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Soccer, The European Soft Power That Politics Can Only Dream Of

The Euro 2021 Football competition is a reminder that European integration can take many forms.

A soccer player places their foot on a soccer ball
A soccer player places their foot on a soccer ball
Adrien Pécout

Whether you listen to the archived speeches of former French President Charles de Gaulle or look this week at the soccer stadiums of Europe, both will tell you that the continent spans from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ural Mountains. Until recently, the European soccer championship, known as the "Euro," has been held in only one or two countries at most. But in 2021, it is being hosted by 11 different countries: from Azerbaijan (Baku) and Russia (St. Petersburg) to Germany (Munich) and Italy (Rome). The final match, slated for July 11, will take place in London, freshly and famously now outside of the European Union.

Europe's primary political existence is headquartered in Brussels and takes form in the EU, which is now made up of 27 member states, after the United Kingdom officially withdrew on Jan. 31, 2020. That number is already much smaller than the Council of Europe (47 countries), the Strasbourg-based human rights organization. And it is even smaller than the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), which takes the prize for the largest "European" body. The latter, based in Nyon, Switzerland, defines itself as "politically neutral," yet it is as influential as it is independent.

The playing field is vast: 55 national federations, 24 of which are taking part in the ongoing Euro finals. UEFA's size has fluctuated over the years, particularly after the break-ups of the Soviet Union and former Yugoslavia, which added several new entities into the mix. And Israel, originally a member, and even champion, of the Asian Confederation, fell victim to the boycott of many countries in the Asian zone and became a member of UEFA in 1994.

But the two Europes, the athletic and the political, grew up separately.

After World War II, the International Football Federation pushed for the creation of continental confederations. Thus, UEFA was founded in 1954 — the same year as its Asian counterpart and three years before the African one. The South American Confederation has existed since 1916. On the European continent, UEFA's founding in the 1950s coincided with the signing of the Treaty of Rome (1957), which paved the way for the European Union, with the establishment of the European Economic Community (EEC). Another beloved symbol of "Europeanness," the TV talent show, Eurovision, began that decade as well.

But the two Europes, the athletic and the political, grew up separately. At the political level, the construction of a United States of Europe "struggled with the cohesion of people," says William Gasparini, author of the book "The Europe of Football - a Socio-History of European Construction." The sociologist explains that the European Union "remained an economic and elite affair; by the first European elections in 1979, democracy had not yet taken form."

Yet in quite the opposite sense, through its popularity, "soccer functioned as a powerful vector for the Europeanization of citizens." But it has been a complex process, as evidenced by the headline "Just like in ‘18" which appeared on the front page of the French magazine, L'Equipe, after France beat Germany in their first Euro 2021 match. The sports daily chose to play on ambiguity by referring both to the victory of Les Bleus in the 2018 World Cup, but also, implicitly, to that of the Allies in World War I in 1918.

The entrance of Camp Nou Stadium in Barcelona, Spain —Photo: Edgar Chaparro

While the EEC was limited to six Western European countries, UEFA has, from the outset, sought to free itself from the logic of the Cold War. The Euro illustrates this openness to the East: For its first edition, the European Cup of Nations brought together two rivals from the socialist bloc in the final when the Soviet Union beat Yugoslavia in Paris in July 1960. The match was "played in the rain and in front of only 17,000 spectators," noted Le Monde at the time. The sparse attendance at the Parc des Princes stadium had the privilege of admiring the "Black Spider": Soviet goalkeeper Lev Yashin, known for his affinity toward dark clothing.

As with the World Cup, launched in 1930 by the Frenchman Jules Rimet, then president of the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), the initiative for the new European competition came from another French Football Federation head: Henri Delaunay. As its media coverage expanded, interest in the Euro would continue to grow over the decades.

"Europe is made of the member countries of the UEFA."

The Championship would end up realizing "the ancient project of a European championship that did not necessarily aim to build a European identity, but rather to distinguish styles of play based on nations' cultural conceptions, in hopes of establishing a sporting hierarchy between peoples," wrote Paul Dietschy, Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Franche-Comté, in the Pôle Sud scientific journal in 2017. "The popular success of the Euro is today a sure indication of the power of national sentiment."

For Dietschy, the Euro is proof that friendly and festive patriotism exists to the same degree, and alongside, violent and aggressive ultranationalism.

Club competitions, which exist in conjunction with the UEFA, also build the European landscape. The Champions League, another French initiative, is a great example of this. Sports historian and researcher Philippe Vonnard wrote in Swiss daily Le Temps that "Europe is made of the member countries of the UEFA." He added that through soccer, the "mental representations of the geography of Europe remain very stable."

In the 1990s, the free movement of capital and goods within the single European market was followed by the free movement of professional athletes, as sanctified by the "Bosman ruling" in the European Court of Justice in 1995.

The EU today seems to still struggle to understand its role, if any, in the regulation of the sport. The UEFA's rule of "financial fair play," which came into existence in 2010, aims to prevent professional clubs from spending more than they earn. Yet, this does not prevent wage hyperinflation from continuing. Nor did it prevent the (for now) aborted attempt earlier this year by the wealthiest clubs to create a Super League just for their exclusive benefit. It was a reminder that the future of the European soccer project is ultimately as uncertain as the political one.

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Photograph of Police and emergency services working at the site of a shooting in Jerusalem that saw two gunmen kill three people at a bus station in the Israeli capital.

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👋 ନମସ୍କାର*

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[*Namaskār - Odia, India]

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