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Europe's Soccer Teams Losing National Identities

By Anne Swardson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 9, 1998; Page A1


PARIS — As attention around the world swings to the World Cup soccer competition opening Wednesday in France, a profound change is revolutionizing the professional version of the sport in Europe — and, in a sense, revolutionizing Europe itself.

Unlike the national squads that will be competing for the World Cup — European countries will field 15 of the teams in the 32-nation tournament — Europe's professional soccer teams increasingly are losing their national identities.

To a degree unimaginable just a few years ago, their rosters are composed of players from other European countries, and their fans are crossing borders to follow them.

"It's the quality of the team that interests me," said Sandrine De Coune, 28, a Paris travel agent who studies Italian just so she can read Italian newspapers to keep up with her favorite team, Juventus of Turin. "There are no teams of that level in France."

De Coune is one of several hundred members of the Juventus Fan Club of Paris, one of 10 such clubs in France for the Italian team. Members trade souvenirs, meet to watch Italian games on television and attend games in Italy. There, they might well be cheering a Frenchman, star halfback Zinedine Zidane.

In the same vein, fans of Chelsea — one of British soccer's most storied franchises — root for Italian players and an Italian coach. Spectators in Barcelona root for a Portuguese player. German fans in the Ruhr region cheer their team's Dutch players.

The transformation of soccer is enhancing a transformation already underway in Europe: the melting of borders, the joining of economies and the mixing of cultures. The 15 nations of the European Union already have a common economic and trade policy, and as of Jan. 1, 11 of them will have a single currency.

Public resistance to replacing national currencies such as the German mark and the French franc is strong in part because people feel it is being imposed on them by their political leaders. Not so with soccer. As the game teaches the British that the French are not so stuck up, and allows the Germans to better appreciate the Dutch, it is bringing the continent together.

"Kids in Britain can actually tell where different towns in Italy are, from their favorite players," said John Williams, director of the Center for Football Research at the University of Leicester in England. "If you ask most 12-year-old kids their favorite teams, they'll name their home team, but they'll also name a foreign team. Ten years ago they couldn't have done that."

Soccer traditionally has been a catalyst for outpourings of nationalist passions. When European teams face off in settings like the World Cup or European championships, the games often produce joyous displays of jingoistic flag-waving and cheering — and sometimes outbursts of fan hooliganism and violence that tarnish the sport's image.

National identity is more blurred on the fields of professional league soccer. Reacting to the rising importance of commercial television and the increasing power of the wealthiest teams, Europe's professional leagues increasingly have reached beyond Europe's borders — to Brazil, Argentina, Nigeria, even the United States — for the best players.

Until recently, European cross-pollination was kept in check by high transfer fees that effectively tied players to their clubs after their contracts expired and by league rules limiting the number of foreigners per team to three. But in 1995, the European Court of Justice struck down both restrictions, arguing they unfairly stifled the free movement of labor. The decision effectively created a free-agent system and sparked a flood of EU players into other EU countries. In France alone, 27 players left the following year for other European leagues.

Fans have welcomed their fellow Europeans with open arms. "Players from the European Union are almost not considered foreign players," said Albrecht Sonntag, a German who teaches at a business school in France. "To me, foreign players are Nigerians and East Europeans, not Belgians."

The newly transplanted European players also have stimulated local fan interest in the soccer leagues of other European countries. It is a phenomenon that is not mirrored in North American professional sports, where the emergence of foreign-born stars such as Capitals goalie Olaf Kolzig or Florida Marlins pitcher Livan Hernandez have not, for example, led to increased fan awareness of German ice hockey or Cuban baseball.

Famed teams such as Juventus and Inter Milan of Italy, Arsenal and Chelsea of Britain, Schalke 04 of Germany, and Real Madrid of Spain are household words in Europe. Some are more than 100 years old, and all embody the history of the countries where they are based. But today their players are a polyglot, multicultural blend.

"This attitude will definitely help Europe unite," said Rolf Rojek, president of the fan club of Schalke 04, whose roster boasts four Dutchmen, two Belgians, a Russian, a Czech and a Ukrainian. And the coach is Dutch. "Already now, many here are interested in what's going on in sports in the Netherlands. And we just drive over, without any border controls."

The European professional season just ended, and no year better illustrated soccer's reconstitution. Arsenal, for instance, won both British championships with a French coach and three French starters. The winning goals were scored by a Dutchman and a Frenchman.

Of the three major European championships, not one goal was scored by a player from the same country as his team. Inter Milan — which fielded only three Italian players out of 11 — won one championship with three goals, by a Chilean, a Brazilian and an Argentine. Chelsea won another European championship with an Italian coach (who replaced a Dutchman) and a goal scored by an Italian. And Real Madrid, with four Spaniards out of the 11 players on the field, won its third European championship thanks to a goal by Pedrag Mijatovic, a Yugoslav.

Soccer can help integrate Europe in part because it is entirely shared. There is no European country that doesn't play it in a serious way, both professionally and at the national level. Even Britain, which politically holds itself aloof from many aspects of European integration, is fully integrated when it comes to soccer.

During the recent Group of Eight summit of world leaders in Birmingham, England, British Prime Minister Tony Blair took time out to check into the biggest British soccer championship of the year, the FA Cup pitting Newcastle against Arsenal. Blair is a Newcastle fan. Across the table from him at the meeting, however, was an Arsenal fan: French President Jacques Chirac. Arsenal's coach, Arsene Wenger, is French, and so are five of its players.

When Arsenal won, 2-0, Chirac sent a congratulatory message to the team.

Special correspondent Petra Krischok in Berlin contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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