The EURO 2020 tournament, the first major international event since the outbreak of the pandemic, is finally coming to an end: after a shocking round of 16, and gruelling quarter and semi finals, the two teams set to fight for the coveted UEFA European Championship will be Roberto Mancini’s Italy and Gareth Southgate’s England.
When the Italian and English players step out onto Wembley Stadium’s historic pitch on Sunday evening, both teams will likely be taking the knee. One will be doing so out of solidarity for racial minorities, the other in solidarity with their opposition on the pitch.
England’s squad, which consists of nine black players, have consistently taken a knee throughout the competition, in a show of unity with the Black Lives Matter movement and the demonstrations that took place last summer throughout the United States and Western Europe.
The Italian outfit, which is an all-white squad, have been more erratic, taking the knee only when asked by their adversary. The country’s steadfast captain Giorgio Chiellini explained that "when the other team makes the request, we will kneel out of solidarity and sensitivity to the other team." Chiellini promised the Azzurri will fight racism in "other ways".
But in choosing this seemingly neutral position, the Italians inadvertently drew more attention to the issue, attracting both the ire and admiration of spectators. Their do-no-harm attitude resulted in an awkward picture when they battled against Wales: only five Italian players took the knee while the remaining six colleagues stood up and stared in silence.
Italy's choice to maintain sports and politics strictly separate responds to an almost sacrosanct dogma that the sports world has long maintained and advocated. Football is meant to be a form of escapism: 90 minutes of fervour and suspense where our most ordinary problems, from unpaid bills to global warming, are brushed aside and forgotten.
But the long-held tradition of detaching politics from sports – and sports from politics – appears to have been rendered unworkable by an Internet-powered society where politics are inescapable.
A new kind of European championship
The EURO 2020 has left us moments meant to go down in sports annals, such as France’s astonishing defeat against Switzerland, Portugal’s double own goal against Germany, Patrik Schick's unbelievable halfway-line goal against Scotland and Jéremy Doku’s record-breaking eight dribbles against Italy.
The competition also had dramatic episodes, including the collapse of Denmark's Christian Eriksen in in his side's first match of the tournament or the sudden Achilles tendon injury of Italy's Leonardo Spinazzola.
But from the very beginning what characterised the competition was its political dimension, manifested with a surprisingly explicit, on-the-nose intensity. Politics have permeated through the whole tournament, from the pitch itself to the behind-the-scenes drama.
Russia kicked off the controversy when it complained about the new kit of Ukraine's football team, which featured a map of the country that included Crimea, illegally annexed by Russia in 2014, and two slogans reading "Glory to Ukraine" and "Glory to the heroes".
Russia' foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova sharply criticised the kit, writing on Facebook the "Ukrainian football team has attached the territory of Ukraine to Russia's Crimea on its uniform". She added that the slogans were "nationalist" and had been used by Nazi collaborators.
The chant "Glory to the heroes" was widely used during the 2014 popular uprising that ousted a Russia-friendly president.
Andriy Pavelko, the head of Ukraine's Football Association, argued the border outline "will give strength to the players, because they will fight for Ukraine."
The conflict immediately put UEFA in an obvious position of political arbiter between two countries still technically at war in the Donbas region.
After consideration, the organisation allowed the map to stand because the borders were in line with a UN General Assembly Resolution. UEFA, however, asked Ukraine to remove the phrase "Glory to the heroes" because, when placed next to "Glory to Ukraine", the message became "clearly political in nature" and had historic and militaristic significance.
A similar altercation took place when Greece complained that the North Macedonian team's official jersey displayed the term "Football Federation of Macedonia", omitting the "North" part from the country's name. Greece considered the label was a breach of the Prespa Agreement, under which North Macedonia agreed to change its official name to normalise relations with its neighbour.
In this case, UEFA rejected the petition, saying the organisation "uses the name Football Federation of North Macedonia in all its official communication and has adapted the relevant terminology".
Not long after these initial disputes, a bigger and louder crisis erupted, coming from a corner that seldom converges with football: LGBTQ+ rights.
In the middle of the tournament, the government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán passed a law that included an amendment to ban the portrayal of homosexuality and sex reassignment in school education material and TV programmes addressed to people under 18 years of age.
The legislation, known as Children Protection Act, immediately caused outrage across the continent, with most EU countries calling it a "flagrant form of discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression". European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the law was "shameful" and vowed to open an infringement procedure should it enter into force.
The city of Munich, which was one of the Euro 2020's designated hosts, brought the polemic right into the pitch by asking UEFA permission to illuminate the stadium with rainbow colours during the match between Germany and Hungary.
"Given the political context of this specific request – a message aiming at a decision taken by the Hungarian national parliament – UEFA must decline this request," the organisation replied.
UEFA’s decision was celebrated by the Hungarian government but criticised by many EU governments, including Germany and France, who were then joining forces in the European Council to defend LGBTQ+ rights in front of an increasingly isolated Viktor Orbán.
The ruling was seen as incoherent with UEFA's own philosophy, which is supposed to stand for "a more just and egalitarian society, tolerant of everyone, regardless of their background, belief or gender." A previous UEFA decision had allowed Germany's goalkeeper Manuel Nuer to wear a rainbow armband after deeming it a symbol for diversity and a "good cause".
Days later, a Danish supporter complained that a security guard had confiscated his rainbow flag during the quarter-final match in Baku, Russia. UEFA launched an investigation into the matter.
'Sports have always been political'
Since the turn of the century, democratic societies have become politically polarised and fragmented. Partisan scuffles, cultural wars and trending topics dominate the news cycle, creating an overwhelming and often toxic environment for citizens, who resort to various means of entertainment, like TV series, video games and sports, to catch a break.
For fans used to see football as an uncomplicated diversion, such vivid discussions on racism and LGBTQ+ rights seemed jarring and uncomfortable. Many react angrily and complain that football has nothing to do with politics – and vice versa.
Simon Darnell, an associate professor at the University of Toronto who researches the societal impact of sports, challenges this vision.
"It's not true that sports are apolitical, sports have always been political and sports, always been a place where political actors can express their political points of view," Darnell tells Euronews.
"Sports are intimately connected to all kinds of political issues. And so it's not reasonable to expect that that's not going to find its way into the sporting event or into the game of the match once it's under way."
As the intersection of politics and sports becomes more visible and tangible, athletes feel emboldened to speak up and take a stance, which in turn reinforces and deepens the merger of both worlds.
An evident sign of athletes' desire to express their discomfort and revolt against the establishment came when Cristiano Ronaldo, the most followed person on social media, disdainfully removed two bottles of Coca-Cola that were placed before him during a press conference and chose instead water as a healthier alternative. France’s Paul Pogba and Italy’s Manuel Locatelli also opted to move away sponsored beverages.
The simple gesture made international headlines and became an online viral sensation.
The small but eye-catching uprising against advertisers, which fund a very significant part of the football industry, surprised fans and commentators, who are used to seeing stars dutifully comply with the demands of big corporations. The incident was described as a "power shift".
"I do wonder if we're going to get to the point where the sports organisations just can't ignore these political issues any longer. And I think that's being driven by athletes," says Darnell, who thinks the communication power of social media is encouraging players to be more assertive.
"Athletes are consistently drawing attention to the issues. And I think that's forcing the hand of the big organisations. So it'll be interesting to see how long they can keep this up."
Football is far from being the only sport clashing with politics.
Just this week, the European Parliament voted in favour of a non-binding resolution that included a paragraph calling on EU countries to decline attending the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics "unless the Chinese Government demonstrates a verifiable improvement in the human rights situation" in Hong Kong and the Xinjiang Uyghur Region. The US, Canada and Australia are considering similar moves; and the British Labour Party has urged the UK government and royals to boycott the event.
Beijing has already warned that it will retaliate in the event of a boycott.
"China firmly opposes the politicisation of sports, and the interference in other countries’ internal affairs by using human rights issues as a pretext," said Wang Wenbin, spokesperson of China's foreign affairs ministry.
More uncomfortable discussions are expected next year, when Qatar hosts the FIFA World Cup, the first ever to be held in the Arab world. The occasion is certain to renew attention over the oil-producing country's record on human rights and the persistent allegations of labour exploitation.
Some European teams have already voiced their displeasure with the host: Germany, Norway and the Netherlands wore t-shirts displaying pro-human rights messages during the World Cup qualifying games. Tellingly, the matches, which fall under UEFA supervision, took place in Europe.
In a nation where homosexuality is illegal and punishable by death, will politics dare to enter the pitch?