Representations of Europe in the European Public Football Sphere


by Jonas Biel (Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz)

Europe’s ability to respond effectively to “polycrisis” (Zeitlin & Nicoli 2019) relies in part on a shared European identity among its citizens (e.g., Fuchs 2012, Schmidt 2013). European identities can emerge in a variety of ways, including from the reception of Europe-related information and personal transnational experiences with Europe and other Europeans (Bergbauer 2017). Recently, scholars have focused on the formation of European identifications through social, educational, or cultural practices and everyday experiences (e.g., Kuhn 2015, Mau 2012, Mitchell 2015, Recchi & Favell 2019). One cultural practice with immense potential to shape European identifications is men’s elite European club football (Finger et al. 2023, Niemann et al. 2021).

With its prestigious continental competitions, high transnational mobility of players and personnel, widely broadcast matches, and powerful institutionalised networks, football is strongly Europeanised (Niemann et al. 2011, Niemann et al. 2021). It puts fans into regular and sustained contact with European citizens and symbols, relays information and creates experiences of Europe, thus establishing the potential for European identity formation (Brand et al. 2023). As a highly mediatised sport, this takes place largely through fans’ consumption of football media coverage.

Our recent Journal of Common Market Studies article – a contribution from the FANZinE research project – shows that football media covers Europe extensively, but with a limited focus on a select group of countries based on prestige and sporting importance. This creates specific, constrained conditions for identity construction through football media.

We take the concept of a European public sphere (Koopmans & Statham 2012, Risse 2014) that posits a European identity effect of news media coverage. When converging in time, content, and relevance across separate national media spaces, news coverage forms an interconnected media sphere that exposes news consumers from different countries to similar stimuli. This serves as a shared foundation for constructing identities. While usually restricted to politics, it provides a fitting analytical framework to examine the highly transnational and mediatised phenomenon of football.

In our analysis, we asked two key questions: How do separate national media outlets cover European club football, and does their coverage converge in time, content, and relevance? To investigate this, we analysed 304,434 football news articles, from eleven online news outlets over seven European football seasons (July 2015 to June 2022) in four European countries — Germany, Norway, Poland, and Spain. These countries are diverse on several dimensions (e.g., sociodemographic, political, football-related) and thus allow for broad inferences about media convergence in varied contexts.

We employed a computer-based quantitative text analysis, using a multilingual dictionary to measure the visibility of Europe on two dimensions: (1) the vertical, European level, represented by transnational institutions and phenomena such as the EU and its constituent parts, UEFA, European club competitions or references to broader Europe, and (2) the horizontal level, comprised of references to any of the 55 UEFA member states that form the European football cultural space, its citizens, or locations within them. We counted how often Europe or its constituent countries were mentioned in each article, to see how Europe is represented, and gathered supplementary data to analyse the convergence of media coverage.

We examined convergence in time, content, and relevance criteria. On the temporal dimension, our analysis revealed consistent patterns in vertical and horizontal references to Europe. These patterns reflect the ebb and flow of football seasons, are influenced by specific football-related events, and, importantly, closely align across all study countries.

In terms of content, we looked at the patterns of references to different countries within the articles to see which countries were being talked about. Again, media coverage from all countries is highly similar, revealing an unequal distribution with a distinct focus on a small selection of countries (Figure 1). England, Spain, Italy, France, and Germany – countries with great sporting success and highly competitive national leagues – are referenced most often. In contrast, smaller, more peripheral countries hardly appear. Sporting success, as measured by UEFA country rankings, and the presence of national team players in a specific country accurately predict coverage patterns in all countries.

The results show a considerable presence of Europe in football media coverage, as Europeanised men’s club football is a constant topic in media discourses in all studied countries. Consequently, fans who consume and interact with this news coverage will be put into regular contact with Europe, perceive European stimuli, and experience the Europeanised cultural space of football. This, in turn, can serve as the basis for the formation of European identities. Furthermore, the similarities in the patterns of news coverage across the selected countries suggest a convergence into a broader European public football sphere that engages diverse European audiences and might consequently lead to an alignment in constructions of identity across fans from varied backgrounds.

However, the analysis also highlights disparities in representation, with a concentration of coverage around high-status competitions and countries with successful clubs and economically influential positions in European football. These results mirror ongoing public, institutional, and academic discussions about the deepening economic and sporting imbalance in European club football (e.g., Ames 2023, Brand et al. 2023, Plumley et al. 2019, Ramchandani 2023, Smith 2021), underscoring concerns that these restrict equal access and representation in elite football and potentially exclude certain parts of Europe from meaningful participation in this shared cultural space.

While the convergence of different media markets holds promise for the formation of shared identities within a European public football sphere, exclusionary tendencies driven by economic and sporting disparities might limit the inclusivity of resulting identity constructions. This may affect how fans from various backgrounds define their own belonging to Europe, how they relate to others, and how football ultimately influences a shared sense of European identity.

Jonas Biel is a research associate at the Department of Political Science, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. As part of the FANZinE project he researches the intersection of football, European identities, and social cohesion in Europe. His focus lies in quantitative analyses of media and survey data.