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The Euros: Football might finally be reconnecting with planet Earth?

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Richard Calland is a respected political commentator and analyst, who writes about sport and society for a variety of media outlets. He is co-author of The Vuvuzela Revolution: Anatomy of Africa's First World Cup and co-producer of Channel4-commissioned documentary, Black Star: An African Footballing Odyssey.

The Euros began last Friday night, a year late. Something profound may have shifted in the intervening year. The world is not the same, for sure. But has football changed as well?

Even a cursory glance at history reveals that global system-level shocks, such as world war or a pandemic, tend to recalibrate the social compact and reconfigure societal equilibrium points.

It is too soon, and we are all too close to it, to yet tell whether Covid-19 will have a similar impact, let alone be able to discern the true shape of the “new normal”.

So, we need to look for clues, amid the currents of everyday culture and life.

Save for birth, death and sex, there is no aspect of human existence and endeavour that touches and even binds as many people as football. So, it is as good a gauge as any other.

On one issue, at least, football has been tested and there are some signs that it is standing up to the new level of responsibility – to understand the surrounding socioeconomic context, to grapple with it seriously, and then to respond with leadership and a clear sense of social purpose.

It is an age-old debate. Is sport immune from politics or a part of politics? Can it legitimately attempt to cut itself off, pretending that sport is sport, and nothing more (or less)? 

It mirrors the debate that has been pulsing through the c-suite corridors of corporate executives for decades, between those who continue to maintain that the business of business is business, and nothing more (or less).

The smartest businesses and business leaders have come to realise that sustainability – social and economic, as well as environmental – is very much their business. In fact, some have gone “all in” – to adopt the title of a very handy little book co-authored by GlobeScan’s Chris Coulter, Mark Lee (SustainAbility) and David Grayson (Cranfield School of Management) on the future of business leadership – integrating sustainability strategy with core business strategy and thereby putting it at the heart of their for-profit existence.

Some, however, remain “all out”. Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s right-wing leader, says “the fight against racism has no place on a football field” – old-school atavism at the heart of Europe.

Plenty of teams will not be taking the knee at the Euros. Scotland will not because, in a more nuanced position, they believe it has come to the point where the public furore about “taking the knee” has distracted from the real issue and diluted attention on the ongoing discrimination and prejudice in some parts of the game.

On Sunday, there were boos from among the ranks of both Croatian and English fans when England took the knee, though The Guardian reported that they were “drowned out” by the applause of the majority.

In an extraordinarily thoughtful and well-composed “letter to the nation” last week, England’s manager, Gareth Southgate, took on the racists with deft determination and resolve:

I have never believed that we should just stick to football. I know my voice carries weight, not because of who I am but because of the position that I hold. At home, I’m below the kids and the dogs in the pecking order but publicly I am the England men’s football team manager.

“I have a responsibility to the wider community to use my voice, and so do the players. It’s their duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice, while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate.”

Leadership. Impressive. And, again, a sign of a shift within the game – the industry – of football.

It was one of Southgate’s players, Marcus Rashford, who surprised and delighted millions of football fans across the world when he took on the British government over free school meals during lockdown.

He used his power and influence for a progressive social purpose. He forced a belligerent Prime Minister Boris Johnson – who, incidentally, refused to condemn English fans who booed English players for taking the knee recently – to back down twice and make rapid U-turns.

Rashford connected with the socioeconomic issue of poverty and vulnerable children, and took a stand.

Planet football” has been so cringingly out of touch with reality for so long now that there was a real danger that in returning towards planet Earth its hyperbolic, narcissistic and grossly inflated bubble would explode on re-entry – like the attempt at forming a European Super League in May, which came crashing to the ground in flames fanned by the outrage of most “ordinary fans”.

Was that the first sign that football had entered a new era, more connected, more socially aware and less arrogant?

Well yes, but this is football, so on the other side of the world the hubris and greed was evident with the highly questionable decision to continue with the Copa America in Brazil.

Hosting South America’s equivalent of the Euros in a country ravaged by Covid-19 and which averaged 66,000 new cases in a day in the past week, was widely criticised. And within days that criticism has been justified.

After one day of competition Brazil’s ministry of health reported that 31 players and delegation members had tested positive for Covid-19. That number is certainly going to rise.

But the desperation to have the tournament, which is almost entirely financial, superseded clear evidence that Brazil, with 488,000 Covid deaths, was not a nation that could hold the event safely.

Colombia, the original host, withdrew over civil unrest concerns and then replacement Argentina also pulled out because it couldn’t guarantee a safe tournament during a pandemic. The build-up to the Copa America has been nothing short of shambolic.

But what is happening in Brazil mustn’t skew the good work being done at the Euros. The tournament is being held without the arrogance witnessed across the Atlantic Ocean. There will be challenges and some small setbacks, but after the opening week, on the health and social justice fronts, Euro 2020 has been successful.

The Euros are the first global tournament of the Covid era. Yes, global: football fans across the world, especially in Africa, pay great attention to it. As the world stumbles from the nightmare of the pandemic, cheering, all eyes will be on the games over the next few weeks – and not just for football. DM

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  • This insightful take on the role of soccer in society, reminds me of the Osaka tennis mental health ‘incident’. Unless I missed it, the usually astute and progressive thinking Billy Jean King has not commented or weighed in on the matter. Did I miss it?

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