What Euro 2012 Tells Us about European Integration

The following article was published as a GMF Transatlantic Take on July 3, 2012.

As European Union leaders gathered last week in Brussels to determine the future of Europe’s political and economic integration, they probably had at least one eye on the concurrent European Football Championship in Poland and Ukraine. But had they been paying closer attention to “The Beautiful Game” a decade earlier, they might have seen the warning signs about the limits of European integration much sooner.

Until the mid-1990s, football — like European society as a whole — was rather parochial. By and large, professional football players played in the same country (and often the same region or city) as their births. The European championships of 1984 saw only 12% of participating squad members playing for clubs outside their home country. That figure increased slightly in subsequent years to 27% in 1988 (of which the majority were Irish footballers playing in England) and 32% in 1992. The European Union in the early years of the post-Cold War era was still evidently a draw: as early as 1992, more than half of the former Soviet national team could be found playing for West European clubs.

But the big change came in 1995, when the European Court of Justice ruled in favor of Jean-Marc Bosman, an obscure Belgian footballer who contested prevailing football transfer rules between professional clubs.  The Bosman ruling created free agency and removed limitations on EU nationals playing for clubs in other member states, deeming such restrictions violations of the free movement of labor within the Union. Professional football quickly became a microcosm of the European Union as a whole. The richest and most prestigious leagues – the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A, and the German Bundesliga – began to attract not just the best talent from other EU member states, but also from the wider European neighborhood and beyond.

The effects of the Bosman ruling were startling. Just four years later, in 1999, the London club Chelsea fielded an entirely non-English squad under an Italian manager.  While only 30% of squad members at 1996 European championships played for clubs outside their native countries, at Euro 2000 the figure was 49%. In hindsight, Euro 2000 was not only a high point for football fans – featuring attractive, attacking football by French, Italian, Dutch, and Portuguese teams in their primes – but was also significant for featuring the highest percentage of players ever plying their trade in other European countries.

Europe’s integration stalled just as quickly as it started, in football terms at least. European championships after 2000 have seen the proportion of foreign-based players decline slightly from its peak to 46% in 2004 and 47% in 2008 and 2012. When Spain played Italy in Sunday’s Euro 2012 final in Kiev, only one starting player for each team was employed by a foreign club – both Spain’s David Silva and Italy’s Mario Balotelli suit up for Emirati-owned Manchester City in the English Premier League.

At least two reasons suggest themselves for the retrenchment over the past decade. The first can be considered an aspect of the so-called “Rise of the Rest.” The newfound wealth of Russian, Ukrainian, and Turkish clubs catering to vast markets in those countries has stemmed the movement of talent abroad and made them into magnets for quality players from elsewhere. The likes of Istanbul’s Galatasaray, CSKA Moscow, and Shakhtar Donetsk can now compete financially with all but the very top clubs in the traditional big leagues, and this has translated into success on the field.  Russia’s league today ranks higher than the Netherlands’ for the purposes of qualification into Europe’s elite club competitions, while Ukraine’s top league now rates as more competitive than that of Greece.

The other reasons, one must suppose, are cultural. The rules of the real world need not always apply to professional football, a world of €200,000-per-week wages, luxury cars, and perennial globetrotting. But it may just be that football players, like other members of society, feel more comfortable living and working in countries where they speak the language fluently and are comfortable with the local culture. More than that, fans also wanted more hometown flavor, and national team coaches desired more local talent, adding to the renationalization of football.

It could simply be coincidence that the zenith of European football’s integration – the heyday of Real Madrid’s galacticos and the dominance of the French contingent at London club Arsenal – coincided roughly with the introduction of the euro, the subject of many current questions surrounding Europe’s future. Or, perhaps, the early 2000s did represent the furthest extent of the European project.  Whether or not there is any relation, Europe’s leaders and football aficionados should not be completely discouraged. Labor mobility trends in general appear to be improving again within the European Union, after a slight lull in the mid-2000s. If so, that may auger well both for the future of Europe and for the quality of its football.