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The “EU-ization” of Soccer

December 30, 2010
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In their book Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski make the argument that the root of the current winning soccer (or football if you like) style originated in the northwestern part of Europe around the Netherlands, Belgium, and west German due to the free movement of soccer players and managers (coaches) in the area.  Given that this revolution was occurring during the early evolution of the European Union and that free movement is the one of the cornerstone of the EU, might it be that there is a relationship between the EU and winning European soccer championships?

To examine this link, let’s follow Kuper and Szymanski’s led by examining the UEFA European Football Championship and the UEFA Champions League winners.  There have been 13 European Championships since its inception in 1960.  During that time, ten members of the EU have won, while two Communist countries (the Soviet Union in 1960 and Czechoslovakia in 1976) won, while Franco’s Spain won in 1964.  Of the runner’s up, seven belonged to the EU and five were Communist.  Having a dictatorship is a key determinate to a team’s quality, since dictators like to pour resources into national teams both as a matter of national pride and to distract citizens from other problems.  In fact, the Czech Republic’s second place in 1996 is the only team to finish first or second that was democratic yet not in the EU.

This discrepancy is even worse when examining the Champions League, which is a tournament of the best teams/clubs in Europe.  Since its beginning in 1956, there have been 55 champions, with a team based in a EU country winning all but 12.  Of those twelve, seven were from Spain or Portugal when they were ruled by dictators, and one was Communist Steaua Bucharest and another Partizan Belgrade.  In 55 years, the only championships by teams based in democratic countries that did not belong to the EU were 1967’s Celtic from Glasgow, Scotland and Manchester United in 1968.

Of course, one could argue that the EU now covers most of Europe, so it is only natural that a team from an EU member state would be the eventual champions.  However, neither Russia (with Europe’s largest population) nor Turkey (with Europe’s third largest population) have ever won nor placed second in either competition.  Yes, the Soviet Union did well in the European Cup, but they were Communist and their last success was in 1972.  Furthermore, if the sample is doubled to include the second place team in the Champion’s League, the only two teams from democratic non-EU countries were Celtic (1970) and Malmö, Sweden (1979).  Even England’s teams did a lot better after joining the EU, winning ten and finishing second eight times since 1973, while only having one victory in the previous 18 years.

Thus, the ties that are built by belonging to the EU move beyond economics, even apparently into the realm of sports.

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