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Playing the European Game

01 June 2002

Football is the most European, and simultaneously, the most global of sports. The British Empire spread the game throughout Europe, and then worldwide. But national cultures in Europe quickly shaped peculiar and distinctive ways of playing the game which in time became expressions of collective identity.
Local and international matches became as The Times has put it "a continuation of war by other means". No other form of popular culture generates football's passion and lifelong loyalties among its devotees. The cross-class profile of the game in the Latin countries in contrast to its traditional working-class image in Northern Europe is now spreading throughout old, and new, football-crazy countries. And while globalisation may jeopardise football's established allegiances and identities, it is also making the world a single playing field: this year's World Cup in Japan and South Korea is the first held outside Europe and the Americas.
In football terms Europe has always been a super-power, capable of setting rules and standards irrespective of the outside world. After World War II, bilateral contacts were re-established and the first multinational networks were set up through football. Britain, however, decided to remain aloof from both the political and sporting integration of continental Europe. At the very same time the Foreign Office was turning down the invitation to attend the Messina Conference on European integration in 1955, the English Football Association was refusing Chelsea permission to participate in the first European Cup.
European countries have developed some legendary football rivalries, which mostly centre on their relationship with (West) Germany. England, Italy, France and the Netherlands all have had a 'German problem', as have the Hungarians, Czechs and Danes. UEFA anticipated détente and enlargement by extending its membership from Turkey to Russia. In the former Soviet Union, national and oppressed minorities found expression in local teams. And the disintegration of Yugoslavia began on the football pitch, with some future warlords starting out as hooligan leaders.
In the last two decades, football has become an industry, turning clubs into firms, players into (well-paid) employees, and fans into customers. Television has made football into a show with worldwide audiences, where the players are the stars and icons.
Moreover, the 'Bosman ruling' of the European Court of Justice in 1995 extended the norms of the single market to the players' transfer system. Players can now change clubs across countries once they have fulfilled their contract just like any other worker. This was the first direct intrusion of EU institutions into the inter-governmental universe of professional football. But long before Europol came into existence, cross-border police co-operation in Europe had already started in the fight against hooliganism.
Many European politicians now regard attendance at football matches as a crucial part of their electoral appeal. This further contributes to making football an area of public policy in its own right. In recent years, the game has had to deal with issues as diverse as illegal immigration (false passports to circumvent quotas) and regulatory inroads by the European Commission (on transfers regimes and broadcasting).
External business interests and stock exchange listings, along with increasingly multinational team line-ups, are challenging traditional club allegiances. More often than not, 'non-nationals' are in a majority on the pitch for Arsenal, Barcelona or Milan. These clubs are now typically 'European' and have many fans from beyond their traditional constituencies. National teams too are increasingly multi-racial from England's West Indian-descended players to France's mix of players from far-flung former colonies, conveying a much more inclusive image of their respective communities.
Football, like Europe, is becoming increasingly 'post-modern': no more wars, but rather peer pressure and best practice, with a strong emphasis on fair regulation and professional refereeing. The World Cup is unlikely to bring us back to adversarial, modern national allegiances. On the contrary it may foster reconciliation between Korea and Japan as well as between Koreans North and South. It may also help bring the US more into the global game, and thus perhaps more in tune with the rest of the world.
As for Europe, it is unclear whether the Champions League will eventually replace national leagues with a single European one. It is an idea that appeals to Europe's richest clubs, but has not yet materialised. This is perhaps because, for football fans, winning the local derby in Rome, London or Glasgow and defeating the team they love to hate, ultimately still defines the world.