The exploration of an existing European public sphere 

A public sphere.

Conceptual background

There is a general consensus among both policy-makers and researchers that the lack of a genuinely European ‘public space’ or ‘public sphere’ (a concept coined by Jürgen Habermas and referring to a space where ‘discourses aimed at achieving self-understanding can be conducted more widely and expressively, collective identities and need interpretations can be articulated’) is one of the major deficits of the process of European integration. Applying his normative concept to the specific case of the European Union, Habermas himself observed that a pan-European public sphere was needed as a response ‘to the problem of insufficient social integration in the processes of Europeanisation’.

The concept of ‘European public sphere’ is very often limited to purely political and economic issues, but according to Marianne van de Steeg, a public sphere exists if ‘the same topics are discussed at the same time with the same intensity and structure of meaning’.

The FREE project contends that in the cultural field of football, such a European public sphere does exist. This public sphere is admittedly limited to a specific field of popular culture, but one which is of utmost importance to a very large number of Europeans, which has a strong presence in their everyday lives, which contributes to shape their perception patterns of what being European actually means, and which allows even to citizens with limited means of expression to interpret and negotiate their social identities. In his monumental history of European integration, the late Tony Judt identified football as the ‘one ubiquitous exception’ to a general pattern of mutual ignorance and indifference which he observed across Europe, an island of mutual interest, curiosity and dialogue in ‘the largely un-European mental universe’ of national communication spaces in which most Europeans continue to be raised, socialised and informed.

The FREE project is an opportunity to obtain deeper insight into the degree of ‘Europeanness’ of this sphere of communication, deliberation and exchange – within and beyond the political borders of the current EU – and may thus provide a better understanding of the conditions under which other European public spheres may effectively emerge, develop or deepen in other areas.

Issues of cultural and political identity in the public sphere

Football offers a field for the study of overlapping and interacting identities which is as promising and exciting as it is under-researched.

Over the last two decades the identification offer provided by European football has undergone significant transformation due to a range of simultaneous developments. One of these are, for example, the overwhelmingly successful introduction of the European Champions League (which has consolidated a trans-European club elite). Another development is the 1995 Bosman ruling by the European Court of Justice (which has, by applying the principle of freedom of movement to professional sports, accelerated and intensified the transnational mobility of players and thus granted club sides an increasingly multicultural character).

This seemingly irreversible tendency of almost total ‘transnationalisation’ of top-level European club football has had a double effect. Firstly, it has not significantly altered traditional patterns of supporters’ loyalty to their clubs. Secondly, it has produced a new transnational fandom for the most well-known global brands (e.g. Manchester United or Real Madrid). Equally, this tendency has repositioned the national teams as non-commercial, ‘pure’ symbols of national identity.

In other words: while club football follows (and sometimes even precedes) the process of full market integration, the national teams provide an outlet for traditional and reassuring allegiances. Both are extremely successful in terms of media interest, as both seem to respond to contradictory but coexisting social needs and desires. Both contribute to the continuous emergence and reinforcement of a cultural European public sphere of communication. In this sphere, European football fans are increasingly aware of each other beyond national boundaries, thanks mainly to the omnipresence of football in popular mass media, football internet platforms and chat rooms.

How do individuals and groups enact their overlapping identities with this specific public sphere of popular culture? This question, which arises from the recent development of European football and its ever more visible ‘dual nature’, therefore opens a whole range of very interesting and so far unexplored perspectives for research on social identity construction in the European public space of football:

  • football, both firmly anchored in the national patterns of thought of modernity (especially as embodied through the national teams) and a vanguard of postmodern relativism and multiculturalism (as embodied by the excessive commercialisation and limitless mobility of club football) represents an activity in which abstract concepts of ‘post-national identity’ may find a concrete and humanly understandable illustration. Therefore, football makes it possible to assess (outside the bias-inducing context of surveys on political integration like Eurobarometer), the extent to which contemporary Europeans are capable of distinguishing between cultural and political identities and overlapping feelings of belonging;
  • football (as exploratory on-site field studies during recent international events have shown) has become a social activity through which people increasingly tend to express critical distance towards their own social needs and desires. Formerly ‘sacred’ symbols and emotionally loaded stereotypes are dealt with in an ironical manner, giving evidence to people’s capacity of ‘nonchalant consumption’ of identification offers and ‘oblique attention’ to the related discourse. Two questions remain to be studied. To what extent does this capacity for ironical distance impact mutual perception patterns between Europeans? For the time being, does this capacity remain limited to Western Europe or can convergence in behaviour patterns be observed?
  • football, finally, is also a very promising case study for the circular social phenomenon the theorists of ‘late modernity’ have called ‘reflexivity’. It describes the appropriation and interiorisation by social agents of knowledge generated by the social sciences. There is evidence that research findings have percolated through mainstream media and that they have actually inflected the very attitudes and behaviour patterns they initially described and analysed. This evidence may make it possible to draw interesting conclusion for European studies as well and therefore produce relevant findings for policy-makers and actors of civil society.


Within the FREE project this research strand is tasked with designing and conducting appropriate quantitative surveys to take stock of the existing European public sphere of football and complement the qualitative data collected in the anthropological field work carried out jointly with other research strands.

The countries concerned are the countries covered by the consortium (Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Poland, Spain, Turkey, the UK) plus another very topic-relevant mediterranean member-state (Italy).

The collection of attitudinal and behavioural data at the individual level will be based on different methods(among which online and mass telephone surveys) and targeted at different audiences.

Summary of research objectives

  • to carry out conceptual research work on the notion of ‘European public sphere’ as applied to the football community in the largest sense;
  • to advance knowledge on concepts of theories of post-modernity by applying major concepts and notions of postmodern thought and identity construction in a ‘postnational era’ within a new and original field;
  • to establish an inventory of the presence of ‘foreign football’ in print and audiovisual media (including the blogosphere), as well as a detailed overview of audiences for international events in the different countries covered;
  • to coordinate and manage the quantitative empirical survey carried out by the consortium.