Sports bring people together and, so writes Alexandre Le Coz, they might even help create a pan-EU identity. Proposing an annual football match, in which an EU team plays against a group of non-European footballers, he outlines how a European demos might be born on the soccer field.

May 9th, 2022. We are five months into the French presidency of the Council of the European Union. The newly-elected French government has mandated the Stade de France for this exceptional occasion. On people’s back, we can read the names of Oblak, van Dijk, Kanté, or Ronaldo. People have come from all over Europe to see the eleven EU players they nominated defeat the ‘Team World’, made up of non-EU players. Over 80,000 Europeans have united in the flamboyant Parisian arena, vivified in this warm night of May not by patriotic French football fans but by united Europeans who share an admirable sense of solidarity at the core of their identity.

At the 89th minute, an Ode to Joy resounds under the stadium’s roofing. People are singing. Europeans are united again, only two years after having lost one of their historic members. Bolstered by the support of their fans, the players in blue and yellow remobilise their strengths. Oblak quickly passes the ball on the left flank of the pitch where Alaba had come in support of the Slovenian goalkeeper. Using all his speed, the Austrian left back drives the ball up the pitch, passes to Ronaldo who crosses, finds Lewandowski in the box who heads the ball behind the net of the helpless Claudio Bravo. 2-1. The EU has won, united in diversity.

Creating unity through football

There is very little doubt about the ability of sports to generate a sense of belonging and community. By promoting solidarity and social inclusion, sport has always been a tool for education through its capacity to unite people from disparate backgrounds. Of all sports, football is Europe’s common creed. Football has no borders and is accessible to all. To some extent, it is the physical embodiment of European democracy. What could then prevent the creation of an EU football team to generate greater understanding and support for the European Union?

Of all sports, football is Europe’s common creed.

The hard truth is that our Union today suffers from an important lack of legitimacy and credibility in the minds of most European citizens. It has even been claimed that the European Union also experiences a severe and more worrying democratic deficit. Ignoring such truths would most likely lead to the downfall of the same Union we cherish so much for having guaranteed us peace and prosperity across the continent. We do not want to fall back onto naïve and blissful euro-optimism. The European Union itself has acknowledged such limits to its ambition. It has in fact upheld pan-European initiatives such as the European Capitals of Culture, the “Europe for Citizens” Programme, Erasmus, the “Rights Equality and Citizenship” Programme and Creative Europe, all with the aim of bridging the gap between European citizens and the EU. As of 2020 however, a genuine European demos has still not emerged.

Creating a football team common to all EU member states would help by introducing the EU to the daily lives of European citizens. It would not only be a way to increase citizen’s awareness of the European project, but would allow for the European Union to increase its visibility among a previously uninterested crowd. Of course, an EU football team would not be a miracle solution to the creation of a European demos. It would however be a step towards democratizing a supranational identity complementary to the already exiting national ones of individual member states.

The power of European symbols

Creating a football team common to all EU member states would also be an informal source of supranational civic education for young Europeans. Imagine a stadium of tens of thousands of united Europeans gathered in one place, waving the same 12 star-spangled blue and yellow flag in support of a pan-European team of professionals representing the 27 member states. On top of that, imagine your 11 starters entering the pitch on the resounding of the Ode to Joy and with a blue and yellow EU kit embroidered with the words: “in varietate concordia”. United in diversity. How could our European youth not feel a sense of belonging to such a united community? How could our European youth not grasp the immense potential of such supranational symbols? We’ve created them explicitly to spur this sense of belonging to a transnational community. To realistically fulfill its ambitions, the European Union must inculcate the significance of its principles and values to its citizens, and sports might just be an ideal means to these ends.

Creating a football team common to all EU member states is not a blatant attempt at imposing supranational governance over individual member states. Nor is it a naïve and blissful euro-federalist idea unimplementable in practice. In fact, similar initiatives exist with the Ryder and Laver Cups. Why could football not do the same? The idea is not new. Over ten years ago, the Slovenian prime minister Janez Janša already proposed the creation of an EU football team to the European Parliament. He claimed it could be the backbone to the development of a common European identity. Reinvigorating this project has never been more realistic than at a time when Europeans must come together to recover from the adverse effects of a global pandemic. Let us not forget that the European Union has been forged through crises, and that the COVID-19 pandemic will undoubtedly call upon the sense of solidarity of all Europeans. As an integral part of the European way of life, football might play an important role in such a recovery. When we look at the pan-European craze that revolved around the desire of having national football leagues resume, none can credibly question the idea that football is at the very core of the European identity we seek to construct.

Let us not forget that the European Union has been forged through crises

Nevertheless, voices will continue to rise claiming football represents all that is wrong within our European societies. It is true there have been isolated instances of tax evasion, money laundering, homophobia, and racism. Certainly, these are at the antipode of what the European Union represents. But these adverse effects are not what constitute the origins of football. Rather, they are the result of the rise of corporate sports and of football as an industry more than an art.

Creating a football team common to all EU member states is the opportunity to impart a new impetus to the European Union. By participating in an annual friendly match against another team of non-EU nationals playing in Europe (the so-called ‘Team World’), the project would be an annual event that would not require an institutionalized structure; thus setting aside many of the adverse effects too often attributed to football.

The creation of an EU football team is above all an opportunity for European players and fans to come together and forge their emerging sense of supranational solidarity. It is an opportunity for us Europhiles, to express our gratitude to a project that brought so much to our lives. Put bluntly, the creation of an EU football team is an opportunity to teach the future generations about what the European Union has done for us, and what it can still do for them.

Cover photo: Jannik Skorna (Unsplash), Unsplash licence 

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    Alexandre Le Coz is originally from Lyon, France, and grew up in New York. He earned his Masters in European and International Public Policy from the London School of Economics, and a Bachelor in Political Science and Communications from McGill University. Having worked at the United States Congress for a year, his interests include transatlantic relations, citizen representation, and trade policy. Follow him on Twitter at @lecozalexandre.

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