We’re All Europeans Now!

We’re all Europeans now! At least when it comes to the Ryder Cup – the biennial golf competition between the United States and Europe. The European team triumphed on the final day by a nail-biting 14½ points to 13½ . Spot the flags in the victory picture! And note José Manuel Barroso’s proud message of congratulation.

I’m sure the Commission president  had no doubt that his visit to rain-soaked Wales for the opening ceremony had been well worth while.

Up until 1979 the Ryder Cup was a contest between the United States and Great Britain, but repeated American success (just one win for GB between 1955 and 1977) persuaded the organisers to create a Europe-US contest. It has been a huge success ever since.

Golf is the only major sport where Europe is represented by a single team. On this occasion the 12 team members were drawn from England, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Northern Ireland, Spain and Sweden – a wide representation indeed – and the spectators revelled in the European identity of their heroes.

Building a European esprit de corps through the creation of EU sporting teams has been the dream of individual European Commissioners over the years. If only there had been a European team at the Olympics, they say, we’d have won more than half the medals! But this has always been a sticky wicket (to use a cricketing metaphor) and can certainly not be achieved by diktat or directive. If it happens at all it will be because a particular sport so chooses.

Sporting loyalties are complex matters. It can’t be an ethnic question or support for local heroes.  Only about one third of the footballers in England’s premier league are English, yet fan loyalty to Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea is as fierce as ever. National football teams command great support, yet in some cases it’s the players who lack loyalty, as we saw with a certain team at the World Cup earlier this year.

One might argue that a European team could never command the same sort of loyalty as a local or national team, but the Ryder Cup belies that theory. Perhaps it reflects the fact that virtually every golfer in the Europe team is known to those who follow the sport, so it becomes a family affair. In any event it was great to watch.  What is striking is how important the European context has become for so many sports, whether it be football, athletics, rugby or others. The playing field is now pan-European.