On Saturday evening (20:45 CET) giants Liverpool F.C. and Real Madrid C.F. battle it out for the crown of who is the best professional association football club in Europe. The event is the UEFA Champions League final in Kiev, Ukraine.
This article will explore the cultural perspective of European football, the grass roots game, the UEFA Champions League tournament, and introduce the contestants. But most importantly the focus will be on the cultural importance of European football.
The Cultural Role of Professional Football in Europe
“Some people think football is a matter of life or death. I assure you, it’s much more important than that.”
Bill Shankly (Liverpool manager 1959-1974)
Football pits two teams against each other on a field of battle. The aim is to move the ball as close to the oppositions goal, so as to have the optimal chance of scoring. This in many ways mimics the strategic concepts of war. Each team’s half is their territory, each goal is the capital of that country, the players are the soldiers, and the ball is the offensive initiative. A football game is a battle.
However, football is also peace. In 1914 on the Western Front of the First World War, the fighting went quiet for the Christmas Truce. Soldiers put down their weapons for a day, and instead sang songs, exchanged gifts, and played football.
The game has several origin stories. The usual legend is the idea of two districts of a city would challenge each other. The goals would be two city gates. In German the word for “goal” is “Tor”, which means gate. The ball could be moved with any means necessary to put it through the other team’s gate. This older game was a lot more combative game, such as seen in Italian Calcio Florentino, which is still played to this day.
In the Middle Ages (where Calcio Florentino originates) villages, towns, cities, and other entities all the way to empires would battle each other for territory, control and power. European history and legacy is a narrative told in wars, peace conferences, and new wars. A “war to end all wars” only leads to an even worse war. Fighting for your home, family, town, community, country is in the European DNA. War was easy, peace was hard.
Today we do not go off to fight the next city over if we have a disagreement. We settle our issues peacefully and within a legal framework. But local identity and the longing for physical competition to prove ourselves remains in many Europeans. This aspect of our culture cannot and should not be realised through violence, and therefore we instead have a sport, where 11 champions represent you within a rule-based game.
Every team and country has their own rivalries. Especially England as the inventors of the modern game and their many European wars throughout history, and Germany following the World Wars, have many countries, who see them as a natural rival. You also have local rivalries with an edge, such as the Catholic vs. Protestant aspect to the Glaswegian Old Firm between Celtic and Rangers. This rivalry has also means there is a great following for Celtic amongst Irish nationalist.
However, for most people, Football is just a game. Most support their local team for a sense of community (even people who do not care about football), or another team out of a different sense of belonging, identification and/or identity.
However, passion can go too far. The chaos and quasi-anarchy (which is core the stadium experience for many fans) is also something that can be exploited by unwanted and violent minority elements. Though even amongst those who stand and sing all 90 minutes of the game, create tifos (massive banners covering a whole section of fans, sometimes as mosaics with thousands of pieces), and at times smuggle flairs in to increase the atmosphere even further, hooliganism is still a minority.
Tensions and emotions run high, and sometimes people get carried away, but this happens in any aspect of life. If you take football out of the life of a fan, either they will find another outlet for their frustration with everyday life, or they will lose the passionate element of their personality. Become stale and boring. Because that is what football is about: passion.
Passion for the game, your team, your community, something more than yourself. It is also something contained to almost 2 hours of basic instinctual anarchy per week. Which make the oppressive norms of everyday life possible to endure. A liberation from civilisation so as to accept fitting in for the other 166 hours of the week. When you have no country to fight for, no cause to die for, and just live within society, then you need an escape to remain sane. For many football fan culture is that escape.
The Grass Roots
Nearly every European boy, and a significant amount of girls have a relationship with playing the game at some level. It is a communal activity that children bond over. All you need is a ball, a pitch of some kind, and 4 things that can act as goal posts (this can be nothing more than excess jerseys), and you get a game on. Intensity, seriousness, level, rules… Everything can vary in order to increase the enjoyment. Football builds teamwork, specialisation within a team, a sense of unity and purpose, a culture of cooperation, the concept that hard work pays off, the strong help the weak, exercise, and everyone is having fun.
Conflicts happen, but are settled. You can play a contact sport with rules, and from that we all learn the value of a rule-based society. There is a moral codex to how you play, and if you break that, then there is also an understanding that there might be limited retribution, which is respected. Playing football is an education for many European children. If two Europeans seem to have nothing to talk about, then they can talk about football. Who do you support, why? Last time your national team played mine. Football is an icebreaker, even used in the European diplomacy we built the EU with. It is such a significant part of our culture, and who we are.
What makes football different from academic studies? Academia is about consistency, methodology, system, and order. This is also important in football, but the difference is that there a moments of magic. Goals are few and far between. Sometimes they come from a long build-up with a lot of work from the whole team. Sometimes they just come from the magic of an individual action.
Everyone can have their superhero moment. A team can be down 2-0, but then their worst players scores a goal. This makes everyone believe that they can also score, and the team ends up winning the game. Morale, emotions, passion, and sheer determination can change a complete disaster into the greatest victory.
Now of course all of this could be done in volleyball, cheer-leading, e-sports, chess… Any form of team competition. But football is the one we all know and understand. At least to some degree. Whether we like it or not Football is the European national sport. It used to be warfare. Pointless wars that just lead to death and destruction. These days children do not trains to become soldiers, they train to better themselves. Build character, identity, and community. Football is also a great integrator and ambassador of tolerance and respect. White, black, yellow, brown, gay, straight, girl, boy, whatever… If you can kick the ball, you can play. And if you score the game winning goal, then you are the hero, no matter who you are, or where you come from. You do not even have to be good at the game, just get lucky.
Football also does not socially discriminate. Inside and outside of Europe talented footballers make their way out of poverty, and this is often also a way to highlight social inequality. For some the only alternative to kicking a ball seems to be a life crime. Football changes lives. Just as the gladiators of old were often slaves, then the gladiators of today often also come from little or nothing. Football gives us the journeys of people overcoming their social inheritance right before our very eyes. There are fairy tales, tragedy, legends, heroes, villains, and everything in between. But it all starts with just kicking a ball about. Eventually you might end up in the Champions League.
What is the UEFA Champions League?
It is the top European competition for football clubs. The tournament originated in the 1950s as a means for domestic league champions to play official games with one another. The winner being the best team in Europe. Today the better league have multiple teams in the tournament, while all European league champions can still qualify.
32 teams compete in 8 groups of 4. All group members play each other home and away. After these 6 games, the 2 best in each group advance to the knock-out stage. The 2 teams play both home and away, and the combined winner goes through, until only two team remain. These 2 play a single match in a neutral arena to determine the champion.
Since the competition features the best teams in Europe, it attracts significant interest and therefore revenue. A participating club will earn roughly €10 million to over €100 million from competing in the tournament. This usually means qualifying for the tournament alone can be the difference between signing star players or just make do.
Real Madrid C.F.
Real Madrid in Spanish is “Royal Madrid” in English. Founded in 1902 and gaining its Royal name and crown in 1920. Following the Spanish Civil War the club grew into a powerhouse under president Santiago Bernabéu Yeste, who their stadium is name after. They signed some of the best players in the history of the game, and during the first European Cups in the mid and late 1950s, they won the first 5 iterations.
Today they are the club with most European Cups and Champions League Trophies winning the tournaments 12 times (A.C. Milan follows in second place with 7 titles). Real Madrid is the most winning football club both in Spain and in Europe. They have a legacy to maintain, where nothing counts but winning trophies. Second place is as good as last place to them. And since Real has won nothing else this season, then the pressure is on for them to win the Champions League again this year.
Most see Real Madrid as a symbol of a united monarchic Spain. It is the symbol of the capital, but is also seen as being supported by the Francisco Franco’s fascist state, and therefore to some is a symbol of that regimes. Especially in Barcelona there is resentment towards Real Madrid for what was seen as unfair practises to bring the international stars to Madrid instead of Barcelona. Where Real represent Madrid and Nationalist Spain, F.C. Barcelona represent Catalonia and Republican Spain in a cultural sense.
In Catalonia the culture was suppressed during Franco, and the only place they could safely speak their language was in the stadium at F.C. Barcelona’s home games. Therefore a cult built around the clubs as a sort of continuation of the Spanish Civil War. This also means it can be seen as a political statement to support Real Madrid or Barcelona. Of course Real Madrid fans are not necessarily on the right of centre. However, this does mean support of the club is not welcomed on the Spanish political left, and especially not in Barcelona.
Where Real Madrid represent the conservative values of monarchy, then Liverpool F.C. is the working man’s team. They share third for most European Cups with 5 trophies. The Reds have won 18 English top league titles (the second most), but not won the national crown since 1990. However, they did win the Champions League in 2005 amongst other trophies since. The club was formed in 1892, when Everton F.C. decided the rent at Anfield was too much, and went off to build their own stadium. So the owner of Anfield decided to start a new club in his stadium.
Liverpool was a dominating force in Europe in the 1980s until some of their fans attacked Juventus supporters in the stadium during the 1985 European Cup final at Heysel Stadium, Brussels. Following the tragedy English teams were excluded from European football for 5 years. In 1989 Liverpool fans would be on the receive end of tragedy, as poor crowd management lead to the death of 96 fans during the 1989 FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough in Sheffield.
After many years with varied results and different managers it seem Liverpool finally have gotten things working. Especially after manager Jürgen Klopp took over in 2015. Even though during the Germans tenure no trophy has been won, and the best result in the league was a fourth place.
The clubs is also known for their anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone“, which has also been adopted by multiple other major European clubs.
Real Madrid are the king of the hill and Liverpool are the challenger, potentially on their way back to the top of European football. Where Madrid is the royal capital of Spain, Liverpool is a Northern English industrial port city. The cultural, political, and historical contrasts are clearly lined up for the final.
The Game Itself
Liverpool have a distinct English style to their play, and Real Madrid have a distinct royal style to their play. Neither side is going to surprise the other much. Everybody knows Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the greatest football players in history. He has scored more goals, than he has played matches for Real Madrid over the last 9 seasons. He is supported by an all-star lineup of veterans at this level. No player in the likely lineup has played club football outside of Real Madrid since 2015. This is a well oiled machine captained by Sergio Ramos in his thirteenth season in the club. The average time a starting player for Liverpool has been in their first team is less than 2 years except for the captain Henderson, who has been at the club since 2011.
So the game is not just between two very different cities and cultures. It is also between two very different clubs at different points in their projects. Between different cultures of football. Liverpool are the happy underdogs, and Real cannot escape the eternal expectation that they are favourites in every game they play. Because of this Real Madrid will look to take control of the game, while Liverpool will try to hit back on extremely fast counter attacks. This does not mean Liverpool will be playing boring/defensive, but that their change from attack to defence will be extremely fast, hopefully catching a lot of Real players far up the field and establish 3v3 situations (defenders prefer to be more than the attackers they face, so as to contain the attackers). Unless Real can stop this, then this could turn into a complete shoot-out with 3+ goals for each side.
However, Liverpool beat zero realistic title contenders to get to the final. Roma getting to the semi-final instead of Barcelona was extremely impressive by the Italians on its own. Liverpool only just knocked them out in maybe the easiest possible semi-final for the English side. On the other hand Real Madrid likely beat three title of favourites (besides themselves and Barcelona) in the 3 knock-out rounds (PSG, Juventus, and Bayern Munich). This for Liverpool will be David’s battle against Goliath. And if the Real Goliath grabs David early in the fight, then David the going to get squashed. In the same way this match could prove a very one-sided affair if Liverpool do not play their absolute best football.
The Final in a Greater Context
Even if politics is often presents indirectly in sports, then it is frowned upon and even illegal to include directly. FIFA can kick a national football federation out of the international game, if their national government intervenes. Football is in a way considered a safe space from politics. A place where people can just enjoy the game, and be united by their common love of the sport.
However, each year it seems the final is missing something. There is not the same sense of celebrating Europe as you see at the Eurovision Song Contest. But the Champions League final also brings us together to something singular. Something singular European. Football is our European national sport by default, a European invention. We might disagree on where in Europe the ancient roots are from, but not on that it is a European game. Invented in its modern form by the British, but shaped by all of Europe, and wherever European culture has grown in influence around the world. This is our game, and the Champions League final is the yearly highlight of our European game.
So come Saturday, you can support Liverpool, you can support Real Madrid, you can support the game of football, but you can also support Europe and European culture. You can support the European diversity, by enjoying a game of football with two very different teams, with different fans, different history, different narrative, and a different identity. Except for one thing: the team, the sport, the game, the tournament, the narrative, the identity, everything… is European.