Denmark and rainbow-lit stadiums have shown the way forward on inclusion
A European Championship always reflects the way we in Europe shape our lives together. Four things in particular have stood out to me so far in this tournament. On 12 June the continent felt close to a Danish football player. Christian Eriksen had to be resuscitated on the pitch. His teammates, who immediately formed a circle around him, intuitively knew how to stand by him in this stressful situation. It was palpable how much his privacy was worth to them and they protected his dignity in a difficult hour. It was an enormously moving event.
The collective sympathy of everyone in the stadium in Copenhagen, Danes and Finns alike, was deep – including those who had been fearing for Eriksen’s life from afar. The next game was interrupted in his honour in the 10th minute, and everyone applauded, including opponents and referees. After the final whistle Denmark’s coach, Kasper Hjulmand, and the Belgian player Romelu Lukaku, who dedicated his goal to his Internazionale teammate Eriksen in the previous match, hugged each other. You didn’t need to hear what they were talking about.
After the event, many questions arose: what should be shown on television, and what should not? What is reporting? Where does voyeurism begin? Did the people producing the TV feed act responsibly? These discussions revealed the quality of our free community. In Europe, different positions can have the same justification. This includes the Danes’ later criticism of the game being restarted on the night.
An international debate also ignited over a political gesture. Teams from England, Wales and Belgium have been kneeling before their games, and at Wembley Scotland did too to show solidarity. With this symbolism from the Black Lives Matter movement, which originated with Colin Kaepernick’s protests against racism, they remind us that we all have equal rights and that these rights are violated again and again. Minorities are discriminated against all over the world.
Many people draw strength from the fact that they exclude a group and ascribe negative characteristics to it. That is wrong, and it is also unnecessary. I don’t need an enemy for my identity; I don’t become stronger through exclusion, but through cooperation. In the long run, success in a football team can only be achieved if people accept and appreciate each other’s differences. Of course, that also applies to the opponent. And in football, a foul is a foul, no matter who commits it.
The England team have faced racism at a number of away games in recent years. In Bulgaria, there were monkey noises aimed at Tyrone Mings, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford. Now the team are drawing strength from kneeling. Gareth Southgate explained the significance in an open letter to the nation. “It is their duty,” the England coach wrote of his players, “to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice.”
The gesture was criticised in some places. One Tory MP said he would boycott England games at the Euros over the gesture, the kneeling Belgians were booed in Budapest and St Petersburg, and some football officials called it “populism”. But the symbol is well established in team sports. It is a strong signal in dealing with other identities that everyone understands. It is an important joint declaration that skin colour does not matter. It is a sign to the outside world, but also a commitment to the inside. The gesture cannot therefore be populist.
Another symbol of diversity also caused headlines. The mayor of the city of Munich wanted to illuminate the arena in rainbow colours on the day of the match between Germany and Hungary to send a signal against homophobia and recent Hungarian legislation. Uefa rejected this because the message directly targeted a decision of the parliament and therefore violated the governing body’s requirement for political neutrality. This ban drew a lot of criticism – from the LGBTQ+ community to politically conservative parties. In response, other stadiums in Germany decided to light their arenas that evening out of solidarity.
Lastly, Europe still faces the challenge posed to all of us by coronavirus, this time with the Delta variant. How can the tournament be conducted responsibly? How do the various countries support each other? As is well known, the virus does not stop at borders, but only at sensible decisions. These, especially internationally, are not always free of conflict.
The Eriksen case has shown what solidarity is all about. That is how civilisation works at its best. The Danes’ team is now acting more than ever as a collective, and their connection to the rest of the country is visibly strengthened. But their sense of togetherness is not directed against anyone.
Of course, the European Championship is great fun. But if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. Week by week, day by day, the number of Covid-19 cases and other criteria must be observed. Where the final will be held, whether that is in London as planned or somewhere else, as was under discussion, is secondary. The only answer is: where it is safe.
The impact of the virus has been felt by every nation; some earlier, some later, some less, some more. “Public health must be a priority,” says Boris Johnson. In Moscow, the fan zone has been closed. It is clear, of course, that the same rules do not apply everywhere and so Euro 2020 has shown us once again that the countries in Europe have different conditions, and that even a football tournament requires constant negotiation. That is the way it is in democracy.