15 years of sport: will the European Union remain on top of its game?

, by Jérôme Flury, Translated by Felicity Hemming

15 years of sport: will the European Union remain on top of its game?

The past 15 years have been a great time for sport in Europe. Home to great champions and host to major competitions, the European continent remains a stronghold as far as sporting events are concerned, even as the rest of the world is becoming increasingly keen on this soft power tool.

These successes, also to be found in the realms of handball, are not, however, seen in rugby. Only England (in 2007 and 2019) and France (in 2011) reached the final and were on the podium of a world championship in the last 15 years, i.e. three European teams out of 12. But, for a great many of sports, such as tennis, where the 10 best players today are all European, or the World Rally Championship, which has never been won by a driver not born on European soil, the benchmark set by Europe remains.

As the home of several world sporting bodies, Europe has also retained the habit of hosting some of the world’s largest competitions. From the Football World Cup in 2006 in Germany; to the Rugby World Cup in France, hosted in Scotland and Wales the following year; to the 2012 Olympic Games in London, and Paris winning the right to host the 2024 edition, the last 15 years have been no exception to the rule, although this is slowly changing.

The football World Cup, for example, is increasingly hosted oversees (in South Africa, Brazil, Qatar and soon in Canada, the USA and Mexico). Additionally, the World Athletics Championships are organised less frequently in Europe. Eight of the first ten editions were held in Europe, but since 2005, this ratio has been reversed, with the championships held successively in Osaka (Japan), Berlin (Germany), Daegu (South Korea), Moscow (Russia), London (United Kingdom) and Doha (Qatar). Other countries are developing their infrastructures and using sports competitions to promote their international influence, such as Brazil, which has held the World Cup and Olympic Games within the space of two years, and Japan, which is expected to host the Olympic Games in 2021, just two years after hosting the last rugby World Cup also on its soil.

Sporting Europe continues to shine

The Continent remains a benchmark of international sporting events. France, in particular, has just hosted a successful women’s football world championship in 2019, eight years after the equally successful German edition, and is preparing to organise the rugby world championship in 2023, one year before the Olympics. Europe is also taking care to ensure the proper development of its own competitions, such as the 2020 European football championship, which has been postponed until 2021, but will be held in twelve different countries to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the tournament’s creation.

Sport has proven to unite the continent. A new tennis tournament has even been created in recent years to pit Europe against the "rest of the world.” Images of Spaniard Rafael Nadal and Swiss Roger Federer, partners for a day and all-smiles round, spread the third victory of the “European team” in all three editions of the Rod Laver Cup tennis tournament. A unique and spectacular event inspired in particular by the example set by golf. Today, more local projects are emerging, such as the establishment of a Belgian-Dutch football championship.

Media coverage, doping and football’s crazy spending

The past fifteen years have been a period of great sporting success, witnessing an increase in media coverage. In 2005, the national television rights to the English football championship had already exceeded £1 billion a year, but today they are in excess of £5 billion. In this era of increasing exposure, which also leads to the revelation of various scandals and doping cases (e.g. Armstrong in cycling), many athletes have come to the fore in Europe.

In addition, certain transactions in football, particularly in the European teams, have experienced unprecedented inflation over this period. Only the purchase of Zinédine Zidane by Real Madrid in 2001 made the list of the 40 most expensive transfers in history, all established after 2008. Apart from the recruitment of Brazil’s Oscar dos Santos Emboaba Júnior by the Shanghai club, all these investments are the work of European clubs. In tennis, some of the largest endowments at a tournament are those given to the end-of-season Tennis Masters Cup in London. The sum given to the winner of the event in 2019 may have been as much as €2,500,000.

The gradual Europeanisation of sporting policies

Growing in both status and strength, sport is a significant tool of soft power. However, as the Toute L’Europe explains “the European Union only has supporting powers” in this area. Additionally, it is only recently that sport become more prominent on the political scene. In 2004, the EU gathered the funds and decided to carry out a "European year of education through sport.

With an economic dimension and societal role, sport then became the issue of a White Paper, presented by the Commission on 11 July 2007. However, sports policy remained primarily that of States, with a 2-year wait and enactment of the Lisbon Treaty before “a reference to sport is finally included in the Community treaties”, as Sport and Citizenship reminds us.

Two clauses are particularly interesting. Article 6, which states that “the Union shall have the competence to carry out actions to support, coordinate or supplement the actions of the Member States” and mentions sport by name in its prerogatives. Article 165 states that “the Union shall contribute to the promotion of European sporting issues, while considering its specific characteristics, its structures based on voluntary work and its social and educational functions.”The EU could develop new perspectives on subjects such as anti-doping, social inclusion within sport and promote training. On 18 January 2011, the European Commission published a notice entitled "Developing the European Dimension in Sport”, and amongst its stated concrete actions, the European Week of Sport (EWOS) was introduced in 2015, in which some 15 million people took part, either directly or indirectly, in 2019. The next edition will be held from 23 September.

Sport: a greater recognition at EU level

The cultural, educational and health functions of sport are increasingly recognised and EU budgets for sport are increasing. Sport is accordingly an integral part of the Erasmus+ programme, having been allocated €265m for the 2014-2020 period, and is growing steadily each year (from €22m in 2014 to €62m in 2020). Today, sports activity is undoubtedly part of all EU citizens’ lives. The Eurobarometer on Sport and Physical Activity published in 2018 reveals that 40% of EU citizens report doing sport at least once a week. The same year, Toute L’Europe revealed that "across the European continent, the sporting sector represents 3.4% of GDP and around 15 million jobs.”

Sport remains a subsidiary competence of the Union. At the end of 2018, Colin Miège produced a report for the Ministry of Youth and Sport claiming that “the publication of dozens of studies or reports poorly masks a lack of effort and ambition” on the part of the European Union during the 2010s.

Nevertheless, the EU Council no longer hesitates to make their suggestions known in this area. The latest of these, published on 22 June deals with the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic in sport. The Council stresses “[sport’s] capacity to contribute to the well-being of citizens in the COVID-19 crisis (…) must be recognised and highlighted.” Sport is no longer ignored by EU authorities and from now on, words could be followed by deed to promote ever more popular sporting practices.

Prominent European athletes from last 15 years

Let’s go back in time.

Here we are in 2005 we are now in 2005, at the end of the Michael Schumacher’s glory days as seven-time F1 world champion, Brazil is the reigning world champion football and lance Armstrong takes his 7th Tour de France… Let’s delve into the lives of several European athletes who are getting ready to smash the next fifteen years in the sporting world, but don’t even know it yet.

Sébastien Loeb, 31, had only one world championship title to his name. Today, the Frenchman is one of the best racing drivers in history and, in addition to his nine world titles in rallying, he has tried his hand at Formula 1, endurance racing, the Paris-Dakar and has broken many records, also winning many touring car races.

Sébastien Ogier, 22, was not yet a professional. He is now the second most successful rally driver with six world titles.

Dafne Schippers, 13, was not yet the queen of sprint that she was about to become. The Dutch rider is now well know, with two world titles in the 200m, a silver medal at the Olympic Games and four European titles.

Teddy Riner celebrated his first selection for the French team at the European Junior Judo Championships. He was barely 16 years old and was not yet the herculean beast that he has now to become. Today, his track record speaks for itself: twice Olympic champion, 5 times European champion and above all 10 times world champion in over 100 kilos.

Rafael Nadal, 19, won his first Roland Garros. 12 wins later, along with seven other Grand Slam titles, gold medals in singles and doubles at the Olympics, he now completes his outstanding record with 5 Davis Cup victories.

Roger Federer, 24, may not have been aware of the immense career that awaits him. The Swiss, the world’s number one tennis player, went on to accumulate many Grand Slam titles. He is now the joint most successful player in history in this category - alongside Rafael Nadal.

Novak Djokovic, 18, had been a professional for two years. Now, the Serb has 17 Grand Slam titles under his belt, making him the third-most successful man in history for a male player.

Federica Pellegrini, 17, already an Olympic vice-champion in the 200m freestyle, was at the start of a great career. The Italian athlete has an Olympic title, 19 world medals including 7 gold and some 31 European medals including 14 gold.

Cristiano Ronaldo, 20, has already been noticed in the footballing world during the 2004 European Championship with Portugal. He has won the Ballon D’Or (the French award for supreme individual football talent) five times and won the Euro 2016 with his team.

Lewis Hamilton, a 20-year-old British youngster, was going to win the Formula 3 Euro series championship. Today, he is a six-time Formula 1 world champion.

Marc Marquez, 12 years old, may have already ridden a motorbike before, but he will not start racing until three years after. From a young prodigy, the Spaniard became a world star, adding eight world titles to his name.

Marcel Hirscher was 16 years old and was considered a hopeful for Austrian alpine skiing. He retired from sport in 2019 with 2 gold medals at the Winter Olympics, 8 consecutive big crystal globes and 67 career victories.

Johannes Boe, 12, perhaps only accompanies his big brother on the snowy slopes of the biathlon events. Today, the world’s greatest biathlete can boast 48 World Cup gold medals.

Martin Fourcade, 17, had not yet started a sporting career that would take him to the summits of world biathlon. He has 83 World Cup victories and seven Olympic medals to his credit.

Sebastian Vettel, 18, was fighting in the Formula 3 Euro series behind a certain Lewis Hamilton. Things went very fast for him after this event and to date he has 53 victories and four world titles to his name.

The French handball team was not yet called the Experts. The golden generation goes on to establish a real global and long-term domination of the discipline, by winning no less than three European titles, four world titles and two Olympic titles in fifteen years.

Angelique Kerber was 17 years old. The German, already a professional tennis player in 2005, won three Grand Slam titles between 2016 and 2018 and was ranked number one in the world.

Justine Henin, 23, was in very good shape in 2005, having already won three Grand Slam titles and a gold medal at the 2004 Olympic Games. The Belgian went onto win four more, making up one of the greatest women’s tennis track records.

Kim Clijsters, also from Belgium, was 22 years old in 2005 and had already won two Grand Slam titles in doubles. She went on to win four Grand Slam titles (in singles tennis) in the following years.

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