Collective memory: football as transnational media event  

Media events

Patterns of meaning: bringing together different historical research streams

There is a consensus today that research on questions pertaining to the issue of ‘European identity’ needs a change of perspective. For too long, identity issues have been studied from above, in a ‘top-down’ perspective, with research focusing on different attempts of elite-driven identity construction. The results have been very limited and seem likely to remain so. There is a need now for more and better research that adopts a ‘bottom-up’ perspective and takes into account other processes of identity formation that start from existing practices which have been invested with European ‘patterns of meaning’ by large collectivities.

Football is no doubt one of the most relevant of these practices and the FREE project fully subscribes to this call for a change of perspective. As a result, its historical research strands have to adopt approaches from cultural history. Culture can be defined here as an action-oriented configuration of meaning. Such a definition makes it possible to bring together various streams of historical research that have traditionally diverged, such as works on: sports history; identity construction in the European setting; or on European media events.

Performative acts, collective memory and community-building

This cultural-historical approach is based on an essential theoretical assumption: like all sports, football has two dimensions. On the one hand, sports events are performative acts. The emotions they generate drive a process through which the participating communities build themselves. On the other hand, the discourse surrounding the event, especially as relayed in the audiovisual media, generates lasting attributions of meaning, which go way beyond the restricted circle of direct participants and reach very large collectivities. This ability to provide a support to both a culture of presence and a culture of meaning requires a methodological approach that makes it possible to understand the transformation of short-lived sporting performances into long-term collective meaning.

The most promising conceptual approach for exploring football’s contribution to identity construction on a European level is the theory of collective memory, now well established in the cultural sciences. From the very beginnings, Maurice Halbwachs, the pioneer theorist of collective memory, was well aware of the place of popular culture in national identity. Indeed, in Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire (1925) Halbwachs said: ‘We pretend that it is outside the function, in the part of society where men do not exert their professional activities, that the most important collective souvenirs are born and preserved.’ Halbwachs later emphasised that history becomes collective memory through its diffusion within what he called le grand public (mass audience).

The contemporary theory of collective memory possesses two distinct assets for the FREE project. Firstly, it takes into account that there is always a social dimension to the appropriation of the past, since communities are founded on the construction of collective images of history. Secondly, it is capable of catching the origins of the emergence of collective memory, by distinguishing between two different stages. On the one hand, there is the still fluctuating, so-called ‘communicative’ short-term memory, which encompasses the remembrances of contemporary witnesses. On the other hand, there is ‘cultural’ long-term memory which, through institutionalised communication, obtains the official and lasting status of representing the shared historical foundation of the community. This distinction introduced by Jan Assmann leads to two central research questions: is it possible to identify a specific and widely shared football memory of European dimension, which has emerged over the last half-century since the creation of UEFA? And does this football memory have the character of ‘communicative’ or ‘cultural’ memory?

The communication of transnational media events: a pluri-disciplinary methodological approach

In order to answer these questions, it is necessary to analyse how football events have been and are reported across the continent. Indeed, it is only if and when these events are communicated on a European scale that they have a chance of being transferred into collective memory. The aim of the FREE project is therefore to explore the extent to which events created over the last half-century have become genuinely transnational media events. To what extent processes of transnationalisation – like the establishment of Real Madrid as a European ‘brand’ – also reached people in countries under Soviet influence (where there was neither freedom of movement nor free media)? To what extent had these countries already developed a pan-European football culture (which established cultural ties to the other part of Europe long before they finally were able to join it)?

It is particularly interesting and challenging to analyse the interaction between the interpretations of major football events offered by the media and their qualitative reception by the users of these media. Media-specific aesthetic formats play an important role here, as they provide different suggestions of how to interpret the meaning of the events they communicate. What are for instance the consequences of the substitution of radio coverage, still dominant all over the 1950s, by televisual coverage for the hermeneutical potential of football?


The ‘Memory’ research strand of the FREE project will focus on the periods of popularisation of the European Cups from the 1970s onwards and the gain of public interest and investment with meaning of European Nations Cup since 1972. By means of combining the concept of lieux de mémoire (realms of memory) with methods of ‘visual history’ and findings from both aesthetic theory and mass media communication, and by applying them to the staging of transnational football media events, it will verify in an innovative manner the hypothesis that the present dominance of simultaneous visual transmission of European football events has significantly increased the likelihood of a certain denationalisation of appropriation on the side of media users. While a radio auditor is simply a passive consumer of the reporter’s monopolistic creation of meaning (the reporter is the only person able to invest the event with drama and emotion), the television spectator has the possibility to form his or her own interpretation of the event, regardless of the much scarcer comments of the reporter. The question whether this emancipative tendency in terms of media use has encouraged, especially in societies under Soviet influence, a European perspective on the meaning of these events, is of particular interest here.

Summary of research objectives

  • to determine if, to what extent and how football contributes to the construction of a ‘European collective memory’;
  • to lay special emphasis on the role of specific transnational events and their constitution as national or continental ‘lieux de mémoire’;
  • to explore the construction process of collective memory by means of cultural-historical assessment of transnational media events relating to European football;
  • to formulate hypotheses and assess the peculiar role of football in the transcending of East/West opposition patterns during and after the Cold War;
  • to provide, on the basis of this research, substantial input for the different tools of the data collection process.