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Football, Europe, Identity - Why Representation Matters – Part 2

As was laid out in Part 1, men’s elite club football in Europe can function as a catalyst for European identification, by providing continued contact and experience with a highly Europeanised cultural phenomenon. As a consequence of the intersection of football’s increased professionalization and commercialization and the process of European integration, fans cheer for teams with internationalised player squads, follow continental competitions, and have easy access to foreign leagues (see for example Niemann et al. 2022). This is in part driven by the “expanding everyday prevalence and influence of the mass and social media” in the so-called mediatisation of football (Giulianotti 2018), through which consumption of football has been transported beyond the immediate experience of live matches in the stadium to a locally unbounded, ubiquitous, low-barrier-to-entry media phenomenon. Consequently, any identity-shaping effects of football depend on how the identity-object is portrayed in the media.

In this football-media-identity nexus, the formation and perpetuation of identifications with and feelings of belonging to Europe is contingent upon the extent and type of mediated contact fans experience in their football media environment. In a forthcoming study by the research project “FANZinE – Football as the basis for social cohesion in Europe”, researchers examined the representation of Europe in German online football news media. Using approximately 35.000 articles from three sources over seven years for a quantitative text analysis, the study shows distinctive patterns and mechanisms in the media representation of European football. By matching a set of keywords for all 54 non-German UEFA association members as well as for Europe against the corpus of news texts, absolute and relative rates of occurrence were calculated and compared across time, levels of competition, and between individual countries.

The results of the analysis show that while there is considerable media attention on European football, it is almost exclusively focused on select countries and competitions, restricting the extent and scope of fans’ mediated contact with Europe. For European competitions, the Champions League is covered much more extensively than others. At no time does coverage of the Europa League or Europa Conference League surpass the Champions League for a sustained period. On the contrary, at times the Champions League is mentioned four times more often than its smaller sister competitions, highlighting the difference in status ascribed to different levels of European football. In online news media coverage, the smaller European competitions play only a peripheral role.

At the country level, the selected media outlets covered almost exclusively football from England, Spain, Italy and France, which combine for almost 70% of all keyword-matches. Furthermore, the top 15 most referenced countries (which include, for example, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, and Austria) have a cumulated share of over 92%, meaning that the remaining 39 UEFA association members make up only roughly 8% of all country-related keyword matches. Clearly, some countries are much more visible in media coverage of European football than others. To elucidate the mechanisms behind this distinct and unequal distribution of country visibility, the study looked at various context factors, identifying the UEFA five-year ranking and the presence of high-profile German players as highly indicative of a country’s visibility. Sporting status and national relevance seem to draw media attention towards this select set of countries.

These results are of course not surprising. After all, covering the best international football and following national team players abroad seems natural considering media outlets’ limited resources and content selection logics. Still, if the identity effects of football are applicable to mediated contact with an experience of Europe, the results of the study suggest that any identifications built upon this specific representation of Europe will be restricted to a specific, mostly central-western European set of countries. The proposition of fostering broad and inclusive European identities through football seems to be limited by the actual, fairly restricted reality of football’s media representation. Furthermore, the ongoing redesign of continental competitions and inequalities in the distribution of financial resources are likely to compound these issues, since they presumably draw even more media focus towards the already established elite of European football. The result might be a vicious cycle of sporting, media, and commercial inequalities that amplify existing disparities both within and across competitions. This can already be seen to some extent in domestic leagues being dominated by a few or even single clubs, as well as ever-greater differences between national leagues.

This as-of-yet unpublished study will be replicated and complemented in a planned comparative study using news text data from Germany, Norway, Poland and Spain. Results will show whether these patterns and mechanisms apply only to the German case, or apply to other media, social, political, and sporting contexts. Furthermore, no determinations regarding the reception and processing of these representations of Europe by fans can be made from this research design. Still, the single-case study points towards the media replicating and transmitting existing inequalities in European football, severely limiting any proposed effects originating from the football-media-identity nexus.

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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