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How EU Politicians Can Learn From Football

Simon Kuper
Friday, 8 Jun 2012 | 2:37 AM ET

Any Eurocrat trying to think up a PR campaign for battered Europe should watch TV tonight. Euro 2012, the football tournament that kicks off with Poland against Greece in Warsaw, offers a vision of the perfect Europe.

Photo by Sharon Lorimer

In other spheres Europeans are becoming weak and irrelevant. They struggle to afford foreign wars. Six of the world’s seven biggest economies measured by purchasing power parity are outside the EU, and Greece might exit the euro mid-tournament following elections on June 17.

But in football, Europe still rules.

All three countries on the podium in both the last two World Cups were euro zone members. And in football unlike in economics, peripheral European countries have caught up with the core. For decades football’s prizes mostly went to founding members of what became the EU: Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands. Countries on Europe’s periphery had dysfunctional indigenous styles of play: the British favored kick and rush, Greeks dribbled too much, and Spaniards prized the “furia española”, the frenzied but thoughtless “Spanish fury”.

But gradually countries on Europe’s periphery imported know-how from the core. Many peripheral countries, even England, hired managers from core nations. In 2004 Greece became the first peripheral nation in decades to win the European championship, under the German coach Otto Rehhagel. Greece’s chief goalscorer Angelos Charisteas gloated: “We have a German coach, and we play like a German team.”

The recession-hit Spaniards have become reigning world and European champions playing a Dutch-inspired passing game. David Winner, author of Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football, described the Holland versus Spain World Cup final of 2010 as “Jungian mirroring”.

“Holland’s path to the world title is blocked by the more authentic version of their better selves,” he wrote. “It is now Spain who play Dutch football.” The World blog FT ebook

If Greece goes...the FT’s first ebook examines the potential consequences of a Greek exit from the euro zone

Knowledge transfer from core to periphery continues at Euro 2012: Ireland has an Italian coach, Russia a Dutchman, while England opted for Roy Hodgson’s decades of continental experience. However, knowledge transfer now goes from periphery to core, too: the Germans have been learning from the Spaniards. That rarely happens in economic management.

The footballers, too, are model Europeans. Many play for clubs outside their home country, because football is almost the only sector in Europe to have achieved the labor mobility that the euro zone requires.

Olli Rehn, the EU’s top economic official, who in more tranquil times chaired Finland’s football league, must look on with envy. Europe’s footballers are world-class, well-paid and enjoy harmonious labor relations, without the strikes that mar American sports. Many are happy sons of immigrants: in football at least, German multiculturalism works.

Fans of different European countries increasingly get on. In the 1980s many treated matches against Germany as reruns of past wars, but no longer. When Holland meet Germany in Kharkiv next Wednesday, there will be more love than war. And English hooligansseem to have died out.

No wonder the rest of the world watches. Kevin Alavy, managing director of the futures sport + entertainment agency, which tracks TV viewing of sport, says, “Global TV audience growth from Euro 2004 to Euro 2008 was driven by non-European markets. Important growth markets included China, the US, Brazil, South Africa and Mexico.” These trends should continue this year, he adds.

Yet even in football, there are omens of western Europe’s decline. The region may have to wait decades before it hosts another World Cup.

Now the Euro championship has gone east for the first time since 1976. One host, Poland, is an advertisement for Europe’s happy expansion. However, the co-host Ukraine decidedly is not. Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel has branded Ukraine “a dictatorship”. The British and French governments are boycotting matches there.

The German captain Philipp Lahm says: “If Germany reaches the final in Kiev and President [Viktor] Yanukovich is standing before me, I seriously doubt whether I’d shake his hand. I cannot recognize my ideas about democracy and freedom of expression in Ukraine’s political situation.” A region that has lost force and economic power ends up resorting to ineffectual moralism.

Europeans should enjoy their footballing supremacy while it lasts. Countries from the US to Japan are copying European know-how. Some Russian, Chinese and Gulf Arab clubs already offer higher salaries. In football too, Europe could fall victim to catchup.

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