UEFA soft power in geopolitics.
THE FUTURIAN #5
Football, as we know it today, started as a sport only for the white British elite and has evolved in just 100 years into a global sport that cuts across all social classes. But this form of propaganda to create a national identity is not innovative: wasn’t it the formula used at the Berlin Olympics by Nazi Germany, or by Nelson Mandela at the 1995 Rugby World Cup to promote the beginnings of this identity after apartheid?
It has established itself as the only empire that knows neither the barriers of globalization nor national borders. It is more internalized by users than the values of democratization, single market, or globalization. Even the smallest or most isolated country in the world participates in the championships or at least recognizes the name Messi.
It is a curious phenomenon; we could walk into a room full of people and ask who knows Mario Draghi and maybe someone would raise their hand, but if we repeat the question and this time with Cristiano Ronaldo, not a single hand will be left down.
Footballers have become the world’s elite and are the most admired and respected citizens of the younger generation, as well as the highest paid. Therefore, what geopolitical power does football possess to blur the boundaries?
Clearly, football is used as an element of soft power, following Professor Nye’s terminology. While globalization destroys borders and national identities to forge a global, or regional, identity (world citizen, European, etc.); football has imposed itself to create a unique national identity. Even those who are not normally fans would change their minds if they walked into a bar where their team was playing in a World Cup. It is a desire to belong to a much larger group with similar values to your own in the face of a “foreigner” who looks more and more like you.
And the fact is that countries fight as hard to be in the world sporting championships as they do to be in the UN General Assembly.
One of the countries that has been most successful in harnessing this influence is Qatar. Thirty years ago, nobody knew anything about this country, not even a mere geographical location. Now everybody knows what Qatar is and where it is. What has happened in 30 years? Not surprisingly, it has had a lot of influence on the financial markets with its trade policies, but we could also argue that it has made the most of its soft power by getting involved in European teams. And it’s no wonder, then, that the fans know about Qatar. With the purchase of PSG and especially Messi and Neymar, the sheikh who owns the club is one of the most influential people in the world.
It’s a country-branding factor to establish your political clout and your rules of the game. These rules can be set at both national and international level. Lobbyists operate in both spheres insofar as they can afford to provoke governments to give in on certain issues by imposing their rules. These rules operate for the use and enjoyment of the small elite controlled by the owners of the big football clubs.
The great powers see the potential that this forging of national identity can generate in the masses without distinction. In fact, where will the 2022 World Cup be held? In Qatar.
The major Asian powers are not immune to this and are determined to act. China cannot stand that Japan has overtaken them in sporting influence, especially in football, and is investing huge amounts of money in promoting and creating football schools for young people. We may see it try to take over the hosting of the 2030 World Cup and by 2050 be a sporting cultural powerhouse, displacing the old continent.
This type of event finds no competitor in its path, not even the Eurovision phenomenon. Although the idea in Monnet’s notebooks was territorial unification in spirit and awareness of European identity and citizenship, football is doing the dirty work in this field.
Proof of this can be found in the aftermath of Brexit. English teams are facing former European colleagues for the first time in important matches and Boris Johnson has been able to exploit this point very well (just look at the emphasis he puts on this in the English nation). Even so, Monnet’s dream is still being fulfilled with participation in UEFA. This organization was created in 1954 in France, in parallel with the atmosphere of the European Economic Area. And in a way, it is still fulfilling its mission, creating a cultural identity, and advocating its weight in the world. It is a good way for European countries to compete in a healthy way, to foster unity and to make themselves known. The 1994 World Cup in the United States served as a way for Bulgaria and Romania to assert to some extent their need to be European. Is this not another parallel to the current diplomatic tensions in Ukraine and their respective impact on NATO membership?
The capitalist system has fostered the loss of identity and values in society and with globalization the masses are lost in society without “belonging”. Therefore, we are experiencing a rise of nationalism that is comparable only to the rise of football leagues. If the old European business elites are not able to see the long-term geopolitical benefits they can find and if they do not fight for it, they will be displaced by Asian and Persian giants. In this case, the basics are retained but with a strong foreign influence in marketing, logistics and commercialization.
© Elena B Saavedra 2022