Researcher Ramon Llopis of the Universitat de València (University of Valencia, UV) was a member of the international consortium behind Football Research in an Enlarged Europe (FREE), the aim of which was to develop a better understanding of football (American soccer) as a social and cultural phenomenon in contemporary Europe. The starting premise was the "firm belief that football has important things to say about Europe and its citizens" (http://www.free-project.eu/Pages/Welcome.aspx).
Involving nine univeristies from eight countries, FREE explored "to what extent competitions and media coverage of the game have created a Europe-wide public sphere or space of communication that goes beyond national borders, in which a common interest, mutual curiosity and spontaneous intercultural dialogue can be pursued" (Llopis). Researchers also analysed changing perceptions of European approaches to football governance, as well as the increasing mobility of players and fans.
Llopis tells us that the research points to football as "an important presence in the daily lives of many Europeans. Even people who are not particularly interested in the sport cannot escape the discourse and social dynamics it creates, irrespective, furthermore, of age, sex, class and region." He adds that "football is more than a mere pastime or entertainment product. In an ever more complex world, it provides structures of meaning and reinforces a sense of collective identity."
Football is a topic of exchange and conversation between Europeans of different origins, ages and social classes: based on the surveys carried out in the early stages of the project, some 63.3% of people who call themselves football fans have chatted about football with someone from another European country in the past twelve months. Indeed, football provides a unifying topic of conversation even among those who do not necessarily have access to other transnational experiences: 70% of football fans watch matches and summaries from leagues outside of their country of origin, and 53.4% habitually follow the results and news from other European leagues, on the internet and social media. That said, significant differences are observed in these data between east and west Europe, with such as Poland scoring low in this respect. It is therefore a key topic on which a commonality can be established and, as such, something which contributes to shaping people's perception of what being European actually means.
So, rather than consider professional football as a predominantly economic activity or a healthy pastime (for both players and fans), public authorities should also be aware of its broader socio-cultural impact. And perhaps even be concerned about increasing bad feeling surrounding football as a result of its extreme commercialisation, since it is causing many to turn away from the game, and this source of European unity to lose some of its potency.
The project was funded under the Seventh European Framework Programme (FP7) as an anthropological research project into European integration. Director of the UV's European Projects Office, Àngels Sanchis, highlights the project as "one of the few examples of community funding made available for sociological, rather than technological, research," adding that for her this "shows that the priorities of the European Commission lie not only with projects that deliver an economic impact, but also a social and cultural impact."
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