Europe United: the boys in blue and gold
Despite Europe's citizens being less enamoured of the Union than ever, winning their love is an achievable goal, says the president of the European Council. But can an EU football team really score with the fans? By John Lichfield
Wednesday 25 June 2008
The scene is Wembley Stadium in June 2009. Three minutes remain in the first football match between the European Union and the African Union for the Nelson Mandela inter-continental cup. The score is 0-0 (of course). Penalties loom. A thunderous chant rumbles around the plastic seats and prawn sandwich-filled private boxes: "Come on you blues with yellow stars."
An incisive pass from an Italian midfielder (Andrea Pirlo) sends an overlapping German full-back (Philipp Lahm) to the byline. His centre is met by a thunderous header from the Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. One nil to the EU. The mostly British crowd exults.
A sporting legend is born. Attitudes to the European Union change overnight. The Sun carries a front page headline "Eur over the moon". The electors of Ireland clamour for the right to a second vote on the Lisbon Treaty. A decisive Gordon Brown seizes the moment to take a slumping sterling into the euro (which is now worth £2.43).
Europe, we are told, lacks visionaries. Where, we are asked, are the De Gaulles and Adenauers and Monets and Schumans of a half-century ago? Step forward Janez Jansa, the Prime Minister of Slovenia.
Mr Jansa, who is currently president of the European Council, believes there is a simple solution to the EU's popularity deficit. There should be a football team representing all 27 countries of the bloc. Existing national teams would continue as before. The EU all-stars would turn out occasionally against other continents or regions of the globe.
"For identity, it is very important that people are able to connect with something that is common," Mr Jansa told the European Parliament yesterday. "For example, a football team of the European Union. We could have a football match between the EU and a Latin American team or the African Union."
There have been occasional EU representative teams in the past, Mr Jansa pointed out, adding: "They attracted much more attention among citizens than our meetings. We should learn from this."
Such a team, Mr Jansa argues, even if it played only two or three times a year, would give ordinary Europeans a sense of belonging to the EU as well as their own nations. Unfortunate misunderstandings, such as the Irish vote against the Lisbon Treaty on EU institutional reform, would become a thing of the past. There is, after all, a European Ryder Cup team which plays the US every two years at golf. Why not a Team Europe for football?
Everything would depend, of course, on how the Euro team was selected. Would the squad be chosen by the Council of Ministers, following proposals from the European Commission, by means of a qualified majority vote? Would each nation insist on preserving a veto?
Another possibility might be to select the squad in the same way that we select the European Commission. There would be one player from each of the 27 countries. That would be good news for Jeff Strasser, 34, Luxembourg's second most capped player, who performs (occasionally) in the appalling defence of FC Metz, just relegated to the French second division. It might also offer a glimpse of global stardom to Gilbert Agius, also 34, Malta's veteran midfielder, who has yet to attract the attention of Arsenal or Inter, or even Bury, despite 107 international appearances.
Such an approach might produce a Euro squad that resembles the old joke about the "typical European". He has the honesty of the Italians, the cooking skills of the British, the humour of the Germans, the wide horizons of the Luxembourgers.
No, non, ne and nein. The only proper way to select the "Blue and Yellow All Stars" would be to appoint a commissioner for football, with absolute powers of decision-making. The correct choice for this post would, naturally, be the most successful football manager in the EU, Sir Alex Ferguson (with Jose Mourinho or Arsène Wenger as his loyal deputy). Picking world teams to play against the three-legged players of Mars used to be a favourite way to pass the time in the back rows of maths classes. Everyone will have their own idea of who should appear in the first EU squad.
My own selection is the opposite of the old joke quoted above. It combines the grace and power of the Spanish, the grit and athleticism of the Germans, the intelligence and ruthlessness of the Italians, the flair and elegance of the Dutch. It has only one English player in the starting line-up (but three from Manchester United, which reveals my unashamed bias).
Eight of the team, including subs, play or have played in the English Premier League. That fact both supports and undermines Mr Jansa's argument for a Euro XI. The influx of foreigners to UK football – not all Europeans of course – has had considerable psycho-political consequences. Can you be a racist if you grow up loving Didier Drogba? Can you be anti-French if your hero was Eric Cantona or Thierry Henry? The Yugoslav national XI did not save Yugoslavia. Is there a political argument for an EU team? Yes, ja, jo et oui. Mr Jansa is on to something. Jeff Strasser and Gilbert Agius, your time has come.
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