May 9, 2022. 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. We can read on people’s back the names of Oblak, van Dijk, Kanté, or Ronaldo. People have come from all over Europe to see the 11 EU players they nominated defeat the ‘Team World’ of non-EU players. Over 80 000 Europeans have come 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 the 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, two years only after having lost one of their historic members. Bolstered by the support of their fans, the players in blue and yellow remobilize 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. Europe has won. The EU has won, united in diversity.
There is very little doubt about the ability of sports to generate a sense of belonging to a common community. By promoting solidarity and social inclusion, sports have always been a tool for education through its capacity to unite people from various disparate backgrounds. Of all sports, football is Europe’s common religion. 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?
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. The supranational executive body 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 is still left to emerge.
Creating a football team common to all EU member states would further help in bringing the EU at the heart of the daily lives of European citizens. It would not only be a way to increase citizen awareness about 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 further step in democratizing a supranational identity complementary to the already exiting national ones of individual member states.
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 one same 12 star-spangled blue and yellow flag in support of a pan-European team of professionals representing the 27 member states of the European Union. 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 it be that our European youth, in the long-run, not feel a sense of belonging to such a united community? More importantly, how could it be that 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 in those of 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 in fact never been more realist than at a time when Europeans must come together to recover the adverse effects of a global pandemic. Reinvigorating this project has in fact never been more realist than in 2020. 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 to recover their way of life. As an integral part of this European way of life, football might very much play an important role in such a recovery. When we take a look at the pan-European craze currently revolving around the desire of having all 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.
Nevertheless, voices will continue to rise claiming football represents all the wrongdoings within our European society. It is true that the recent footballistic trends may have given rise to isolated acts of tax evasion, money laundering, and most recently homophobia and racism. Certainly, all of these detrimental aspects to sports are at the antipode of what the European Union stands to represent. But these adverse effects are not what constitute the origins of the game 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 professional players playing in Europe (the so-called ‘Team World’), the project would be a one-time event that would not require an institutionalized structure, thus setting aside any of the adverse effects on which critics nervously ponder. The project could easily ensure proper representation of the 27 members by capping the number of players coming from the same member state. It could also easily ensure the equality of all member states by pegging the venue selection to the rotating presidency of the Council. It could moreover ensure the equality of European citizens by giving each and every one of them the opportunity to participate in an online survey mandating the 11 players to represent the EU. Finally, any revenue could be reinvested into Commission-led initiatives with the aim of generating greater support for the EU – itself contributing to the advent of a strong European identity.
But all these contours are just details to be adjusted through time. The creation an EU football team is above all an opportunity for European players and fans to come together and forecast their emerging sense of supranational solidarity. It is an opportunity for us Europhiles to express our gratitude to a project having 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 ever done for us, and what it can still do for them in the future.