is also analyzed in its most ‘superficial’ aspects.
Edited by Joanna Sowińska, artwork by Emma van den Nouweland