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The Euro 2024 Soccer Championship Is Blessedly Apolitical—for Now

For the first time in years, a major international tournament feels free of political distractions. Enjoy it—it probably won’t last.

Two soccer players wearing the blue and orange of their country celebrate a goal and hug each other.
Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Big, burly Dutch striker Wout Weghorst and defender Nathan Ake celebrate after Weghorst scores a late goal against Poland in the 2024 Euros.

Four days before the 2024 European soccer championships began, the coach of the tournament’s host nation strongly condemned a recent poll that found that 21 percent of Germans wished their national team was whiter. “I was shocked that such questions are asked and people actually answer,” Germany head coach Julian Nagelsmann said at the team’s training ground. “It’s racist. I feel we need to wake up … I hope I never have to read such shitty polls again.” Joshua Kimmich, one of the team’s veteran leaders, had previously condemned the poll in similar terms. “Football in particular is a good example of how you can unite different nations, different skin colors, and different religions,” Kimmich had said a day earlier. “That’s what our team is all about. I would miss a lot of players if they weren’t here. This is absolutely racist and has no place in our changing room.”

Nagelsmann was, as the Irish journalist Ken Early astutely noted, (at least) partly annoyed that the poll was serving as a distraction—politics interfering with a tournament that had promised to be blessedly free of politics, a growing rarity in international soccer. (Contra Nagelsmann’s assessment, the poll itself was part of a larger, thoughtful program about multiculturalism and football in Germany.) Five days later, Nagelsmann’s German team took to the field and hardly looked unfocused: They easily beat Scotland in the tournament’s opener, scoring five goals. So much for distractions. 

And yet the uproar surrounding the poll also points to the complexity of this European tournament’s politics. On the one hand, it does feel like a breath of fresh air: the rare recent soccer tournament where there isn’t a scandal that threatens to swallow what should be a joyful celebration of the most popular sport in the world. On the other, it’s a reminder that politics at this European Championship are only slightly off-screen—the French and English national teams will likely still be playing when their countries hold forthcoming elections; the far right just made shocking gains in the European Parliament; and angst surrounding immigration and race is still at the forefront. It is, by recent standards, an apolitical tournament—for now. (For more on the politics of Euro 2024, you can listen to Owned Goals, a new podcast from The New Republic.) 

You could feel, in the lead-up to Euro 2024, a breezy air in much of the tournament coverage. Club soccer is mired in more or less continuous scandal, largely revolving around the growing power of autocratic oil-rich nation states and ownership models that ruthlessly and increasingly exploit players. The most recent international tournaments have, similarly, all been overshadowed by immense, depressing scandals: repression of gay people and growing authoritarianism (the 2018 World Cup, in Russia); racial justice (the 2020 European Championships were characterized both by protests against racism and an immensely depressing backlash to those protests); and the rights of women, LGBTQ people, and migrant workers (the 2022 World Cup, in Qatar). (Now that I think about it, the last World Cup that wasn’t flooded with controversy was in 2006—when it was hosted by … Germany.) The 2024 Euros are beginning, meanwhile, with a conspicuous lack of scandal and distraction. 

The opening slate of games largely reflected that. There have been few surprises—unless a long-disappointing Belgian team losing to Slovakia thanks to a conspicuous lack of finishing counts, which it shouldn’t. With the exception of England, the tournament favorites have played well and with a sense of freedom and joy that you don’t always see from such teams in international tournaments. It has, for the past four days, been what international tournaments are at their best: a blessed distraction from the rest of the world; an opportunity to watch the greatest sport ever invented for several consecutive hours. (When Copa América starts on Wednesday, we can imagine something close to utopia, at least here in the United States—a world where soccer is on television, with only short breaks, continuously from 9 a.m. until midnight.) 

Still, politics constantly bleeds in around the edges of this tournament—and will likely do so with greater force and regularity as the tournament progresses. Before its match on Monday against Austria, France’s star striker Kylian Mbappé was asked about comments made by another of the team’s players, forward Marcus Thuram. A day earlier, Thuram—himself the son of one of France’s most vocal political (and best) players—urged fans of the team to “fight daily” against the rise of the far right. Mbappé concurred. “I share the same values as Marcus,” Mbappé, the team’s captain, said in a news conference on Sunday. “Of course I support him.” In the same setting, Mbappé urged his countrymen to reject “extremes” when they go to the ballot box—as clear an endorsement of the country’s current president, Emmanuel Macron, as he will deliver. 

When Macron made the surprise decision to call (very) early elections, he may have had the Euros in mind. The French president has long attached himself to his national team, and to Mbappé in particular. The team’s success in the early rounds—which is likely—may very well help save Macron’s job when voters head to the polls in the first week of July. (Macron sadly couldn’t have forseseen Mbappé colliding with Austrian defender Kevin Danso, breaking his nose, and jeopardizing the rest of his tournament when he declared snap elections—though one can picture him campaigning in a protective mask in the days and weeks to come.) 

British voters, meanwhile, will likely elect a new government when they vote on July 4. That election, in which a staid, robotic Labour leader who stands for seemingly nothing seems set to end over a decade of Conservative rule, has less metaphoric power. But psychodrama is never far from the English national team. At the same time, the rise of the European far right remains the continent’s biggest story—and one that will likely factor into the tournament before it is done. 

Still, at this early stage, this is a blessedly old-fashioned tournament. The strikers are big and burly, and the politics are off the field—if only just barely.