Can Europe Make It?

Football and its role in unifying the European public space

The Iron Curtain gave in when confronted with soccer, and that was only the beginning. Interview with Pascal Boniface.

Pascal Boniface Benjamin Grizbec
3 November 2014

The opening ceremony of Euro 2012, which was jointly held in Poland and Ukraine. Wikimedia. Public domain.

This is one of a series of articles we are publishing from Eutopia Magazine – ideas for Europe. Eutopia sets out to create a place for European citizens to analyze the issues most relevant to their future by openly debating them with authoritative voices in each field.

Invented in Italy (calcio) and in England, is soccer fundamentally European?

Pascal Boniface: Soccer was born in England. It spread by way of British sailors, engineers and colleges who exported it directly or indirectly. The Italians and the Chinese may claim the paternity of soccer, but these claims are less recognized.

Soccer has been a European sport. The medal winners of the World Cup may be confined to Europeans and South-Americans, but soccer today is a world-wide sport, when it comes to audience and practice. As far as competition goes, for a very long time the World Cup only took place in Europe or in South America (the first was in Uruguay) and each time there has been an expansion, challenges are raised under the pretext that doing so exceeds the classical perimeter of soccer. Whether in the United States in 1994, in Asia in 2002, or in Africa in 2010, there have always been critics to say that these are not real soccer countries, that it is really a question of trade, that it is politically correct, etc. Nowadays, soccer is truly a world sport with English roots, developed in Europe first and with European and South American medal winners.

In which way has soccer changed Europe?

PB: The Iron Curtain gave in when confronted with soccer before giving in to public opinion, television and popular claims. We can note that in the 1950s, people did not travel much in general, seldom in Eastern Europe, and even less in the Soviet Union. The clubs, players and journalists who travelled to accompany these competitions were precursors. With the development of tourism and “fan support”, traveling for international games permitted the establishment of contacts between people. We can thus say that soccer played a unifying role in the European public space. It erased barriers, frontiers and the Iron Curtain long before the political process. Citizens knew, for instance, that there was a good club in Budapest. We thus had an eye on the Eastern countries at a time when no eye, no presence could be projected towards this part of the world. When soccer players began to migrate towards other championships, it became important to know their results. It was thus normal to be interested in the four or five European championships.

Moreover, many children learned European geography by reading “France Football” for example, and thanks to the ranking of the different European championships. In spite of the appearance of a certain weariness of Europe, we can say that the common references of the European youth can be found around the Erasmus program and the Champions League.

On the opposite end, in which way did Europe change soccer, particularly with the Bosman ruling, which symbolized the free circulation of workers?

PB: The Bosman ruling freed players but did not change soccer. This ruling is often linked to inequality in wages and to the concentration of the best players in the wealthiest clubs and the major championships. Yet, if club budgets are unequal, it is because of the TV rights and the inequality of the latter’s repartition depending on the importance of the championships. Liverpool will earn much more that the champion of Romania or Bulgaria.

There is a concentration of wealth in the most powerful and the most attractive championships. This concentration has become cumulative since the British championship, the most powerful, sells its rights abroad at an even higher fee (Indonesia, Malaysia...). There exists thus a concomitance of time with the advent of the Bosman ruling and the explosion of TV rights. If the Bosman ruling had existed without the explosion of TV rights, this inequality in the teams’ competitiveness would not exist. 

Does it mean something to speak of "European soccer" distinct from other soccer playing (African, South American, etc...)?

PB: Geographically speaking yes. We realize that the European public watches many more European competitions than non-European competitions. There are indeed many more African, South American or Asian players who play in Europe than the opposite. There is still a kind of “soccer drain” that attracts the best players to Europe. It will not last forever as we already see the return of players in the Argentinian or Brazilian championships. The economic gap is not as large as before. But it is true that the competitions that count the most are European. Those who leave Europe are often at the end of their career.

The multi-polarization of soccer follows that of the world, and thus the fact that more important means exist in the other championships will bring an equilibrium. Even if the balancing movements are slow. It will still take time before the African Cup of Champion Clubs is at par with the Champions’ League.

Is the cultural, political, social and economic role of soccer particular in Europe?

PB: The economic role, yes, but with no common measure with the rest of the importance of soccer. The most renowned clubs are medium-sized businesses at the economic level whereas they are world-known. The societal media impact of soccer is incomparably more important than its economic contribution. One must not negate the economic contribution of soccer, but FC Barcelona, Manchester United and the Bayern Munich are as well-known as General Motors or Coca-Cola without having the same economic founding. In spite of the always increasing sizeable sums of money that circulate in the soccer world, one must not over interpret the economic importance of soccer.

On Monday mornings in universities, offices and workshops, people speak of the games that took place over the weekend. And on Friday evenings, people talk about the games that will occur during the weekend. Whether sport is watched on TV or is practiced informally or in a club, we see that sports have more and more importance in society. Today, even the generalist press talks about sports whereas it did not before. In 1930, for the first World Cup, the newspaper "L’Auto" (the ancestor of the daily "L’Equipe") recounted the first game of the French team in eighteen lines only. Nowadays, every media outlet watches over Ribéry’s injury and airs the departure of the French team for Brazil live. Soccer is at the center of the world for the month of the World Cup. And it is the same, starting in September, with the Ligue 1 and the Champions League.

Do the soccer frontiers in Europe intersect with other internal frontiers? Is the importance of soccer in Southern Europe, for instance, the same as in Northern Europe? 

PB: Historically, yes, but it has changed. The stadiums in Germany are full since the renovation and the arrival of a family public. In England, it’s different. Even if a club is relegated to an inferior level, it will always have supporters faithful to the club. In France, more than a supporting culture, people like victories above all. There are therefore great fluctuations depending on the results. Lens or Saint-Etienne can be considered exceptions. We can say that there are different cultures of attachment. In England, the attachment is really particular, visceral, of family transmission. In Italy, there is less attraction, the audiences are not as good. In other countries, the bond is strong but it does not have the total characteristic that prevails in England. 

Soccer recreates an identity link in a world where globalization tends to break down the barriers to these feelings of belonging. It is the case for Belgium, which is united behind its team whereas the country is divided between Walloons and Flemish. Could we say that Europe will be truly united only when it has a unique team for the World Cup based on the United States model?

PB: Europe must not at all have its own team for the World Cup. There is on the one hand the United States of America, but on the other hand, there is no United States of Europe. It is therefore not the same story. The United States are a federal country. We are a federation of nation-states, which is very different. The United States has been one country from the outset. Two hundred years ago, France and Germany were not in the same country, nor were they united in a same federation. Moreover, these internal competitions add salt to the European construction.

At a time when Europe is blamed for being an ensemble that erases identities, it should not add the erasing of the soccer identity, because everybody rejoices at a France-Germany, a France-Italy, a Netherlands-Germany, etc. game. The historical rivalries in which soccer and strategic politics become entangled are useful for the creation of a national public space, so that people do not think that Europe has erased everything, for which it is blamed often enough. And what would we do with a united European team?  We do not need it in terms of competitiveness, it would be hard to manage. It is the same as when people say that if we had a European team at the Olympic Games, we would be the first in terms of medals. It is wrong because we would not be able to represent several teams in collective sports. The medal count would thus not be at all the same. Once again, Europe is already blamed enough for erasing identities that it should not involve itself in sports where soft patriotic feelings are and have been essential.

Money penetrates soccer more and more. This is particularly true at the club level. Can Europe, particularly through UEFA, open the way for a certain regulation of soccer? In this case, can soccer show the way that Europe should take to regulate its social and economic globalization?

PB: There are no direct links or parallels between the financial regulation of UEFA on one side and the European construction on the other. Money plays an important role for the clubs, less for national teams. Can Europe regulate? But regulate what exactly? When people say that there is more and more money in soccer, it is the reflection of the market economy. Soccer has deficits but does not function at loss. Soccer redistributes the money it earns. Do people say that there is more and more money in cinema? It is always the players’ salaries that is the target because many people consider that it is abnormal to be paid to play soccer. In Raymond Copa’s time, he was already told “You are paid too much, go back to the mine!” He earned a hundred times less than what the stars earn today.

When we listen to a diva sing, nobody wonders what she earns, we just listen to her. Why do we ask the question for a soccer player? It is true that there is a lot of money in soccer, which can sometimes induce bad behavior from very young players. Some twenty-year-old soccer players have a media profile identical to that of a sixty-year-old minister, with his political life behind him. But how could we regulate? Should there be a salary cap? In this case, it should be done in other fields. It is the market economy with its qualities and its faults. The activity must be regulated so that it does not live at loss.

In this sense, Michel Platini’s financial fair play (he’s the president of UEFA) is a very good thing so that clubs in deficit may not alter the competition. But then it is not for Europe to decide what should be the salaries of soccer players and club budgets. Unless we return to another system in which the State decides the budget of clubs and the players’ salaries, but I think that part of Eastern Europe would disagree.

In spite of the logic of internal blocks, how, through UEFA (created in 1954), has European soccer been able to make countries that don’t even have diplomatic relations cohabit?

PB: To become a member of UEFA has a very important media impact and represents few obligations. UEFA is very welcoming, it erects less barriers for the countries that are candidates to join the EU. In terms of obligations of results, of constraints, the fact of becoming a member of the EU takes years of negotiation so that a country’s juridical and economic system is compatible with what already exists in the EU. Whereas for UEFA, a country just needs to adopt the same chart. It is therefore easier and more attractive to join UEFA. It enables, in particular, Turkey, Israel or Ukraine to show a belonging to Europe, which is not obvious on the political level.

Interview conducted by Benjamin Grizbec. Translated by Jennie Dorny and Raimes Combes.

First published at Eutopia.

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