Borja Garcia: Euroscepticism and the World Cup: United in football diversity

I was of all places in Brussels, at the presentation of the European Week of Sport, when Simon Usherwood proposed to write something on Euroscepticism and the theme of the week, the World Cup. Because, yes, it is that time again, football’s biggest tournament is upon us and this time it comes from Brazil. Unlike Simon (see his post here), I do care enormously about football, both personally and academically. Football is not only great fun, but it is also a subject of massive economic, political and social importance for Europeans that deserves rigorous academic attention. At the end of the day, shouldn’t we academics do research that matters to the people?

So, football. It seems to be an easy target for those eurosceptics out there, because the game is perhaps one of the latest bastions of local and national identity. Some even describe the World Cup as modern bloodless war where nations face each other and put their pride at stake for 90 minute. Ultimately, football has nothing to do with Europe… or has it?

Traditionally, there have been two ‘schools of thought’ in the relationship of football and Europe. These could be easily be summarised in two familiar names: Andonino and Bosman. On the one hand, there were those who thought sport maybe a vehicle to develop a European identity, as suggested in the Andonino report presented to the European Council in 1985. On the other hand, there was the ‘Bosman and the EU have ruined our game’ brigade, mainly at UEFA headquarters in Switzerland.

But this was all very much top-down. Even research on football and the EU tended to focus on the elite and the decision-makers. Very few people tried to ask the Europeans what football really means to them. How the ordinary citizen does live football? How important it is for them? Can football bring Europeans together? This is what a group of academics have been doing under the umbrella of the innovative FREE Project for the last two years. And the conclusions are interesting. Perhaps, after all football has much to do with Europe!

To start with, there is an undeniable finding: Football brings people together. Yes, many have focused historically on the problems and fights around the game; but the research shows that football supporters appreciate the game because it is social, because it allows them to meet new people. Football makes them happy! Football is a people’s game and, for that reason, it is a big shame that it is being ‘high jacked’ by commercial interests. Linked to that, a survey of nine European countries done within the FREE Project reveals that an average of around 55% of the Europeans declare to follow or have an interest in football. I guess Simon belongs to the others, but I dare you to find a single topic of discussion that can be shared among more European than football, other than perhaps criticising the Commission!

Over the last few years I have visited many countries in Europe, and some around the world as far as New Zealand. The moment I reveal my Spanish nationality the two most commons points of conversation are either the prowess of the national team in the World Cup or the classic question of whether I support Real Madrid or Barcelona. Only to answer that, actually, I support Nottingham Forest!

So we have settled for the moment that football is not only very important to Europeans, but also that they appreciate how it facilitates social interaction. Finally, another finding of our FREE Project is that fandom allows for multiple allegiances. Supporters for this World Cup do not only follow their national team, but they also follow and support other nations in Brazil. Crucially, these are all European teams except for Brazil, which is very much admired throughout the continent. But there are Spaniards that will follow and support Germany, or Danes who will follow and support Spain. I happen to know a Spaniard from Andalucía who will actually support Italy in the World Cup, not Spain.

Does this mean that people are likely to support a ‘Team Europe’ in the World Cup or the Olympics as sometimes it is proposed? Probably not, but for me that is not the question. I would argue that we are losing focus. The importance of football lies in that it has a potential to bring European people together. The game is a social activity that gets Europeans in touch. And, in that respect, it much more dangerous to those who want to separate Europeans along tight national lines, such as Nigel Farrage. This is perhaps more typical of the European club competitions and the EURO than the World Cup. Personally, I felt very European while travelling to Gdansk to support Spain in the EURO 2012 on my read jersey. There, I made many Italian friends (our rivals that evening), and learn a lot about Croatia whilst watching Croatia-Ireland in the Fanzone.

Granted, football will probably never develop an EU identity. And it probably should not! But it can actually bring us Europeans much closer than the Commission, the Parliament or the Council ever will. It can develop a real European public space. I actually think that football is one of the best bottom-up examples of bringing ‘an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe’. Valery Giscard D’Estaing, in his failed attempt to get us a Constitution for Europe, proposed a slogan for the EU that I really liked, and I still do, because for me it reflects perfectly what Europe should and can be: ‘United in diversity’. And this is what football is actually about. So perhaps the game is less a bastion of Eurosceptics after all. Thus, I will invite those sceptics, and that includes Simon, to watch the World Cup to admire the defensive prowess of Italy, the athleticism of Germany or the technical ability of current holders Spain (I had to say it, sorry!).

Perhaps football has much to do with Europe after all, hasn’t it?