Parallel Dreams: European Political Union and European Footballing Union

EU flag

The 1950s were an extraordinary decade in the history of Europe. Following on from yet another experience of modern industrialized warfare that had wrought havoc, destroying industry and devastating lives, there was a fierce determination that this time things would be different.

Jean Monnet was one such person who possessed this determination. Along with others he felt that creating over-arching institutions to bind the separate nation states of the continent together in cooperation was key to securing a new future of peace. To this end Monnet was instrumental in the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community. Consisting of six states at it’s founding in 1951; France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxembourg its core aims to bring economic growth and improvements to the standard of living across all its members.

Such visions of a new, closer Europe were not however, merely restricted to the political sphere. It was the same unifying spirit which, in 1954, led to the founding of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), a cross-border body formed with the mission to create ‘unity and solidarity’ among the separate national associations responsible for governing football across Europe.

And soon after the new body had held its first conference, in Vienna, it became involved with the launch of a continent-wide cup competition, the European Cup. The brainchild of a Frenchman L’Equipe editor Gabriel Hanot and Jacques Ferran the tournament, though not the first to bring European clubs together with regularized competition, was the first to take a genuinely pan-European outlook drawing participants from sixteen separate states. Other tournaments followed as European silverware underwent its own baby boom; 1954 also saw the Inter City Fairs Cup (later UEFA Cup), while1960 added both the European Cup Winners Cup and the inaugural European Championships. The idea for the latter had in fact existed for some time, first proposed by Henri Delaunay back 1927, but until the new era had fallen on barren ground.

Not to be outdone the in 1957 the six members of the ECSC signed the Treaty of Rome which saw the creation of an array of new bodies, as impressive as the proliferation of pan-continental silverware. The European Economic Community charged with establishing among other things a common market, sweeping away restrictions on the movement of goods and labour, the European Commision, the European Parliament and greater powers for the European Court of Justice. Another treaty, the Euratom treaty, sought to bring about cooperation among the ECSC members in the field of atomic energy.

In both projects the British – or more specifically the English – were intent on remaining on the sidelines. With its politicians choosing to remain outside of the fledgling EEC the football establishment were similarly hostile to early European football competition. Pressure from the Football League – fearful of the affect of European Football on the domestic game – dissuaded Chelsea, the reigning English Champions, from entering the first European Cup tournament and it was only the determination of Sir Matt Busby that saw Manchester United compete in the 1956/57 season and though his side would ultimately meet with tragedy in the Munich air crash the way had nevertheless been cleared for English clubs to take part in Europe and by the time Great Britain joined the EEC, in 1973 European football was a firmly established feature of each nations footballing calender.

The parallel projects found themselves in step once again during the 1990s, both taking huge strides forward as the 1992 Maastricht treaty transformed the what was still largely an Economic Community into the European Union with provisions for a single-currency, a common foreign and security policy, and perhaps most importantly of all the concept of European citizenship with attendant rights of movement and residency. That same year, after a trial the previous season – in what arguably is the greatest hint yet of what a European Super league would look like – UEFA’s flagship competition, the European Cup, became the Champions League with the insertion of a group-stage into the knockout tournament. The new logo which accompanied the changes, the ball made of eight stars, bearing more than a passing resemblance to the EU flag was, as David Goldblatt suggests, “drawn from the same lexicon of abstract universalism that informed the EU’s twelve-star ring.” The success of the changes was transformative for both the continents top clubs who reaped the rewards of broadcasting and sponsorship revenue and for UEFA who grew from a small administrative body into a major player negotiating deals worth many millions.

It was just a few years later, in 1995, that one seismic – and now well known -event would bring the worlds of political union and football into collision, leaving the two entwined. Jean-Marc Bosman was an out-of-contract Belgian footballer who had been prevented from moving from his Belgian club to a Fench club. Under EU legislation Bosman brought a challenge before the European Court of Justice. The court ruled in his favour and the resulting fall out was arguably footballs biggest turning points. Players not only gained more bargaining power but thanks to the judgment restrictive limits about the number of non-nationals clubs could field were swept away – at least where it came to players from EU member states.

With money pouring in for the new Champions League format, the top clubs were not slow to take advantage of the increased pool of top talent available. Moreover thanks to the cooperation driven by the EU it had never been easier to live and work in another European state. Football soon became a single European labour market par-excellance – the very epitome of the political dream.

But where next? For Monnet and other early visionaries of political union the end game may appear to have been the creation of a seamless continent, or at least a Europe which was as Monnet stated one, not of a collection of states, but a “union among people. Others in football shared this dream whether it was Ernst Thommen and Karl Rappan whose idea for a European league ended up as the Intertoto Cup or Berlusconi with visions of a super league dripping in broadcasting revenue. But while the political dream, for now at least, founders among economic crisis, in football’s booming economy it is one dream which may soon come true.

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