Postwar Europe Explained Through The Euros

We’re but a few hours away from being graced with football on the tele again. Soz Copa America, but you just don’t quite cut the mustard. France and Romania will walk into the Stade de France in Paris to open the largest European Championship ever: For the first time, 24 teams will be competing to lift the Henri Delaunay Cup.

Since the first European Championship took place in 1960, the competition has been providing a four-yearly snapshot of the continent’s changing geopolitical status as tensions between countries are played out on and off the pitch. BuzzFeed explain in detail:

East vs west

East vs west

Soviet goalkeeper Lev Yashin arrives for training. Keystone / Getty Images

Four of the nations that made it to Euro 1960 no longer exist in the same form: Host nation France’s colonial empire was on its last legs, Czechoslovakia would split in two in 1993, and the final between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union was a game between what are now 22 different countries. The Soviets won 2-1 in extra time.

The nascent European Union, then called the European Economic Community, was just over 3 years old when the tournament kicked off in Paris. It had six members: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands.

Eastern Europe was living under communism. Citizens in many of countries that are today building fences to block asylum-seekers from crossing their borders, and planning referendums to decide whether to accept refugees, were fleeing despots and seeking refuge in the west.

The continent would remain divided for three decades.

Since the first European Championship, European football’s governing body, UEFA, has seen its membership nearly double to 55 football associations. The EU, meanwhile, has expanded to 28 member states, with a handful more nations in the pipeline to join in future.

A decade of revolutions

A decade of revolutions

Johan Cruijff, referee Patrick Partridge, and Kazimierz Deyna before the Euro 1976 qualifying match between Poland and the Netherlands. Vi-images / Getty Images

The year 1968 will be mostly remembered for the revolts and uprisings that took place in many parts of Europe, and elsewhere around the world. Across the globe, people rallied for freedom of speech and greater equality and rights.

It began a decade when revolutions were not only political and social but cultural and artistic. And Europe’s football pitches were not immune to changes in attitude.

The 1976 tournament saw the Netherlands’ first appearance at a European Championship, and no team has ever broken the established rules and tactical structure of how the game is interpreted quite like the Dutch did under captain Johan Cruyff.

Author David Winner wrote of the new style of football: “In the 19th century, the English invented football as a chivalrous substitute for war and played in straight lines with fixed formations.

“Brazilians thought of football as a platform for individual artistry. Italians obsessed about tactics, mainly defensive ones. The Germans had their “kampfgeist” (spirit of struggle), which stated undying effort, physical power and teamwork were the keys to success. Cruyff and [coach Rinus] Michels reimagined the game as a highly skilled, swirling spatial contest in which whoever managed and controlled the limited space on the field would win.”

The football revolution went without trophy. But its teachings are still followed today.

A more multicultural Europe

Ullstein Bild / Getty Images

Jack Guez/AFP / Getty Images

France have won the European Championship twice: in 1984, when they were hosts, and in 2000.

The 1984 team were captained by the Michel Platini, who scored in every game and was the tournament’s top scorer with a record nine goals. In 2000, two years after lifting the World Cup in Paris, France won with a team captained by Didier Deschamps but commandeered and symbolised by Zinedine Yazid Zidane.

The differences between Platini and Zidane are instructive. Platini hailed from Jœuf, in the north of France; his father, a maths professor of Italian ancestry, was a coach at the Nancy-Lorraine football club where Platini started his professional career.

Zidane, meanwhile, was the son of Algerian immigrants, and was born in Marseille, in the south of the country. His father, who was from a remote village in the Kabylie region in northern Algeria and emigrated to France in the mid-1950s, worked as a warehouseman, often on night shifts.

But despite their very different backgrounds, Zidane and Platini are among the game’s most superlative, and elegant, exponents – and both are as French as butter in croissants.

Alongside Zidane and Deschamps in the 2000 team were the likes of Youri Djorkaeff, of Kalmyk and Armenian descent; Arsenal invincible Patrick Viera, born in Dakar, Senegal; and Lilian Thuram and Christian Karembeu, both born in France’s overseas territories. The author Andrew Hussey recalled how the press called the team the “French black-white-Arab generation”, while the philosopher Pascal Boniface described the moment as the birth of “a new Enlightenment”.

The two French teams demonstrate how Europe has become increasingly interconnected and diverse: At the 2014 World Cup, Russia were the only European team to not have have any foreign-born players in their squad, according to analysis by Quartz.

But multiculturalism has not come without tension. The deputy head of the right-wing Alternative for Germany party recently said that while people find black German footballer Jêrome Boateng a good footballer, “they don’t want to have a Boateng as their neighbour”.

And less than a fortnight ago, Austria very nearly became the first western European country to democratically elect a far-right head of state since the end of World War II. The candidate stood on an anti-immigration platform. His party, the Freedom Party of Austria, leads in national polls.

East vs west, again

East vs west, again

The Euro 2012 group D match between Ukraine and France at the Donbass Arena in Donetsk. Ian Walton / Getty Images

In 2012 the finals were hosted by Poland and Ukraine, and Spain became the first team to win two consecutive European Championships.

That all seems a long time ago now. On 27 June 2012, Donetsk, in the Donbass region in the east of the country, hosted the semi-final between Portugal and Spain; less than two years later, the region became the stage of a war, and an armed separatist insurgency, that still continues today.

More than 9,000 people have died since the conflict started in 2014, according to UN estimates. Crimea has been annexed by Russia. Most of eastern Ukraine is stuck in what has become a frozen conflict. Europe and Russia have imposed sanctions on each other. Ukraine remains divided in two.

Fifty-six years since the first European Championship, and east and west are again at odds.

Fascinating, that. And a lovely way to explain the changing geopolitics of the last 50+ years. So go on then, seeing as though you’re a History enthusiast, and you clearly like a read, have a read through our History Courses found here.


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