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Why nationalist parties don’t always like their national soccer teams

Far-right surge in European elections casts a shadow over EURO 2024.

- June 25, 2024
EURO 2024 is about politics, not just soccer. Here, German soccer fans cheer for their team.
German soccer fans at a 2024 EUROs championship game (cc) Marco Verch via CCNULL.

The European elections in early June resulted in a win for far-right nationalist parties, although not by as much as predicted. The largest gains were in the continent’s biggest countries: France and Germany. 

These two countries are also favorites to win Europe’s other big June event: the European soccer championships (EURO 2024). Victories in international soccer tournaments make people more nationalistic and proud of their home countries.That’s why far-right nationalist leaders, like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, use national team victories to their political advantage. However, the French and German soccer teams have tense relationships with the nationalist far right. That’s mostly because these teams rely heavily on players with an immigrant background.

Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper documents how the tense relationship between the French far right and the national team dates back at least three decades. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the former leader of the far right and father of current leader Marine Le Pen, remarked in 1996 that it was “artificial to bring players from abroad and call them ‘the French team.’”

French soccer stars fight back

In fact, almost everyone on that team was born in France. The team responded. When Le Pen reached the run-off for the 2002 presidential election, star player Zinedine Zidan, who Le Pen had called “an Algerian born in France,” came out strongly against Le Pen and the values he stands for. 

Fast forward to 2024. French President Emmanuel Macron has called national legislative elections following his party’s defeat in the European elections. Many observers expect Le Pen’s National Rally party to do very well.

Star French player Killian Mbappé warned against extremism and division in France, saying, “I hope I’ll still be proud to wear this shirt on July 7. I don’t want to represent a country that doesn’t correspond to our values.” Mbappé’s comments prompted angry responses from far-right leaders. And these leaders tend to emphasize France’s rugby successes over its soccer World Cup wins. 

Germany’s team also faces racist attitudes

In Germany, a broadcaster’s pre-tournament poll launched a huge outcry. The poll found that 21% of the public agreed with the statement that Germany’s national team should have more white players. Half of AfD voters (the German far-right party) wanted more white players on the team. The coach and players quickly condemned the survey as “racist.” But these survey findings also reveal longstanding political divisions over the German soccer team.

Germans were long reluctant to express strong national pride during international soccer tournaments.This all changed during the 2006 World Cup. Germans refer to this tournament as the “Sommermärchen” (summer fairy tale). Germany hosted the tournament and its people were lighthearted, expressing national pride in abundance.

Then Germany lost. Seasoned soccer fans are familiar with sportscaster Gary Lineker’s famous quip:

Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.

Not so in 2006 – but Germans became loveable and proud even as they lost in the semifinals.

Germany’s AfD does not embrace the home team

In 2018, the AfD pushed to remove German players of Turkish descent from the World Cup squad for paying “more homage to the Turkish president than they do to the German homeland.” The AfD also raged against the German team’s participation in gay pride events. Its party leader for the European elections, Maximilian Krah, who created a stir for making conciliatory comments about the Nazi-era SS, pronounced that: “The German team is no longer a national team, but the rainbow team, the pride team.”

The AfD’s gain in this year’s European elections was accompanied by large losses for the parties in the “traffic light” governing coalition: the Greens, the liberal FDP, and the social democratic SPD. Politicians from these parties have also tried to use the EUROs to their political advantage. Here’s a tweet from Katrin Göring-Eckardt (Greens), one of the vice presidents of Germany’s Bundestag, or parliament. She posted when Jamal Musiala scored against Hungary: 

This team is really great. Can you imagine if there were only white German players?

The backlash was immediate. Right-wing politicians accused Göring-Eckardt of racism against white people. Wolfgang Kubicki, the Bundestag’s vice president from coalition partner FDP, sought to capitalize by responding that “I find it really worrying when people in Germany are judged based on their skin color” and encouraged his colleague to delete her tweet. He then posted a picture of himself with his face painted like the German flag while enjoying a beer. His message was clear: The FDP politician, who many see as elitist, is a true man of the people.

Will all this EUROs politicking actually matter? 

That’s a good question. We know from research that more diverse teams perform better. We also know that major international tournament wins increase optimism and consumer demand – while losses can have the opposite effect. And we know that Germans are willing to pay considerable amounts for international soccer success, including EURO 2024

Soccer players tend to be highly popular when they help their country win, regardless of their ethnic or immigration backgrounds. Indeed, political scientists have found that exposure to Liverpool star Mo Salah induced more positive feelings towards Muslims. Things tend to get ugly when players miss penalties that cost their country a chance to win a major tournament. 

Soccer, like politics, is ultimately about winning and losing. After the AfD’s European Parliament gains, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is no doubt cheering for a German win in the EUROs and a popularity bump for his SPD coalition.

Like Germany, France is also a perennial favorite in global soccer. And France’s National Assembly elections on June 30 and July 7 take place smack in the middle of the EUROs. If the French team is doing well, this may lift the mood and help Macron’s centrist alliance, although probably not nearly enough to overcome the large gap in the polls.