For our weekly “Ideas on Europe” editorial by UACES, the University Association for Contemporary European Studies, we welcome Dr Borja Garcia from Loughborough University, in the United Kingdom.
Borja, your research refers often to what is called the “European Model of Sport”. What is actually understood by this expression?
The European Model of Sport is a concept that defines and reflects the way we understand how sport should be organised in Europe. It has quite a normative flavour. The problem, of course, is that not everybody shares the same vision.
The European Model of Sport was born out of necessity. Back in the late 1990s, the European Commission was inundated with questions about the application of EU law to sport; so they needed to understand how sport worked in Europe.
In essence, the European Model of Sport has two dimensions. First, the governance structures of sport in Europe, and second, the values that inform those structures.
In terms of governance, the model is defined by a pyramid of power, in which the European federations are at the top and have a monopoly with a lot of power over their sport. Other stakeholders such as national federations, athletes or clubs are situated below and under the hierarchy of the European federation.
This is of course very controversial, because there can be a lot of fights between federations and players, athletes or clubs, as we saw recently in the case of the football superleague.
The values that define the European model of sport are solidarity, a link to national and local identity and, probably the most important of them all, a grassroots approach.
Another interesting expression – what do you mean exactly by “grassroots”?
“Grassroots” essentially refers to amateur sports, small clubs, the basis. And the grassroots approach is what differentiates the European model of sport from the American model of sport. It is a very important element of this debate.
It basically means that the top professional and commercial side of any sport has a duty of care to the amateur side of the sport. This has two important consequences. First, financial consequences, because it means that the objective of top professional sport should not be pure economic profit, but actually generating money to then redistribute it with the grassroots. I am sure you can already see the problems here. Can you imagine Paris Saint Germain being obliged to share part of its benefits with small clubs in the 5 th or 6 th division, or with school sport in Paris?
The second consequence of this grassroots approach is that competition should be open to everyone. Therefore, there needs to be a system of promotion and relegation. And, of course, this means that competitions such as the infamous football superleague, or even the basketball Euroleague go against the ideal of the European Model of Sport! Or, I should say, against the European Model of Sport defined by federations, that is lately very much supported by politicians.
So, can we actually say that the European Model of Sport really exists or is just a kind of ideal?
Well, that is an excellent question. In my view it is true that there is a certain way of understanding sport in Europe that is different to other parts of the world. And that is reflected in the values we attribute to sport as a society. Like the grassroots approach and the links to social identity and democracy, for example.
The problem, however, is that organisations such as the International Olympic Committee or FIFA have highjacked this debate and want to clearly define the governance structures of the model in their favour. And that is more difficult, because sport is very heterogenous and we probably should talk about different models of sport in Europe.
At times it feels as if sport federations are only interested in the European Model of Sport to defend their power and avoid accountability or avoid the application of European law, and that is not what the European Model of Sport should be about! As the Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas ver recently put it, sport is clearly part of the European way of life, and those values associated with sport such as openness, solidarity and participation are what make European sport special. Those are the values we should cherish and protect, even though regulation if it is necessary!
Many thanks for your explanations, Borja. Sport is a policy area that has definitely grown in importance over the last years. Next week, “Ideas on Europe”, in cooperation with UACES, will welcome Mechthild Roos, from Augsburg University.