Why Euro 2008 is a political game

1. Small countries prosper
The European Union is set up partly to defend the rights of small nations. And so it seems are the European football championships. Small countries that would never stand a chance in the World Cup can win the Euro championships. Greece won Euro 2004; the Danes won in 1992, Holland won in 1988 and Czechoslovakia won in 1976. The fact that the European soccer championship is a shorter tournament, with fewer teams than the World Cup makes it easier for a small country to go on a winning streak. It also helps that Brazil and Argentina aren’t allowed to compete. Top tip among the tiddlers for 2008 is Portugal, led by their magnificent, hair-gelled winger Cristiano Ronaldo.

2. You can mention the war
For historical reasons, many teams in Europe particularly enjoy beating Germany. The Danish, Dutch and Czech tournament triumphs all featured emotionally satisfying victories over the Germans. But these old grievances are fading with the passage of time. And in this year’s tournament, Germany are fortunate to have been drawn in a group with two old friends – Austria and Croatia. Mind you, the fourth country in the group is Poland. The Germany v Poland game is on June 8.

3. Footballing grudges displace history
As grudge matches against Germany become less of a feature of the European championships, so new sources of tension and grievance have to be found. Bitter feelings between teams are increasingly about grudges accumulated on the football field, rather than the battlefield. The biggest grudge match in the first round will be Italy v France on June 9. This is not because of Mussolini’s belated declaration of war on France in 1940. The source of the grievance is the World Cup final of 2006 – when Italy won on penalties, after Zinedine Zidane, France’s national hero, was sent off for head-butting an Italian who had made vulgar remarks about his mother. (Or was it his sister?)

4. Spanish self-loathing
Many countries draw exaggerated political lessons from their fortunes on the football field. This is particularly true of Spain, which traditionally brings a superbly talented team to big tournaments and then flops hopelessly. The fact that the Spanish players will be the only ones not singing along to their national anthem is perhaps a clue. Spanish identity is currently so complicated that their national anthem has no words to it. Some Spanish soccer analysts think that the national team’s lack of success may have something to do with the strength of regional identities in the country and the difficulty of moulding a successful team made up of players from Madrid, Barcelona and the Basque country. Interesting theory: but what then accounts for England’s lack of success? We’ve got rid of the Scots, Welsh and Irish and haven’t even qualified.

5. Politically connected player
Andrei Arshavin is Russia’s most exciting player. He also topped the list for the pro-Putin United Russia party in recent elections for St Petersburg city council. But Arshavin’s political connections have not done him much good at Euro 2008 – he has been suspended for Russia’s first two games in the tournament.

Gideon Rachman is the FT’s chief foreign affairs commentator

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