One of the biggest soccer (ahem, football) tournaments in the world - the UEFA European Football Championship - kicks off today. The host countries are Poland and Ukraine.
Though we like to think that sports is one of the last refuges against the divisiveness of politics, we all know that isn't the case. Sport and politics do mix. As always, the football matches in Europe will be seething with political undertones.
The highest-profile political fight has revolved around former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is currently in jail. Many believe her imprisonment is politically motivated, and politicians from several European countries - including the UK, Germany and France - are boycotting the matches held in Ukraine.
Eastern European countries also have the reputation of being obnoxiously (and perhaps, dangerously) racist. The BBC recently ran a program exposing the racist aspects of the Polish and Ukrainian football cultures. As described in The Atlantic:
The program showed Polish and Ukrainian fans beating up Asian fans and slurring opposing teams as "Jews."
The full 30-minute report is full of shocking moments. In Ukraine, there's one scene showing fans making monkey sounds at black players. There's also one where a white supremacist group admits it embraces "some aspects" of Nazism, like getting rid of non-Ukrainians. The group also happens to train its members in knife fighting. Polish slogans include "Jews to the gas" or "death to hooknoses."
Polish hooligans are another area of concern. (See this European Journal video starting at 5:15.) Many of the hooligans aren't even football fans and simply enjoy beating up on people from other countries.
The current economic and political troubles facing Europe will serve to add more fuel to the fire. From a political standpoint, the most interesting matches will be:
Poland vs. Greece (June 8)
The tournament begins with one of Europe's strongest economies (Poland) facing off against a country who may be ejected from the euro in a matter of months.
Germany vs. Portugal (June 9)
Angela Merkel and the frugal Germans are not especially popular this year across Europe, particularly in countries facing serious economic trouble, such as Portugal.
France vs. England (June 11)
After all these centuries, they still dislike each other.
Poland vs. Russia (June 12)
The Poles absolutely detest the Russians, and the feeling is rather mutual. The match will be played in the Polish capital of Warsaw.
Depending on which teams advance past the group stage, even more political intrigue could await us. Let the games begin!