A few weeks ago I was struck by a fluke of timing. The Euro 2016 soccer tournament was being staged at one of the most decisive moments in the history of Europe.
Everyone would be glued to the box – or at least those who like the beautiful game – in the hope that England, Wales or Northern Ireland could teach the Continent a footballing lesson. Then slap in the middle of this Eurofest would come the EU referendum in which we had to decide whether, politically speaking, the UK should still play ball with our European neighbours.
Given the blanket media coverage both events received it’s hardly surprising that a couple of nights before last week’s seismic vote to leave the EU I gatecrashed a discussion between friends in the pub and immediately got the wrong end of the stick.
One was saying: “Whatever happens, the Germans usually end up dominating things.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” I interjected. “Look how many chances they squandered against a team like Northern Ireland. They should’ve had the game sewn up by half time. Muller will have to be a lot sharper.”
Cue eruption of laughter. They were talking about Germany’s dominance of the EU, not their football prowess, and advancing it as an argument for the UK getting out.
When I think about it, though, I have long seen a connection between politics and football. It’s not just that many football fans have the same tribal mindset as political parties, or that they both use primary colours like red and blue to declare which side they’re on. It also happens to be the case that football has often been hijacked to further extremist political views.
I remember living in Leeds in the 1980s and seeing how the ultra-right used Leeds United as a vehicle for their repugnant activities. A recent post on one of the supporters’ blogs recalls: “The atmosphere around Elland Road was rancid with bigotry. Skin-headed, bone-headed racists sold The Flag, a right-wing snot-rag, outside the ground. It was done openly, brazenly. Dissenting voices, when raised, brought upon their owners the risk of violence. The club was inert and complacent. The police sat by and watched. It was depressingly, shamefully awful.”
Leeds United eventually confronted these racists masquerading as football fans by signing black players and excluding those responsible for racist chants, but in many eyes the club’s reputation remains tarnished to this day.
I wonder how tarnished the UK’s image will now be as a result of the arguments that won the European referendum. Are we the bigoted, intolerant society suggested by the result? That seemed to be the early implication drawn by commentators. A New York Times correspondent in London wrote: “My heart is bleeding. Now my adopted home has become an exclusionist nation.”
We don’t really know where all this will end, since the likely autumn general election in the wake of David Cameron’s resignation could well see a further lurch to the right by the Conservatives to counter the threat from cock-a-hoop Ukippers.
And who can stop them? To continue the football analogy, Labour looks like a Sunday league pub side without a star striker, and a weak manager whose team selection is as bizarre as England’s Roy Hodgson.
Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe