Undeniable beauty of football’s summer show can briefly unite a fractured Europe

<span>The European Championship trophy takes centre stage in Munich’s Allianz Arena, stage for Friday’s opener, <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Germany;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Germany</a> v Scotland.</span><span>Photograph: Alexander Hassenstein/Uefa/Getty Images</span>

“We will be United In The Heart Of Europe. Over four weeks.” Looking back, it was probably wise of Uefa’s president, Aleksander Ceferin, to add that neat little disclaimer while announcing the official slogan of Euro 2024, to dial back just a touch the tournament’s contractual peace, love and unity obligations.

Three years on from the big unveil in Munich, Uefa is still out there shunning (some) despots, eradicating intolerance everywhere (apart from in major European football leagues) and reaching out with a single trembling hand, Michael Jackson-style, to lower the rifle barrel of the nearest infantryman. But only, let’s be clear on this, for the next four weeks. And we will have to insist everyone promises to keep their eyes fixed on the screen and closes their ears to the noises through the wall.

Six years and 239 qualifying matches in the making, carbon-light but still undeniably grand, Euro 2024 is finally upon us. And it is hard not to drool just a little at the prospect of 51 games in 31 days, a stage for eight of the top-10-ranked teams in the world, to lose yourself in the sound and light of a proper, non-plague-ridden European Championship for the first time since France 2016.

Related: Euro 2024: Guardian writers’ predictions for the tournament

The draw looks open, with at least five plausible winners in France, Portugal, Spain, England and the hosts. Germany remains a classic rock-’n’-roll-years host nation. A visibly delighted John McGinn has been pictured dancing to oompah music alongside smiling people in traditional Bavarian costume, described by the assistant manager, John Carver, as “joining in with the culture”, with a sense of nostalgic yearning about the whole tableau, like a Shoot magazine feature from 1982. After the ersatz exercise that was the Euros of Everywhere, this all feels pretty real.

For now anyway. Like every other global sporting beano, there is a sense, too, of ghosts at the edge of the picture, of the world shifting uncomfortably around this thing. We may, as Ceferin points out, be in the heart of Europe. But those tectonic plates continue to grind.

It is worth remembering political flux is a part of the heritage of the European Championship. This is a tournament forged around the wider urge for post-war European stability, the notion of football as an arm of international relations. The first edition in 1960 was won by the USSR, helped by a walkover after fascist Spain refused to travel to a communist country. Euro 88, the last one in West Germany, still feels indissolubly bound up with perestroika, the fall of the wall, Gorbachev and Reagan, the phrase “that was a different time”.

Now we have something different, a European championship in the shadow of a European land war, taking place 400 miles from Germany’s border, the equivalent of a match-day drive from Carlisle to Plymouth. The prime minister of Slovakia has been shot. Germany’s defence minister said this week the country needs to be “ready for war” by 2029. Europe is fringed with tension, toxic ally-ship and the fear of moving lines on the map. The 2006 World Cup had the strap-line “A Place to Make Friends”. How about this time we just go with A Place to Stop Threatening Each Other for a Bit.

It is one of the misconceptions of these big football events that they can somehow engender peace, unity and a reframed “national consciousness”. This is a confusion of optics and reality. Sporting tournaments are simply theatre, and heavily choreographed theatre, too. People will jump up and down if you play music. People will hug if you build a hugging stage. But it is a basic category mistake to confuse this with actual social progress, an act of liberal self-sportswashing to see in the chemistry of athletes and a cheering crowd the catalyst for some brave new wider dawn.

France’s “Rainbow Team” of 1998 has often been described as a visible triumph for tolerance, sport as a force for lasting good. No doubt this felt true in the glow of victory. But a quarter of century on France has just called snap elections that could land the country with a far-right anti-immigration prime minister. Le Pen-ism was a fringe pursuit in 1998. It isn’t any more. Did England feel like a more or less racist place on the morning of 12 July 2021 after its diverse, representative and likable team had missed some penalties at Wembley?

A similar process is part of the mythology of Germany 2006, which has been referenced so many times in recent weeks as a hopeful call-back, an example of football engineering, some form of real world peace, hope, unity, whatever. This is also a case of parallax error. We recall the spectacle and we associate it with a feeling.

But it is worth noting two other significant things happened after the 2006 World Cup. Germany experienced a sustained economic boom, which definitely helps with the feeling good aspects. And Europe experienced a financial crash plus mass migration, sowing the seeds for the Alternative für Deutschland movement, created out of discontent at the obligation to prop up other European economies, and a political party whose recent statements include a desire to give a second chance to the Nazi SS because, you know, not all of them were bad.

Back in 2006 the call-up of David Odonkor, a German of Ghanaian heritage, had been hailed as genuine evidence of a new kind of Germany emerging. Cut forward to now and a recent poll suggested 21% of Germans would like their Nationalmannschaft to be (how to put this?) more white. Meanwhile, the AfD (birth date: seven years on from the World Cup of German liberal contentment) is one of the largest single democratic presences in Germany.

It seems bizarre even saying it, but sport will not solve actual, real world problems. Only politics, resources and genuine resolve can do that. The spectacle is nice, but the spectacle is also a chimera.

So much for that side of things. Geopolitics aside, the spectacle has its own value. Uefa will be very grateful for a proper, functioning, problem-free tournament. Sponsor revenue is already said to be up by 25% on the previous Covid-shadowed affair. A TV audience of five billion is predicted.

Beyond all the noise there is the simple pleasure principle, the undeniable beauty of this summer show. It is evidence of European football’s good health that these Euros seem so captivating. There may be no generational team yet, no Holland 88, no Xavi-Iniesta Spain, but those teams also didn’t really exist until they came together in the tournament stage.

Germany are better than they’ve looked at times. Portugal are strong and still have the starlight of the world’s most Instagrammed man at their disposal. France have reached three of the past four tournament finals. Kylian Mbappé is playing centre-forward. This could be his stage.

As for England, well, who knows. Perhaps the last Euros will turn out to have been the biggest opportunity of the Southgate era. This team are fresh, young and purposefully disrupted by the manager to stir a little energy. So much will rest on the tactical fit of the first two games.

Elsewhere, Albania, Austria and Serbia look like convincing dark horses, with the disclaimer that all predictions of dark horsedom must end up hilariously wide of the mark. Scotland, who have nothing to lose and a fine manager, may surprise a few people.

With any luck these Euros may just end up feeling like a pleasant holiday from the grind and toxicity of the club game. It has become commonplace to dismiss international football as quaint and mannered, not helped by the jarring mid-season leap into an arthritic Nations League draw away to Syldavia.

But at times like this the intensity of the format provides such clarity of purpose. Nothing can really intrude. No one is buying anyone. Nobody will be sacked or sued here. The only questions are chemistry, systems, the interplay of moments and variables, and above all the pursuit of glory, out there in the furred and sclerotic heart of Europe, united for four short weeks.