If there are two things that have defined headlines this past week, it’s the 2016 European Championships and the British public’s decision to leave the European Union – what many people are calling a backlash against globalization. The two things have more in common than might first appear to be the case.

Understanding globalization through football

In three important ways, we see trends from globalization reflected in the world of football – or as our friends in the US call it, soccer.

First, globalization is a long-term, multi-dimensional process, with interconnecting economic, social, political and cultural dimensions. The “beautiful game” is, at the same time, a world cultural form, a multi-billion-dollar industry – $25 billion in Europe alone – a focus for global television audiences, and a photo opportunity like no other for political and cultural elites in attendance at major tournaments.

      Market size of European football

Second, globalization is defined by growing levels of both transnational connectivity (through travel and communication, for example) and global consciousness (promoting the sense of the world as a single place). The Euros reflect and intensify these dual features, in attracting hundreds of thousands of visiting fans from across Europe, while also representing a common cultural focus for much of humankind.

Third, globalization is marked increasingly by processes of “glocalization”, which refers to the powerful mutual interdependencies and interplays of the local (or the particular) and the global (or the universal). By way of highlighting these glocalization processes, football, as a global game, has long constituted a cultural space in which forms of local and national identity may be created, explored and contested. Thus, for example, the Spanish, the Italians and the English often present themselves as coming from rather different football traditions and styles of play.

Perhaps more significantly, football demonstrates the glocal inventiveness of social actors, groups and communities, and how they find a way to engage pragmatically, creatively and successfully with powerful transnational forces. Small nations like Wales, Northern Ireland and Iceland have been great examples of this trend in the 2016 tournament.

As globalization changes, so does football

Beyond these preliminary points, there are other crucial ways in which football and globalization are intertwined. First, the European Championships, like the World Cup finals, underline the continuing importance of national forms of identity, particularly within the global context. This point puts paid to the common assumption that the global simply obliterates the local or the national. Indicatively, the European Championships have been expanded in scale, from 16 to 24 national teams. And much of the media coverage of the event centres on national fan groups, who create the spectacle in part by marking themselves off from each other in evermore colourful ways.

At the same time, the tournament reflects how nationality is itself becoming more complex and fluid, in part due to the impact of migration chains, shifting forms of citizenship, and contemporary global politics. Thus, the French, German, English, Swiss and other teams have come to represent the strongly multicultural aspects of their national populations. In this year’s tournament, we had the intriguing case of the Albania-Switzerland fixture, when the two nations fielded several players with strong Kosovar (ethnic Albanian) backgrounds, including two brothers who were playing on opposite sides.

More disturbingly, the Euros have also led to outbreaks of serious violence and public disorder across national fan groups. Such incidents may be understood with reference to the complexity of national and wider geopolitics (notably relations between the European Union, NATO and Russia), as well as the transnational spread of subcultural (football hooligan) identities and rivalries.

In fact, some commentators have even spoken of the possibility of warlike relations between supporters of different national teams. This has echoes of the comments made by those opposed to a Brexit, who argue that the situation in Europe has deteriorated so dramatically, warnings of the potential for war are not at all overdramatic.

The ugly side of the beautiful game: violence between Russian and English fans erupted at the start of the tournament
The ugly side of the beautiful game: violence between Russian and English fans erupted at the start of the tournament
Image: REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

The Euros have also been played against the backdrop of political crises across the game. The ongoing FIFA scandal has started to reveal the remarkably complex and egregious webs of corruption across the game’s world polity. It has highlighted the inherent problems in securing effective, democratic and transparent structures and processes for global governance. More positively, this global drama points to how international judicial, civil and political interventions may be coordinated to combat such criminality.

And the Euros have highlighted the glocal nature of the risk of terrorist attack. France mounted a huge security operation to combat potential threats of terrorist attack during the tournament. Such risks have a transnational basis, notably in relation to the Middle East and Afghanistan, but also particular national and regional dimensions, through the radicalization of some young people of North African heritage in France and Belgium.

Finally, the tournament provides further evidence of the transnational importance of football, and how the game reaches into other areas of life. The Euros are a go-to conversation point in homes, workplaces and leisure spaces, and even shape work patterns, particularly with early kick-off times. The tournament fills television schedules, mass and social media chatter, and advertising, in both Europe and more globally.

This article is part of our globalization series. You can read more here.