The beautiful game can often be a divisive one, and Brussels knows it better than most.
Cast your minds back to the 2016 Schuman Trophy – the inter-departmental football tournament hosted by the European Commission – when a bust-up between players in one particular match arose, resulting in the hospitalisation of one player, and – no doubt, the admonishing of another.
BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.
The Schuman trophy, postponed since the coronavirus outbreak in Brussels, is a charity event which has in the past not only brought together bureaucrats, but also attracted high-level EU Commissioners including Günther Oettinger, who often appeared on the side-lines. In 2010, even a wooden-looking EU Council President in the form of Herman Van Rompuy paid a visit to the annual competition, clad in his choice clerical-beige suit, shaking hands with players in a display of faux-deference.
The infamous 2016 Schuman trophy bust up is really indicative of the fact that the blood that courses through the veins of football fanatics (Van Rompuy himself excused from this band of brothers) is infused with a passion seldom matched in other occupations.
In Brussels this week, Vice-President Commissioner for ‘Promoting European Way of Life’ Margaritis Schinas sung from this same hymn sheet. Following the news that broke about the half-baked plan to monopolise the continent’s footballing powers into a walled-garden division as part of a European Super League, his own passion was evident.
“We must defend a values-driven European model of sport based on diversity and inclusion,” he tweeted. “There is no scope for reserving it for the few rich and powerful clubs who want to severe links with everything associations stand for.”
And if we’ve learnt anything from this week’s fiasco – which now appears to have been put to rest temporarily – it’s that the unifying power of the sport is something we should harness to seek genuine equality in the sport more broadly. Rarely do we see any other communal activity bring people together in such a festival of furious and desperate unity against wider tyrannical forces.
That broader despotism is now crystallised in the isolated figure of the Real Madrid President Florentino Perez – who, despite all English teams withdrawing from the league this week, still seems prepared to die on the hill built by corporate greed and kleptocracy.
At least the Spaniard has, for now, conceded that the project is ‘on hold.’ Football fans of the world, however, don’t, for one moment believe that the project is dead and buried.
And while the grand plans for European football’s ultimate betrayal may have been put on ice, the indignation of football enthusiasts should not have the luxury of merely being postponed until the next controversy strikes the beautiful game.
The question we must all ask ourselves now is: What happens to the unity that has bridged the most malign of divides within the football community and brought fans together against those seeking to exploit the sport? How exactly can this spirit be harnessed?
There has been talk in England of adopting more of a German approach to regulating shares of major teams in the Premier League. In order to obtain a license for participation in the Bundesliga, under the German 50+1 rule, teams must maintain authority of their own voting rights, meaning that fans themselves should have an overall majority of 51% ownership of the club. External investors are therefore only permitted to own up to 49% of the company.
Such stringent regulation lacking in England, supporters have found themselves at the behest of rule by commercial interest, being subject to rising matchday ticket rates, extortionate prices for merchandise, and a lack of influence more generally in the running of their beloved clubs.
The passion of the beautiful game can no longer be divorced from the wider structural inequalities in the footballing ecosystem that continue to disenfranchise fans who cherish their clubs.
There is no better time than the present to challenge these assemblies of power that have held too much control over the day-to-day running of major football clubs. We should no longer be picking fights among ourselves. Now more than ever, it should be clear who the real enemies of football are.
BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels.If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.