SADLY, Euro 2016 may be the last great international football jamboree. There are a number of reasons, but with UEFA effectively breaking-up the franchise for 2020, taking the competition across the continent, it is arguable that the template may alter for future European Championships.
Europe, as an economic zone, is troubled. Huge imbalances, tragic levels of youth unemployment, philosophical and practical questions about open borders and the rise of right wing politics. UEFA’s idea of “sharing the love” in 2020 may be as much to do with empty purses as it is with the creation of a pan-European party. After all, what government in Europe can justify spending so much on a “nice to have” rather than a “must-have” event?
France hosts the competition as it faces a maelstrom of headwinds. Murder and mayhem have rocked this part of Europe and made, for example, one of its most beautiful capital cities into a neurotic, curtain-twitching metropolis. We all share that sentiment but it has meant a drop in Eurostar bookings since the attacks in France and Belgium. While some football fans posture and claim that they cannot allow the threat of an apocalyptic Euro 2016 deter them from travelling, tickets for the competition are still on sale, which does suggest that UEFA has struggled to shift all the tickets. As the fans arrive in France, some have clearly not changed their habits, as already witnessed in Marseille.
If France was hoping to make a lot of money out of Euro 2016, they are probably mistaken. The French Sports Minister recently announced that he expects a profit of EUR 1.3bn and that preparations had created 20,000 jobs. One assumes that these jobs will disappear once the competition is finished.
As Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski point out in their excellent book, Soccernomics, major football competitions do not necessarily bring great economic rewards for the hosting country, but it does demand huge expenditure. Euro ’96 generated USD 155m in direct income for Britain, which was tiny compared to the USD 20bn spent by overseas visitors in 1996. And in 2006, visitors to Germany’s World Cup spent EUR 2.8bn, a drop in the ocean compared to the usual EUR 1tn-plus spent by German consumers.
A lot of people outside of France do not realise just how paralysed the French economy is. France never looks too much like a country that’s struggling, but it is currently being hit by industrial action and rising unemployment. And what’s more, the River Seine has burst its banks. It’s a state-dominated economy – some 57% of GDP comes from the government run services – that has struggled to recover from the financial crisis.
Euro 2016 will not solve France’s economic problems, but the “feel-good factor” can help lift sagging spirits. When France has hosted a tournament, it has usually been good. The European Championship of 1984 was packed with good football, and France ’98 in the World Cup was also an enriched tournament. Both times, the French won.
In 1998, France’s first World Cup triumph was greeted as a significant social statement that underlined the multi-cultural nature of the new France. Unfortunately, but predictably, multi-culturalism is now cited as the root cause of some of its problems. Where 1998 united the nation, it is unlikely that even a French win in 2016 will do so in the same way. In fact, discussions in the Cafés and bars about the French national team – mostly non-white – invariably degenerate into debates on the sensitive subject of immigration. Eric Cantona’s recent outburst in the press, suggesting that France manager Didier Deschamps’ decision to omit Karim Benzema and Hatem Ben Arfa from his squad was down to racism, opened up this wound once more.
But despite the gloomy economic outlook for France, the threat of terrorist disruption (if something kicks-off early on, will the competition be abandoned?) and internal unrest, France will be favourites with many people. They may have new heroes to add to the list that includes Fontaine and Kopa, Platini and Tresor and Zidane and Henry.
And that, at least, will bring no small measure of joy to the French. In 2012, the Olympics created a summer of excitement in Britain and the hangover lasted for quite a while. In these troubled times, and given the contribution France has made to the administrative history of the game (the World Cup, European Cup and European Championship were all born and devised in La Republique Francaise) who would deny the French such a distraction?