Common currency? New flag? Nope. Try golf to unify Europe.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

As America's golf stars take on the best from across the Atlantic this weekend in the Ryder Cup, get ready for one of the rarest sights in sport: Team Europe.

The biennial clash, which starts Friday at the Oakland Hills Country Club in Michigan offers something that no other major sporting tournament does - a single, unified lineup of players competing under a European banner.

For this one event, old animosities evaporate. Frenchmen cheer on Spaniards, Nordic rivals bury the hatchet, and Welsh and Irish surprise themselves by rooting for the English.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

"It's bizarre, really," says Fred Aylett, a sports-bar manager in Bristol, England, who knows more than most about the proclivities and passions of the average sports fan.

"Everyone gets behind the European players and you've got all these Englishmen who are used to mouthing off about the Germans and French, and suddenly they're shouting their names" in support, says Mr. Aylett.

The fact that golf's Ryder Cup remains an exception highlights a strange quirk about European integration over the past 60 years. The Continent may have a common currency, a parliament, a single market, and a pan-European court. But sports seems to be more deeply woven in the fabric of local and national identities - and old rivalries still get in the way.

In soccer, rugby, ice hockey, even volleyball, Europeans would rather settle old scores by battling against one another than unify and take on other world powers.

So unwelcome is the general idea of Team Europe that when European Commission president Romano Prodi suggested recently that Olympians compete at the 2008 Games in Beijing under the blue and gold EU standard, it created a shudder across the Continent.

No matter that Europeans collectively won more medals than any other country at the recent Athens Olympics. The notion of a single European team was alien to a people who mostly put local affiliation first, national affinities second, and European sensibilities a distant third.

"There is no such thing as a European sporting identity," says Antonio Missiroli, a research fellow at the EU Institute for Security Studies who has written papers about the issue. "It is a tradition of Europe to have competition by national teams first ... and also to have competition for [local] clubs," he says.

Mr. Prodi's spokesman, Reijo Kemppinen, was at a loss to explain why Europe doesn't team up more often. "I wish I knew the answer," he says. "What the president was suggesting is - why not portray the flag of the EU at the Olympics alongside the national flags as a kind of symbolic expression of European unity?"

The unity around the Ryder Cup works because it puts great rivals on opposing teams, and creates an underdog (traditionally Europe, although it has won three of the last four contests) to take on the world's best (traditionally America).

In other sports, creating Team Europe simply would not generate the same dynamic. "In ice hockey, for example, the Czechs prefer to beat the Germans, and the Finns want to overcome the Swedes, rather than play against the Americans," says Daniel Keohane of the Centre for European Reform, a think tank here. "In volleyball, again, there is more rivalry among the Europeans than between Europe and America."

Mr. Missiroli notes that in soccer, most European teams (particularly the Dutch) want to beat the Germans, not play on the same team with them. In Britain, they can't even pull together a single British team because of the lingering antagonism between the English and the Welsh, Irish, and Scottish. "Even if England is playing Argentina or Germany, countries they've been at war with, Welsh and Scots fans will still support the team playing [against] England," says Mr. Keohane.

As for rugby, Keohane says that during a recent World Cup he noticed that some Europeans got behind the French when they were playing Australia. "But even then there was a girl from Luxembourg who couldn't stand the idea of the French winning."

In recent years, Europeans have become more used to the idea of supporting players from rival nations, as local clubs, particularly in soccer and rugby, take on a multinational look, buying well-known foreign talent to enhance success. Some English soccer clubs are now flush with foreign stars, bringing a cosmopolitan lilt to the chants from the stands.

But few attribute this to a stronger affinity with a European sporting identity. Most soccer fans would still rather beat a local rival than win Europe's premier club tournament, the Champions' League. "I'm not sure that these foreign imports have made us that much more European," says Aylett. "When England draws big European rivals in World Cups, all the German-bashing and French-bashing starts up again."

And few see the Ryder Cup Team Europe as a template for other sports. After all, continental Europeans only joined this competition in the past 20 years. Before that, when golf was still a curiosity in mainland Europe, the Americans used to play just the British, and subsequently the British and Irish.

A bigger question is whether this glaring lack of European sporting unity hints at deep-seated problems with European integration? After all, the history of the EU has been punctuated by the sometimes intractable problem of reconciling national, even tribal, urges with pan-European initiatives. Keohane says that, on the contrary, the sporting scene is a microcosm of what is good about Europe.

"It's because we're all different that makes us European," he says. "It's not about taking away identities but allowing them to coexist peacefully. That is what Europe is about."

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...