Forza Europa!? The World Cup and euroscepticism

Maybe it’s all the sun we’ve been having this week, but some foolish impudence leads me to write about football, a subject about which I know little and possibly care less. After an exchange of tweets with @DrBorjaGarcia yesterday, we decided that we’d tackle (sic) the question of the relationship between the World Cup and euroscepticism, each from our respective ends of knowledge and understanding. So here goes.

The first point to make is that there isn’t much direct linkage between the two. Football remains a deeply nationally-constructed game, in the sense that national federations and leagues predominate, notwithstanding the effects of Bosman, which is approaching its 20th anniversary. No one seriously talks about replacing those national units with a European one, especially in the sense of a ‘European’ team being fielded in international competition.

At the same time, we do see some aspects that merit some consideration.

Firstly, there is an entire question about identification. Perhaps due to a well-merited sense of caution this time round, I have yet to see acres of England flags, although once they don’t lose a game, they will doubtless appear. There’s already a burgeoning literature about football as an affective fulcrum for identity politics, but the question here is whether that is a zero-sum process, where strengthening national bonds come at the price of weaker European ones.

In this, the evidence is mixed. Consider the 2010 final between Spain and the Netherlands, where the former’s victory was taken more as a symbol of Spanish footballing prowess than anything more. Or the multicultural impact of the 1998 French team. All this against the classic of the strengthened national myth that is England 1966 win (‘two world wars, one world cup’, etc…).

Clearly the tension here is that national teams compete against other national teams, so the scope for the EU per se to take a direct hit is limited.

At the same time, the EU does put itself in harm’s way. Just this morning, I saw the first tweet that has historically characterised the Union’s co-optive approach:

In recent years, it has been the habit of the Parliament or Commission to note how much ‘Europe’ has won, which obviously flatters, since member states have many more bites of the cherry than do the US or China (or anyone else for that matter). Leaving aside the very flawed mathematics, the attempt to appropriate sporting success does not seem to be a productive one, since supporters of the countries that are involved resent others trying to bandwagon, while supporters of other member states will be hesitant to transfer allegiance to teams that might well have beaten their own.

By drawing attention to this, EU institutions offer an easy target for critics, who can reasonably argue that eurocrats don’t understand the game, or have a not-so-secret agenda. In short, much downside risk, with not much upside.

If anything, as much as the EU does figure in supporters’ minds, it is the challenge to national teams posed by Bosman and free movement. Certainly, the English situation of a rich league and a sparse youth-development programme means that the top tier of the game leaves very few opportunities for domestic players to gain the experience needed for international competition. The remedies to that might seem to be rather obvious, but discursively, the Union makes a convenient bogeyman.

And this is perhaps the key point I would draw out: the EU has a habit of drawing attention to itself and its actions, without necessarily being able to back those up in the event of difficulties. In an arena that excites such strong emotions, the temptation to say ‘we’re part of this’ is strong, but possibly misguided.

And with that, I leave it to Borja, for his thoughts.