Populist displays at UEFA: Is this 2024 or medieval Europe?

Football has become a mirror of society, showcasing the good, bad and ugly that come along with it

Turkish player Merih Demiral makes a controversial hand gesture as he celebrates scoring his team's second goal during the UEFA Euro 2024 round of 16 football match between Austria and Turkey in Leipzig on July 2, 2024.
Turkish player Merih Demiral makes a controversial hand gesture as he celebrates scoring his team's second goal during the UEFA Euro 2024 round of 16 football match between Austria and Turkey in Leipzig on July 2, 2024.

Populist displays at UEFA: Is this 2024 or medieval Europe?

On the green pitch, football players manoeuvre with precision and enviable composure, cheered on by thousands in the stands and millions of viewers watching from home, in cafes, and public squares. The ball seamlessly moves across the field, reflecting not only the agility of the player but the strategy behind each move. Momentum builds up to a climax in the moments before a goal is scored—or just barely misses.

The extraordinary technical prowess and physical exertion of players on display during the knockout stages of UEFA Euro 2024 are almost unworldly. Some players are in the game for more than two hours straight. The term "machines"—once exclusive to German players—can now be used to describe most players.

It is no surprise, then, that football has become such a transcendent sport. It has become a place for fans—and sometimes players themselves—to express their emotions or air their grievances—whether cultural, nationalist or political in nature.

Hamburg shock

While I was in Hamburg, Germany, I was struck by the heavy police presence during the football match between the Turkish and Austrian national teams. I was told this was because riots were expected no matter the match's outcome.

Turkey ended up winning, and soon enough, the street was flooded with jubilant Turkish fans, chanting "Turkiye, Turkiye" and waving flags and images of Kemal Ataturk—an image likely provocative to the average or extreme German nationalist.

But the most jarring moment actually happened during the game. After scoring a goal against Austria, Turkish player Merih Demiral threw up the symbol of the Grey Wolves —a movement known for its racist and supremacist ideology. Demiral knew this gesture would resonate with like-minded individuals—not only among Turks but also across Europe, especially at a time when the far right is experiencing its biggest surge in popularity since World War II.

And when Turkey lost its match against the Netherlands, disgruntled fans flooded the streets, but strangely enough, they started chanting against Syrian refugees. I found it ironic, being that these Turks were themselves the children of immigrants, but it just so happened that the match coincided with a surge in racist violence against Syrian refugees in Turkey, which had reached a peak in the days leading up to the game.

You cannot expect football players not to be influenced by the world around them. They are, after all, products of their societies.

Similarly, German-Turkish star Mesut Ozil knew the implications of his presence with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife in the stadium stands during the Turkey-Netherlands match. While it's uncertain if Ozil attended any German matches, no pictures suggesting such attendance circulated.

Football has become a mirror of society, showcasing the good, bad and ugly that come along with it. You cannot expect players not to be influenced by the world around them. They are, after all, products of their societies, often hailing from poorer and middle-class backgrounds. In Europe, many are the children or grandchildren of immigrants, struggling to integrate into society while also hanging onto their heritage.

But while football may mirror society at times, this doesn't mean that players are as in touch with the people in the street as we would like to believe. Today's athletes—particularly football players—belong to the elite and exclusive club of the extraordinarily wealthy. Most live lifestyles far removed from those of ordinary people. Only on the field—through their running, sweating, falling, hurting, crying, rejoicing, and screaming—are they relatable to the fans watching them. 

Catalonia over Spain

Back in Barcelona, where I live, I met up with a Catalan friend a few hours before the match between Spain and Germany, which ended in Germany's elimination. I jokingly asked him, "Do you support Spain or Germany?" His answer surprised me: "Honestly, I no longer support national teams; I support clubs, especially Barcelona."

When I asked him if he supported Spain in this specific tournament, he replied, "I only started following the tournament now because the knockout stages are the most exciting. I support beautiful play."

This made me realise that Catalans don't necessarily support the Spanish national team. While they might not go as far as supporting the opposing team, their enthusiasm for the national team pales in comparison to their passion for Barcelona.

Catalan supporters unfurl a banner reading "Catalonia is not Spain" in Barcelona, ​​May 18, 2002, during a friendly football match between a selection of Catalonia and the national team of Brazil ahead of the 2002 World Cup.

In my entirely Catalan neighbourhood, the silence whenever Spain scored a goal or won a match was striking. I remarked to my Spanish/Catalan friend, "It seems I am the only one supporting the Spanish team in this area." He laughed, and I told him about the scenes I had witnessed in Hamburg. He responded, "Do you know that there is a large Portuguese community in France? Who do you think they will support if there is a match between Portugal and France?"

A global Hyde Park

For me and many others who find it difficult to separate football from politics, football is indeed a global Hyde Park. It may not be a space for discussing ideas in the traditional sense, but it is certainly a stage where populist and nationalistic sentiment culminates and sometimes erupts. It serves as a barometer of people's beliefs and grievances.

My support for the Spanish national team serves as a perfect example. I can honestly attribute my support to the team, not because I live here but because it recognised the Palestinian state and joined the international court against Israel. I supported Slovenia for the same reasons and found myself, before every match, looking up each country's stance on Israel's war on Gaza. As such, you won't find me cheering on the Czech Republic, Croatia, Serbia, Georgia, Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Hungary, and Albania.

In summary, football cannot be detached from the society around it, and therefore, racism is inevitable. For example,  the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party referred to the non-white players on the German team as "others", prompting one Arab commentator to describe the heavy rain during the Germany-Denmark match as "divine punishment." Perhaps he took it too far, but you get my point.

The same racism can be seen in France. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Rally, slammed the Cameroonian-Algerian French national team star Kylian Mbappe after he urged people to vote in the elections to push back the far right. 

"The French people are tired of being lectured on voting in elections," Le Pen retorted. "Mbappe does not represent the French people of immigrant background because the vast majority of them live at the minimum and cannot afford housing and heating, unlike people like Mbappe."

As the far right seems to be making inroads globally, football— as a mirror of society—will increasingly reflect this surge in populism. I saw an incredibly witty post on X that perfectly captured the current climate. "France v Spain. England v Netherlands? Next week might feel like 1652."

With the massacre in Gaza entering its ninth month and the collective failure of the world—with all its institutions and organisations—to stop it, the world seems to be rapidly regressing. Pretty soon we may find ourselves back in medieval times.

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