Phases of Europeanisation: the history and impact of European competitions 

Competitions with an impact

The missing European perspective

The history of European football competitions may be narrated in popular books written by journalists and sports writers or in institutional publications, but it has hardly been researched by academic historians. This is surprising, as these competitions are clearly ‘invented traditions’ (Eric Hobsbawn famously took the example of the English FA cup), which have arguably played an important role not only in the Europeanisation of the game, but also more largely in the Europeanisation of the (essentially male) masses of the Old Continent. Yet, rather than adopting a European perspective, historical research so far has replaced ‘the people’s game’ within the larger context of power struggles between European nations, especially in the 1930s. For instance, research has focused on British teams’ participation in games on the continent or on the Austro-Italian confrontations of the Mitropa Cup. Of course, some serious analyses on the history of European football can be found within dedicated chapters in global histories of the game. But most academic studies of the processes of Europeanisation through football have adopted a sociological approach rather than a historical one, especially regarding the post-Bosman reconfiguration of identities.

From a historical perspective, two forms of European competitions must be distinguished. First are the competitions that are geographicaly limited to only one part of the continent, but have a European ‘vocation’ since they cover a particular space that is seen as a preliminary stage to a full coverage of the continent. Examples are the Mitropa Cup (1927), the International Cup (1927), the Balkan Cup (1929), or the Latin Cup (1949). Second are the competitions which are explicitly instated as Europe-wide competitions by the ‘Union of European Football Associations’ (UEFA) founded in 1954: the European Champions Clubs’ Cup (1956, now the UEFA Champions League), the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (1958), the Cup Winners Cup (1961), and of course the European Nations Cup (‘Coupe Henri Delaunay’, 1960).

Adopting approaches from historical anthropology, this research strand proposes to study both types of competitions. The objective is to reveal the original double form of Europeanisation they have have been part of, both ‘bottom-up’ – through the places (stadiums), forms of popular sociability, mass culture consumer habits – and ‘top-down’ – through the intervention of sports and media interest groups, continental sportive institutions and national governments.

Innovative historical football research

The first added value of this research lies in the adoption of a longer timeframe, looking at European competitions starting from before 1955-56. Just like the pioneers of economic and political Europe in the
inter-war years, the founding fathers of the Europe of sports have been blocked in their endeavour by the zeitgeist and the ideological fault lines of the continent. Nevertheless, their meetings, discussions and exchanges (which took place from the beginning of the 20th century) laid the base for and contributed largely to the introduction of genuinely European competitions in the 1950s. Their role in establishing contact and setting up original European networks – often underpinned by idealistic motives – is far too often neglected by the historians of Europe-building and deserves to be the object of serious academic research.

A second added value lies in the contribution to the understanding of how, through the competitions of European dimension or vocation, a European public space of football has emerged. This space is both temporal and geographical. It was firstly defined through the integration of these competitions into national sports calendars and the resulting constitution of a triple layer of temporality – national / European / global – from the middle of the 1950s on. Within this triptych, the European dimension of football temporality had the specificity of occupying the mid-week, generally a hollow period, therefore creating an original new rhythm which was distinctly defined and experienced as ‘European’. On a geographical level, the contours of this European space are traced by the flow of footballers, and also supporters, as early as in the inter-war years. These forms of temporary migration often constituted experiences of intercultural encounters sometimes with a very conflictual undertone. However,while forms of violence linked to football have been well researched from the middle of the 1980s onward, we know very little about the pre-1970s period. Filling this void will provide precious information about the long-term growth of the European space of football.

Although the frequency of these encounters increased continuously over the years, they remained nevertheless in a mode of discontinuity, interrupted by other levels of temporality. What provides continuity to them, however, is the representation which is given to them by the media. It is significant that a major writer like Primo Levi, in his novel L’Orologio (written and taking place during the Second World War) has one of his characters enumerate the names of Europe’s great footballers of the 1930s: ‘Zamora, he said, […] Hirzer the gazelle, Sindelar the paper-man. These names, like a poetic and eternal reality, pushed away from him all things present.’ This quote illustrates how Europeans have revelled in the great figures of European football since the 1920s. With the exception of some very rare works, these patterns of mutual interest and reciprocal perception, expressed in the media, literary and cinematographic works, have never been under close scholarly scrutiny.

European football competitions are thus a space of ‘cultural transfer’, which has been neglected for too long, probably because of a certain subliminal contempt for such an area of popular culture. On the one hand, these competitions diffuse and disseminate across the continent models of individual and collective body techniques: from the subtleties of the Danubian school of football in the 1920s to the different interpretation of ‘total football’ in its Dutch (Ajax Amsterdam), Soviet (Dynamo Kiev) or Italian (AC Milan) variants, the evolution of playing styles has been largely inspired by the European stage provided by the continental competitions. On the other hand, the different ways of attending a match, supporting one’s team and indulging in consumption habits within the stadiums have been spread through the invention of European competitions. And even the management of clubs has undergone significant transformation through these regular contacts between different European football regimes and through mutual emulation.

The study of Europeanisation through European football competitions must finally also take into account the question of women’s football, which has so far produced a series of comparative studies. It is interesting to note that women’s football followed a similar pattern to the development of men’s football: from bi-national encounters in the 1920s and, later, in the 1970s, to the creation of truly continental competitions for national teams (1984) and club teams (2001).


The FREE project proposes to go beyond the state-of-the-art in writing the first genuine historiography of European competitions, starring from the first international match carried out on the continent (Austria vs. Hungary in 1902), and following their development up to the present-day Champions League. Different periods of Europeanisation (1902-1920, 1920-1949, 1949-1961, 1961-1993, 1993-2010) will be analysed, laying emphasis on:

  • the different forms of competition and their underlying political and economic rationale;
  • the particular modes of temporality which they introduced;
  • migration patterns of sportsmen, journalists and spectators and the different forms of consumption of events which it induced;
  • the representations of the other and patterns of cultural transfer which they contributed to produce and diffuse;
  • the images of Europeans and of Europe which they projected over time.

The Competitions research strand will not only investigate the usual textual primary sources (mainly the archives of international football governing bodies, European national federations, state and media archives) but also apply the method of image analysis. Football is a form of popular culture which easily crosses linguistic borders. In so doing, it relies on images that are easily understood. This research strand will therefore apply image analysis to a selected sample of matches and players and their visual representation in the European media.

Summary of research objectives

  • to demonstrate how European football developed around a certain idea of Europe and underwent phases of Europeanisation, i.e. intentional attempts to go beyond the framework of the nation-state, the basic entity of football since the creation of FIFA in 1904;
  • to deconstruct, through the study of specific periods of the 20th century (inter-war years, the 1950s and the 1990s) the different steps in the Europeanisation of football;
  • to assess the results of these attempts at Europeanisation through competition in accordance with both the scale and scope of the competitions introduced and their integration into a harmonised European calendar;
  • to interpret the history of European football also as a history of body and leisure politics in Europe;
  • to study the standardisation of corporal practices around a definition of a ‘European’ football and representations produced by mass media;
  • to study the evolution of new patterns of consumption with regard to football’s role as catalyser of new media and channels of communication;
  • to re-assess football’s role in the inter-gender, inter-ethnical and inter-cultural relations across Europe over the 20th century;
  • to study the difficult struggle for recognition of women’s football competitions and their integration into the calendar;
  • to assess the impact of the increasing presence in European leagues of coloured players from the 1950s onwards as precursors of today’s multicultural societies;
  • to provide, on the basis of this research, substantial input for the different tools of the data collection process.