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Football, Europe, Identity - Why Representation Matters

When the 2022/23 Champions’ League group stage was drawn on August 25th, 32 clubs from 15 different countries entered the draw. While the composition of the eight groups was still undecided, one thing was clear before the draw even began: The remaining 40 UEFA member countries would not be represented in this year’s edition of Europe’s most prestigious club football competition. History shows that the number will further decrease come the knock-out stages. Last season, eight countries took part in the round of the last 16. In 2020/21 it was a mere six. In the 30 years since the Champions League’s inaugural season, there has only been one final without at least one team from Spain, England, Italy, or Germany. Only in 2004 could finalists FC Porto and AS Monaco break this dominance.

Traditionally, countries were represented through their national champions, turning the predecessors and the original Champions League into broad assemblies of European football. But once the economic success of the competition picked up, qualifying rules were gradually tightened, and since the 1999/2000 season more and more spots were distributed to the big leagues based on the 5-year-ranking. By 2016, 22 instead of 16 teams went straight to the group stages, and since 2018 only four national champions outside of the most successful 10 leagues can even qualify. With the upcoming reforms of the competition, even more of the available places will be awarded to highly successful leagues.

The Champions League in its current format is, of course, enormously successful from a financial point of view. For the ongoing season, UEFA projects revenues of over 3 billion Euro from the Champions League, and roughly 500 million from its other international club competitions. A recent sale of the US-broadcasting rights for its club competitions between 2024 and 2030 brought in 1.5 billion Dollars, the lion’s share of which will be distributed among the teams competing in the Champions League. Compared to the flagship Champions League, the other European competitions are almost financially irrelevant.

In Article 2 of its statutes, UEFA sets out to “act as a representative voice for the European football family as a whole” (Art. 2l) and promises to “ensure that sporting values always prevail over commercial interests” (Art. 2g). Former UEFA presidents stated that UEFA does “not just think of the big clubs, or that “a champion from a small country will be preferred over a fourth-place from a big country”, but the reality of European football says otherwise. With merely 15 out of 55 member associations participating in the Champions League and virtually the same countries playing its final every year, smaller member associations mostly compete in new competitions with creative names such as UEFA Europa Conference League. Is this what representation of the “football family as a whole“ looks like? Does the current structure really put sporting values before commercial interests? And why does equal representation matter?

The establishment of international competitions in a “de facto European league system” (Niemann et al. 2022) is just one of the many outcomes of the Europeanisation of football (Niemann & Brand 2018). From the intersection of globalization and European integration emerged a highly interconnected European football system, where competition, player movement, advocacy efforts, and commercialization increasingly happens at the European stage. With football being a known catalyst to various forms of identifications, its turn towards Europe might contribute to the development of Europeanised identities in football fans (see, for example, King 2000, Weber 2021). This identity formation is thought to rely upon the continuous contact and interaction with Europe which fans experience through internationalised player squads, accessible information on foreign leagues, and regular games in continental competitions. When Europe is present in the everyday, leisurely activity of football fandom, when contact with Europe is normalized, and when the pinnacle of sporting competition lies on the European stage, values and orientations are likely to follow suit. In times of social tensions across Europe and rising anti-European tendencies, a shared cultural experience can contribute to social cohesion in Europe.

Consequently, the ongoing redesign of Europe’s top competition towards a more restricted and more exclusive format favouring mostly populous, economically highly developed, central and western European countries leaves many members of the “European football family” at the margins. This potentially alienates many people from feeling represented and belonging to a broader European community, as they become unequal participants in Europe’s favourite past-time. If one were to take UEFA’s slogan “We care about football” or its statutes seriously, there is undeniable need for change. While that doesn’t mean that Sheriff Tiraspol should win the Champions League, football in a balanced form, with fair competition and equal opportunity can be a connecting element and inspire people for a solidary and peaceful Europe.

This post is partly based on “Goodbye, Europe”, published by on August 25th, 2022

Jonas Biel, Research Associate at the University of Mainz

Tobias Finger, Research Associate at the University of Mainz

Blog posts represent the views of the author and not that of Sport&EU or its members

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