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Football at a Time of Crisis

Keep politics out of sport” went the slogan of the old guard back in the days when campaigners tried, successfully in the end, to stop England playing cricket and rugby against apartheid South Africa. But the truth is that politics and sport have been inextricably mixed up since the Roman arena, or since the Blues and the Greens competed in Byzantine Constantinople. Any idea that an international soccer tournament can be staged today without political implications is far-fetched. The latest just happens to be one of the most awkward examples for a while.

Four years ago, “Europe 2008” was one of the best soccer -- or any -- competitions I can remember. It was co-hosted with flawless courtesy and efficiency by Austria and Switzerland, it had 16 teams, the ideal number, it was truly competitive, all the teams deserved to be there, apart perhaps from the hosts who qualified automatically (a Viennese wag had just offered the Austrian national team on eBay), it saw some terrific games, and it had a worthy, not to say exhilarating, winner in the form of Spain.

And whatever unhappy memories there might be from the first half of the last century, the two host countries were by now constitutional democracies with a rule of law. So is Poland today -- but Ukraine? That country’s rulers may have been delighted when they were awarded these Euros along with Poland, but since the competition approached it has only served to throw an unwelcome light on the prevailing repression, corruption and brutality with Ukraine is now associated.

The British government has boycotted the first England game against France in Donetsk on Monday (although that might also be a prudent reflection on England’s likely chances this month). The team itself, like most others scheduled to play in Ukraine, are staying in Poland and flying in and out for games. And black players on the team have told their families to stay at home in England for fear of racist violence. As to the stage-managed visit the England players paid to Auschwitz (“Rooney and team-mates stand in disbelief at atrocities suffered during Holocaust”, an event with which it would appear they had previously been unfamiliar), I may say what I feel about that on another occasion.

Besides there is another unavoidable but unfortunate political resonance for something called “Euro 2012”. What should be a sporting tournament is not to be confused with a collapsing currency, but we can’t help being reminded of one by the other. Plays on the name, and the coincidence, have been made in London papers. The Guardian’s excellent economics correspondent Larry Elliott drew a deadpan forecast for of “The real Euro 2012”, in which Italy -- “GDP growth -1.9 percent, Unemployment 9.5 percent” -- plays Ireland -- “GDP growth 0.5 percent, Unemployment 14.5 percent”, while in the Daily Telegraph the witty Matthas a cartoon of an England team official saying, “We propose a Goals Bond, so that surplus German goals can be transferred to weaker teams.”

Now to the games. The opener between Poland (“GDP growth 2.6 percent, Unemployment 9.4 percent”) and Greece (“GDP growth -4.7 percent, Unemployment 19.4 percent”) was a little flat, but Denmark (“GDP growth 0.5 percent, Unemployment 5.8 percent”) gave a plucky performance to beat Holland (“GDP growth 0.5 percent, Unemployment 5.5 percent”). Apart from predicting with absolute confidence that the cup won’t be lifted by England, I’m not sure as to my tip. I’d like it to be Spain again (despite -- or perhaps as a consolation for -- “GDP growth -1.8 percent, Unemployment 24.2 percent”), but Elliott might be right, about the soccer as well as the currency crisis: “A game of two halves -- and then Germany wins”.