Euro 2024 is a party – but continent’s fractures are there for all to see | Jonathan Wilson

For much of Germany’s Euro 2024 quarter-final against Spain, it had seemed like a modern rewrite of their 2006 World Cup quarter-final against Argentina. In both games the technically more accomplished Spanish-speakers took the lead about five minutes after half-time, before the doughty Teutons ground their way back, taking advantage of some debatable substitutions, equalising in the final 10 minutes with a left-wing cross that was headed on to the goalscorer.

A German victory on penalties seemed inevitable, the only question whether Manuel Neuer would ostentatiously consult notes scribbled on hotel notepaper and secreted in his sock before each kick as Jens Lehmann had 18 years previously.

And then, in the 119th minute, Mikel Merino headed a winner. Neuer watched it go past him with an expression of bewilderment. It was not supposed to be like this. That hadn’t happened to Lehmann. Where was the bit where he got to be the hero? Slowly the realisation dawned, not just on Neuer, not just on the crowd in the stadium, but across Stuttgart and the whole of Germany: this is not 2006 revisited. There is no Sommermärchen this time.

It was hard, perhaps, at the time, for outsiders wrapped up in their own concerns – can Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard play in the same midfield? Who is dancing on the tables in which Baden-Baden restaurant tonight? The lift doors opened and he saw what? – to appreciate just what hosting the World Cup meant to Germany in 2006. But its significance to Germans is beyond dispute.

Germany’s keeper Manuel Neuer, teammates and fans look dejected after their Euro 2024 quarter-final defeat to Spain. Photograph: Heiko Becker/Reuters

There was the football, of course, as Germany cast off the grim, battling style that had got them to the previous World Cup final for a more progressive, modern style based around such alien concepts as zonal marking and pressing. In that summer were sown the seeds of the triumph in Brazil eight years later and if they went out in the semi-final, well, was that not what a good host would do, absenting themselves at a discreet moment to allow a guest to take the glory? Who cared about victory when you had vibes?

And hospitality was what it was really all about. Seventy years after the Berlin Olympics, this was about showing off Germany in a very different light, as a modern, diverse, happy country at ease with itself. The sun shone, the trains worked and fans had a great time. Germany is pretty much the perfect country for a tournament: it has enough major cities to accommodate tens of thousands of visitors but it is manageable enough that nowhere is more than a few hours away by train. It is also a country full of large public spaces, parks and squares where fans can gather, and entirely comfortable with the idea of mass drinking.

The fundamentals have not changed, but this summer has not been as glorious as that of 18 years ago. The sun has been an infrequent visitor and most days there has been enough doubt about the weather to make jacket selection fraught and umbrellas essential. Deutsche Bahn has been a major issue – although even if the trains are delayed as often as they are in Britain, they are a lot more comfortable and less expensive, so it has rarely felt as bad.

And Germany is still a relatively liberal place, the past eliding into a progressive present. The old Poststadion in Berlin, where Adolf Hitler watched the only football match he ever attended, the shock 2-0 defeat by Norway at the 1936 Olympics, is still a stadium but it is also now the centre of Berlin Pride.

Most of all, Germany remains a country cheerfully committed to mass outdoor boozing. The result has been, with a handful of exceptions, a mood of broad conviviality – after Qatar and Covid and Michel Platini’s pan-European jamboree – there has been an obvious sense of release in a more traditional tournament environment. The atmosphere in the stadiums has been, almost without exception, raucous and, if not always good-humoured, at least rarely hostile. Peter Schilling’s 1982 song Major Tom (based on the character from David Bowie’s Space Oddity, who himself, legend has it, took his name from John Major’s father, Tom Major-Balls, posters for whose trapeze act the young Bowie had seen growing up in Brixton) has been everywhere this summer, and has captured the odd mood of euphoric alienation.

There is also Andre Schnura, a music teacher made redundant just before the tournament who turned up wearing a Rudi Völler shirt in a fan zone, started playing a saxophone and became a star. He may soon disappear again but, like Pickles or Paul the Octopus, he has his place in the iconography of the tournament. Schnura refused all interview requests and communicates only via Instagram, where he pleads for peace and togetherness.

German saxophonist Andre Schnura has become a cult hero amid the Euros festivities. Photograph: Patrícia de Melo Moreira/AFP/Getty Images

Yet at the same time, this has been a tournament of complicated nationalism, of two-headed eagles and grey wolves, of Dutch blackface and revanchist Hungarian power-ballads, of second world war ditties and reminding yourself what “autochthonous” means. It’s a tournament at which Albanian and Croatian fans joined in chants about killing Serbs with staggeringly little condemnation.

Given self-expression so often entails the rejection of the Other, perhaps it is inevitable that such issues surface when a continent comes together – and the line between casual banter and mortal insult is often so blurred as to be imperceptible (jokes about the 1314 Battle of Bannockburn, largely fine; jokes about the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, bit more complicated) – but it was all given an extra edge by the war in Ukraine and by the rise of the far right in Germany and in France, and of Reform in the UK.

Looking across every square full of revelling fans, every stand in which shirts massed in solid blocks of red or white or yellow, seeing the banners bearing black-and-white impressions of indistinguishable figures (is that a great centre-forward of the 1950s or a dead revolutionary?), hearing the patriotic songs, it was impossible not to be aware of two sensations.

On the one hand, is this all not brilliant, is this noise and colour not what tournaments are supposed to be about? And on the other the thought that historians might look back on all this and see simultaneously an Edwardian blitheness and the warning fractures in a continent about to fall apart.

The Guardian

Leave a Reply