With the 2016 European Football championships set to kick off in France just days from now on 10 June the continent—and the world—has been whipped into a football frenzy. Sadly, the shadow of another “F-word”—fear—also looms large over the current tournament. Interpol has warned that there is a ‘high threat’ of a terror attack, while British and American governments have warned their citizens to be vigilant during the tournament that runs from 10 June to 10 July. I have written about security concerns during major tournaments in the past, and this event—following the November 2015 attacks in Paris that targeted a football match—is certainly a prime target. Worryingly, it was reported that up to 82 of the 3,500 workers hired to provide extra security during the tournament are on French terror watch lists despite being screened by French intelligence. Given that this tournament is being played in the context of current political and cultural tensions—a climate where even wearing a Crusader’s outfit to support England will “offend” Muslim sensibilities (I personally find the costumes more comical than offensive)—it is interesting to take a look at a few of Euro 2016’s matchups that will hold interest for the historically minded fan in terms of political history.
11 June 2016: Albania – Switzerland, Stade Bollaert-Delelis (Lens)
Even though the countries are miles apart literally and figuratively, this match is important in the context of recent demographic changes stemming from geopolitical developments. Tirana is a little less than 1,000 miles from Bern and Albania’s Gross National Income (in Purchasing Power Parity) is 10,980 USD to Switerland’s 59,160 USD–a full one sixth of the wealth. Yet on the football field, the two are closer than geography and economics can explain. The population of Switzerland is almost four percent Albanian, following emigration stemming first from the collapse of communism in 1991 (Albania had been a very closed society during the Cold War) and then from the 1997 unrest in Kosovo (fallout from the Balkan wars). Now, both Switzerland and Albania have several players that can play for either side. The Daily Mail noted nine Albanian players eligible to play for Switzerland and seven Swiss players eligible to play for Albania.
Image Courtesy Of: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-3359484/Euro-2016-s-confusing-draw-Switzerland-vs-Albania-brothers-face-players-taking-country-birth.htmlhttp://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-3359484/Euro-2016-s-confusing-draw-Switzerland-vs-Albania-brothers-face-players-taking-country-birth.htmlhttp://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-3359484/Euro-2016-s-confusing-draw-Switzerland-vs-Albania-brothers-face-players-taking-country-birth.html
Most of the Albanian/Swiss started their footballing careers at well-developed Swiss football academies and decided to return to play for their parents’ country (with a less-developed youth system) while others decided to play for their adopted country. The career paths of these “sports migrants” reflects the dynamics of international labor migrants—they choose to move abroad due to economic “pull” factors and send remittances to relatives back home. In this case it is not cash remittances that return to the home country, but human capital in the form of well-trained footballers representing the Albanian national team. Particularly interesting will be the case of the Xhaka brothers; Taulant and Granit will line up on opposite sides of the ball on 11 June This dynamic that transcends sports is what makes the Albania-Switzerland match a must-see, if only to see the reactions of players when they score goals. During the 2014 World Cup the state of the Swiss national team was discussed in terms of changing European views on immigration; even if this match may not have such wide-spread implications it will be interesting to watch how players reconcile the competing nationalisms they represent on the field with those they may hold in their hearts and minds.
14 June 2016: Austria – Hungary, Stade de Bordeax (Bordeaux)
Bordeaux will host a fascinating matchup on 14 June, and scholars of European history can be forgiven for doing a double-take when they see the names of Austria-Hungary side-by-side on the TV screen. From 1867 to 1918 the Austrian Empire and Kingdom of Hungary were united in a constitutional union as one of the world’s great powers. After the era of empires came to an end following World War One, Austria and Hungary became separate nation states but the sporting rivalry continued. Due to the many matches the two played against each other while known as the Austria-Hungarian Empire, this fixture is the second most played in international football–there have been 136 meetings so far between the two countries! The 137th installment of the rivalry is the first between the countries since 2006, when Hungary stole a 2-1 victory in Graz. Interestingly, Bordeaux will be just the 8th different city these teams have faced each other in and only the third match to be played at a neutral site; Hungary won 3-0 in Stockholm during the 1912 Olympics while Austria earned a 2-1 victory in Bologna during the 1934 World Cup. Hungary leads the all-time series 66 wins to 40. (All statistics from RSSSF http://www.rsssf.com/tableso/oosthongres.html)
One Becomes Two–The Flags of the Two Nations Above the Old Flag of the Empire. Images Courtesy of Wikipedia
NOTE: The following two matches apparently face a high risk of terrorist attack (http://www.unian.info/world/1368011-ukraine-poland-match-at-euro-2016-under-threat-of-terrorist-attack.html
16 June 2016: England – Wales, Stade Bollaert-Delelis (Lens)
This matchup between two members of the United Kingdom may not seem exciting on paper, but is certainly interesting historically. Despite having been conquered by England in the 13th century Wales has still maintained a distinct cultural identity, exemplified by continued use of the Welsh language (the string of seemingly endless consonants without vowels seems strange to the eyes of a native English speaker and has always fascinated me on a personal level). The first meeting between the two nations took place in 1879 with England taking a 2-1 victory. That this rivalry dates back to the formation of the modern game in and of itself makes this a matchup worth paying attention to. The two countries played one another yearly (excepting the years interrupted by WWI and WWII) until the end of the British Championships in the mid 1980s. Since 1984 (the last time Wales tasted victory in the series) there have been 4 meetings; England has won all four matches with Wales failing to score during this period.
I suspect the competition in the match itself will be of top quality; fans will remember Manchester United star Ryan Giggs’ famous comment from 2002: “It still bugs me when people ask if I wished I’d played for England – I’m Welsh, end of story. It’s the question that’s bugged me more than any other over the last 10 years. I’d rather go through my career without qualifying for a major championship than play for a country where I wasn’t born or which my parents didn’t have anything to do with”. With such strong nationalist sentiment surrounding the game I am sure Wales will be up for the match, we shall see if they can snatch their first victory over the three lions in 22 years. (In the series England leads with 66 wins to Wales’ 14).
16 June 2016: Germany – Poland, Stade de France (Saint-Denis)
I anticipate that this match will be good not only on paper, but on the field as well. It pits the defending World Champions Germany against a rising star, the dark horses of Poland. Since the late 18th century, when Polish lands were partitioned between Prussia, Russia, and Austria, Poland has had a complicated relationship with their neighbors to the west. While Poland regained independence in 1918, Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 started the second World War. Since then relations between Germany and Poland have been contentious at times, even though they are now partners within the European Union.
Historically Poland has not fared well against Germany militarily and in football the results are not very different. This meeting between Poland and Germany is the third time the two geopolitical rivals will face each other in a major international football tournament in ten years; Poland lost 1-0 to Germany in the 2006 World Cup and 2-0 in the 2008 European Championships. This time, however, things might go differently for the Poles. During qualification Poland scored their first victory against Germany; the 2-0 win in 2014 was Poland’s first in a series dominated by 13 German wins and 6 draws. Many pundits peg Poland’s Robert Lewandowski—who plays in Germany for Bayern Munich—as the best striker in the tournament and he will shoulder much of the responsibility for Poland in a tournament that could see them go far. Avenging their past losses to Germany may also be on the cards for Poland this summer in France.
A Geopolitical Clash Looms on the Pitch. Image Courtesy Of: http://bundesligafanatic.com/poland-players-in-germany-bundesliga/