Europe’s legacy of sporting jewels
In the best traditions of Monty Python regarding another pan-European bureaucracy, the question might well be asked in a sporting context: What has the EU ever done for us? Quite a lot, as it happens. Go back a few years when everyone in the pub on a Friday night was telling you that property in Bulgaria was a steal and so on, the must-attend games for many people in the country were the Munster rugby games somewhere in southern France/northern Spain, when the proverbial Red Army would decamp from Shannon, Cork and Dublin airports at all hours — fetching up in Bilbao and Toulouse to cut a swathe through the local hostelries before . . .
Hold on a second. First of all, the reason you were able to simply hop on a plane from Ireland and pitch up in (relatively) obscure provincial continental cities has a good deal to do with the gradual development of the European project over recent decades.
Loose passport controls and a common currency are the most obvious markers of how this facilitation played out; shared employment law and the ease with with cross-continental sporting competitions could be created are the less obvious ones.
If you go back to the 1950s, when the forerunner of the EU’s forerunner, the European Economic Community, was formed, Germany and France were its main drivers. The European Coal and Steel Community was founded in 1952, and within three years of its formation a formal European soccer competition was in place, the European Cup.
(As a general indication of its chances of success, you need only consider that English clubs were not allowed to enter by the Football Association in England, showing that a boneheaded ignorance of the positives in European membership is not confined to Nigel Farage et al).
The great irony is that it was on British soil that that competition served up the kind of seminal contest that secured its legitimacy for generations to come — the famous Real Madrid versus Eintracht Frankfurt final of 1960, played in Glasgow before 135,000 spectators; one of them, Alex Ferguson, would still namecheck that game decades later as an example of how the game should be played.
That in itself shows how sport became a Europeanising influence. For all that England wanted to be separate, it couldn’t stand apart from the developments in the most popular sport on the continent, and it’s hardly accidental that membership of the old EEC became a political imperative as Europe became less remote through sport, if nothing else.
Fast forward to the past couple of decades of club rugby action, the Irish provinces’ famous odysseys around Europe, and the message is slightly more nuanced.
Going to watch games in places like Clermont and San Sebastian has strengthened Irish people’s sense of Europeanness immeasurably: Paris and Rome have figured in many a wedding/romantic break, and Spain is a perennial favourite for holidays, but getting to the less famous cities and towns has hugely reinforced a common bond between Irish people and their continental counterparts. Getting to know your way through the pintxo joints of the the old town in San Sebastian or heading to the clubhouse in Biarritz for some fish stew has done more for the European project than a thousand dusty policy papers.
As for the GAA, it has benefited enormously from EU freedom of movement, with every colony of Irish people in Europe establishing a GAA club as a social centre as soon as is humanly possible: the existence of GAA clubs from Stockholm to Galicia, and all places in between, would have been impossible had Ireland not joined the EU, and is a fair indicator of how even smallscale indigenous pastimes can spread across the Union as both a marker of home and a wider outlook.
For GAA fans closer to home, there is also the consolation that EU membership serves to keep their beloved games volunteerbased.
Cast your mind back over twenty years to the famous Jean-Marc Bosman case, which involved a Belgian footballer suing for restraint of trade when he was refused a transfer.
The European Court of Justice found in his favour, which led to professional players benefiting greatly — they could wait until their contracts expired and move to a new club, while their old club would get no transfer fee, which obviously improved their bargaining power immensely.
The general principle underlying the Bosman ruling related to the right of workers to free movement within the European Union. The significance for fans of Gaelic football and hurling is the belief that if professionalism were introduced at intercounty level for Gaelic games, then the free movement principle as applied to paid players would result in the quick destruction of the inter-county system, as only the handful of counties able to afford high wages would soon hoover up the best players.
The EU: serving the GAA, just like everyone else.
May 18, 1960: Loy, the Eintracht goal keeper is unable to prevent Di Stefano of Real Madrid scoring his team’s first goal during the European Cup Final at Hampden Park, Glasgow. Real Madrid won 7-3. Among the fans that day was one Alex Ferguson, who still holds up that game as a model for how football should be played.
Martin McClean ( Amsterdam, black/red) claims the ball from Stockholm ( blue) in the 2013 European GAA Finals, Athlone.