June 6, 2021


In football, at least, Europe is at the top of its game (Simon Kuper JUNE 3 2021, Financial Times)

Today, knowledge exchange in European football is a model for all other sectors. The best teams play each other constantly. After Chelsea beat Real Madrid, the Madrileños go home and work out what Chelsea did better, and so the sport evolves. Spain updated the Dutch passing game, and then the Germans and English learnt from Spain.

English academies now produce footballers such as Mason Mount and Phil Foden, who play like continentals. In football, English exceptionalism died in about 1993, killed by the failings of the indigenous long-ball game with its warrior ethos. That's one difference between football and political ideologies: in football, success and failure are usually clear. You can blame the referee for one bad scoreboard, but after years of them, you have to start learning from other people.

Weaker versions of football's knowledge exchange operate in other sectors. Germany learnt from foreign school systems after its "Pisa shock" of 2001, when its schools underperformed in the OECD's rankings. Northern Europeans learnt about food from the French and Italians.

But football shows how much better this could be done. Here, knowledge is spread around the continent by multilingual émigré coaches such as Jürgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola, moving around an almost perfectly functioning single market. These men are revered in their adopted countries and have become advertisements for their home countries. Over the past year, Britons performed four times more Google searches for Klopp than for Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel; Guardiola got 39 times more searches than Spain's prime minister, Pedro Sánchez.

Meanwhile, Europe's social democracy pays off in football. You can't pick future champions aged two based on body type. The only way to create talent is to get millions of kids of all backgrounds playing, on decent fields, with qualified coaches. The world's most egalitarian continent does this best. Nowadays it even gives girls a chance.

And so the EU, with 6 per cent of the planet's population, has become football's lone superpower. The only non-EU country to finish in the top three of the World Cup since 2006 is Lionel Messi's Argentina. Four different EU member states have won four straight World Cups. The German coach Franz Beckenbauer's boast in 1990 that a united Germany would become unbeatable proved false. Instead, knowledge spread from core Europe to the historically disadvantaged south: Spain (twice), Greece and Portugal have won the last four European championships.

Posted by at June 6, 2021 5:36 PM