While the idea of a federal union of Europe could be seen as a political conundrum, what about international sport in a federal Europe? Ken Sweeney looks at the current international criteria for sports in Europe and asks if it is possible to really have a European Team in international sport. He also chats with Danny Kazandjian, General Manager of Rugby League International Federation about how an emerging sport like Rugby League would deal with the idea of one international squad for Europe.
The recent Olympic Games in Rio delivered a strange phenomenon on social media with the arrival of a medal table showing the combined tally of medals won by European nations. It was being paraded around the pro-European pages with many claiming that if the team was combined, they would wipe the floor with the medals in the Olympics every time. On paper this seems like a wonderful idea, but somehow I was getting the feeling that people who were shouting this the most seemed to me like the kind of people who just didn’t understand how sport works. Nevertheless, I decided to look into the idea of Europe as one state in sport. I wanted to consider the idea of it, as well as look at the structure of international sport and see if it can work.
Before I investigate this subject, I’m going to dismiss the mega sports, because no matter what the political situation, there is no way in my opinion that the likes of the UEFA, The European Athletic Association, or Rugby Europe would be in favour of one team representing Europe in world competitions. The bottom line is revenue and that will always be the driving force. The less people they have playing the sport at the top level, the less revenue they will get. They will fight the idea with every cent they have and will prevail, because they will have the support of the people.
And it’s the people who will matter the most. Even if they fully support the idea of a united Europe, they will still want to see their beloved players or sportspeople don the shirt of France, Germany or Sweden and win the game, the cup or the championship. Sport is an intrinsic part of so many people’s lives and it almost beggars belief how much devotion, time and money they will spend on it. It’s also a national thing and unlike in politics, that’s a positive. It’s a positive, because I think it would act as a safety valve. It will relieve the tension that could arise in a federal Europe. We may in the future all reside under one Europe and we may be mature enough to put our differences aside for that, but deep down there will always be a need for some kind of local heroes. And that needs to be kept alive in sport. The Germans will still love to beat the English in football and the Swedes will still enjoy beating the Norwegians in winter sports and so on. It may even be a case of new nations facing each other, but that is not important. The important factor is that if Catalonia meets Wallonia in a game, the stakes will be the same; do it for your country, region or whatever you want to call it, but do it.
A professional opinion
But still, there may be a different thought on this, so let’s hear from somebody involved in international sport on a daily basis. I decided to speak to someone who is involved in an emerging professional sport in Europe and see what their ideas would be about one side representing Europe. I choose Rugby League, because it’s one of the oldest professional sports in the world, I know the sport well and I also know that it is fast becoming a popular sport on the continent, in particular at amateur level. It is a well-run, well-funded organisation, and is focused on building up its popularity at local levels in countries around Europe. Rugby League is currently played in over 70 nations in the world. The strongest Rugby League nations are Australia, England and New Zealand, but there are a number of emerging nations that are catching up fast, such as France, Italy, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and even some of the Eastern European nations. The Rugby League World Cup is the highest form of representative Rugby League and currently features 14 teams. Those which have contested in the World Cups are: Australia, New Zealand, England, France, Fiji, Wales, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Ireland, USA, Scotland, Italy, Tonga, Cook Islands, Lebanon, Russia and South Africa. The current World Champions are Australia, who won the 2013 Rugby League World Cup.
I met with Danny Kazandjian, General Manager of the Rugby League International Federation (RILF), and we chatted about how an emerging sport like Rugby League would deal with the idea of one international squad for Europe.
If there was a proposal for a European representative side in Rugby League, do you think that the European national organisations would be against the idea of a European side?
I would think they would, because the key principle that makes international sport unique is cultural identity and sovereignty, so if that was to be artificially removed, then I think it would be difficult to capture the imagination of a lot of people in the foreseeable future. I’m not saying that it wouldn’t happen over a period of great time, like decades even, but in the foreseeable future I don’t expect that would have much success from a grass-roots’ to a fans’ level.
Has there ever been a European side in Rugby League?
We’ve had that at a very low level and we’ve had European representative sides in festivals, but there was no suggestion that that would be in any way superseding national sovereignty. This would be a selection that was named Europe, similar to the Barbarians sides in Rugby Union. Our essential strategy is to increase participation and one of the weapons that our member nations have in their arsenals is that for fairly good players, they can get international representation quickly and that’s quite an attractive proposition for players.
Rugby League is only getting more popular and for the sport this is a crucial time, so would removing international sides be a regressive step?
I think so, the international federation hired its first Chief Executive Officer in May last year and the 2017 World Cup is panning out to be our most successful one ever. We have just announced that the Rugby League World Cup will go to England in 2021 and the USA and Canada in 2025, so this draws a real line in the sand about the ambitions and objectives of the RLIF. There is a lot of interest in the sport from nations, participants and the media and having international competition at the forefront is an incredibly important weapon that we have.
Would quality of players suffer if there was one side in Europe?
I think so. The quality of international Rugby League is growing all the time thanks in no small part to the calibre of elite players of the National Rugby League who are making the teams stronger, like Scotland and Wales, so the quality has markedly improved if you were to compare it to our World Cup in 1995, for example.
So overall, do you think that people would be against the idea in that it would be unworkable in the progress of Rugby League?
I would say that is a fair characterisation. That proposal would be against our policy to increase the number of members and the strength of the member nations and if we were to deprive those members of the main weapons that they have, then it would be counterproductive.
Danny touched on the subject that is really my biggest problem with having one European side in sport: the starvation of talent. Sport needs lots of different avenues to bring out the talent and if you narrow the avenue then you narrow the talent. And when you are dealing with emerging sports, it’s an even bigger issue. What happens to all those sportspeople who normally would have been good enough to represent Malta, Cyprus, Latvia or Ireland? And what about funding? If there is no national drive for success, why should the local future federal government in Austria invest thousands of Euros in the local cross-country skier? There have been countless examples in sport of a team or an individual, who would not be a favourite, rising to the occasion and doing the impossible. Greece in the Euros in 2004, the US men’s hockey team defeating the mighty Soviet machine at the 1980 Winter Olympics, or the barefoot Ethiopian Abebe Bikila wining gold in the 1960 Olympic Games in Paris. Imagine if all these underdogs weren’t given the chance to shine because of a limited amount of members on a team?
It’s an impossible task and a futile one. Europe doesn’t need a team in sport. There are too many factors against the idea. It’s OK for a one off tournament like the Ryder Cup, but as a regular set up it would be impossible and, more importantly, utterly boring. What’s the point if it meant that there would be fewer games, fewer talents and even fewer wins. The fact is that those wins in the Olympics that are being added up wouldn’t happen if there was a European team. For starters, the team would have to be smaller, so you can expect half the people standing on podiums. But most importantly, they wouldn’t be so energised, so passionate and above all so determined to win. Federalism has room in it for nation’s states to still exist in sport. It works at a county level in individual nation states today, so there is no need to change it. Sport is life for so many people; it is tribal, but not always political. Let’s keep the politics out of sport and enjoy the fever pitch excitement of beating the local rivals, whether they be national or international.
Many thanks to Danny Kazandjian in RLIF and if you would like to know more about Rugby League, you can find out about the sport here.