February 1, 2012

“May Football Save the World?”

Lisbon Treaty and White Paper

First, it should be noted that the “sport provision” (Article 165) in the Lisbon Treaty (on the Functioning of the European Union) stipulates that the Union shall contribute to the promotion of European sporting issues, while taking account of the specific nature of sport, its structures based on voluntary activity and its social and educational function. So, references are made to the elements of voluntariness (explicitly) and amateur/non-profit club-based sport (implicitly: “the specific nature of sport”) which are central elements of the so-called European Sport Model. In the White Paper on Sport of July 2007 which was the initial cornerstone of an EU Sport Policy, a separate section is devoted to “Volunteering, non-profit organisations and active citizenship”. The section reads as follows:


Voluntary activity forms the basis for the organisation, administration and implementation of sport activities in all EU Member States. Voluntary sport organisations provide the backbone of the entire sport structure. Figures suggest that there are around 10 million volunteers active in about 700,000 sport clubs throughout the EU. In some Member States, more than 10% of adults voluntarily engage in the sport sector, and in most countries sport constitutes one of the key areas of voluntary work. Moreover, volunteering in sport must be considered as one of the cornerstones of the characteristics of sport in Europe. These facts make it an important theme for discussion at EU level, beyond the general discussion on `volunteering in Europe’.

The Member States have expressed support for promoting voluntary sport structures in an EU context. In its Nice Declaration (2000), the European Council called on Member States to encourage voluntary services in sport by means of measures providing appropriate protection for and acknowledging the economic and social role of volunteers, with the support, where necessary, of the Community. Two years later, EU Sport Ministers recognised in the “Aarhus Declaration on Voluntary Work in Sport”34 the significant contribution of voluntary work to sport and its economic value. In 2004, EU Sport Ministers decided to put volunteering in sport among the key issues of the then adopted EU Rolling Agenda for Sport. At their meeting in Liverpool, EU Sport Ministers called upon future Presidencies “to follow up their discussion of volunteering in sport, by developing proposals for promoting and sustaining the voluntary sector in sport, which they acknowledge to be vital to the sustainability of amateur sport in particular”. The EU is putting increasing emphasis on objectives and policies which create solidarity within the EU and secure opportunities for all citizens.

The Commission has defined its overall strategy objectives accordingly. Voluntary activities in the sport sector strengthen social cohesion and inclusion and promote local democracy and active citizenship. Voluntary activities in sport also have a socio-economic value in terms of GDP and if converted in e.g. full-time employment. There is also an implicit economic value: without volunteers sport activities would come at a much higher cost and many of the social activities related to sport would disappear.

Non-profit sport organisations

Organised sport in almost all EU Member States is built on specific non-profit making governing structures at grassroots level. These are self-governing independent structures, heavily reliant on the commitment of volunteers, with specific forms of legal personality or status that provide the precondition for a range of financial and fiscal advantages. Although not exclusively altruistic, activities of non-profit (sport) organisations are usually undertaken without any profit-making intention or dimension. However, due to the decrease in the amount of donations and government funds and in order to survive, the majority of non- profit sport organisations need to raise revenues from some kind of commercial activity. This enables them to effectively fulfil their social goals, i.e. to reinvest in the social cause, without being subject to investors’ accountability and control. However, despite the focus on the attainment of socially beneficial goals, they thus pursue economic activities, which are subject to EU law.

The EU legal framework does not specifically address non-profit (sport) organisations. Under EU law it is not the nature of the organisation, but the nature of the activity that it pursues, which is usually considered to determine whether competition and Internal Market provisions apply. Regarding, for instance, the application of EU competition law, non-profit organisations are subject to it if they operate as undertakings because they engage in economic activities by offering goods and services in the common market. An intention to generate profits is not a prerequisite for economic activity within the meaning of EU competition law. However, an infringement of EU competition law requires that the conduct in question may affect trade between Member States. This may often be excluded for non- profit sport organisations in view of their local character.

Active citizenship

Sport can be a useful tool in terms of active citizenship. Approximately 70 million Europeans, many of them young people, are members of sport clubs. Sport can have an educational role through its values. Participation in a team, principles such as fair-play, compliance with the rules of the game and respect for others, solidarity and discipline as well as the organisation of amateur sport based on clubs and volunteering reinforce active citizenship. Sport also provides attractive possibilities for young people’s engagement and involvement in social life. The potential of sport in the fields of youth and citizenship is challenged by new trends in sport participation, particularly among young people. There is a growing tendency to practise sport individually, rather than collectively and in an organised structure, and a declining volunteer base for amateur sport clubs as well as a shorter average period for a volunteer’s involvement in a given club. Nevertheless, the importance of organised sport in promoting active citizenship must be duly taken into account.

Personal experience

To make it concrete, in this presentation I will illustrate the aspects of active citizenship, voluntariness and amateur sport (“grassroots”) by telling you about my personal experience as a young football player in The Netherlands. I will also pay some attention to the issue of social inclusion and integration whereby sport may play an important role in society and promote its cohesiveness. This issue is also dealt with in the White Paper on Sport (and its follow-up, the so-called “White Paper plus” of this year (“Developing the European Dimension in Sport”). After having told about my experience in the past and having compared that with the current situation in my country, I will come back to the basic, somewhat abstract concepts of active citizenship, voluntarism and non-profit sport organization, in order to draw conclusions. Currently, the Royal Dutch Football Association has 1.179.000 members. Every week more than 333.000 matches are organized in amateur football.

When I started to play football in the fifties of last century, it was on the streets of my home town The Hague and on the beach of Scheveningen. We played hours and hours, barefooted on the beach. So, unconsciously we Improved and developed our technical and tactical skills to a high standard. The circumstances on the beach were ideal, but not in the streets and at the squares. We has to prevent the ball from touching passing cars and with one eye we always tried to see whether police were around who would forbid to play in the street. These were considerable handicaps, but they turned out to be advantageous when we joined an official football club, a very important day in our lives. We enjoyed playing football very much, because it was the nicest thing to do. It was a big challenge. Football is not only individualism, but also and mainly team work. It is a social phenomenon in which at the same time individuals could look for their own solutions of situational problems on the field of play. Johan Cruyff was the model!

Nowadays much has changed. Too many youngsters are sitting too long behind their personal computers. They don’t develop their physical skills sufficiently. Football offers both: it is also an intellectual challenge of quick responses, executed by boys with so-called educated feet. Mens sana in corpore sano. Think for example of the coordination between eyes and feet, that’s wonderful. Football teaches you spatial orientation. It is not so easy to put a ball over a distance of 40 meters on the chest of a team colleague. I am sure that I could never have adequately developed my brains without playing football. The modern problem with many things nowadays is that what was natural in the past has to be reconstructed which creates a large labour market for all kinds of learned specialists. In the past you just played football by doing it and inventing new elements on the spot; being an old man you realise that this was unique! In those days, kids are trained in football according to programmes.

In the very past – and I continue here idealizing the past – some people who loved football, came and established a club. They hired a playing field from a peasant or from the municipality for a small amount of money. Others joined and paid their fees. The club decided to participate in official competitions. Organised sport offered the right framework for competition. During my youth in The Hague there were three types of clubs from a perspective of social ranking – elite, middle class and works men’s clubs. It was an ideal setting for immediately learning that there are different people in society, verbally and physically. It was good for the non-worksmen to see that they easily could be beaten in a match by the worksmen. It made them modest in this respect.

Today, you learn from playing immigrant teams. They like football, you like football, we like football – you are members of the same family, the subculture of football. At the football field there is no mutual distance like in society at large. Together, both teams make the match; if they won’t, there is no match. In this context, the modern technical term “social inclusion” , a sociological term is used. The “White Paper plus” reads as follows on the issue of “social inclusion”:

“Sport enables immigrants and the host society to interact in a positive way, thus furthering integration and inter-cultural dialogue. Sport has been increasingly included in specific programmes for immigrants, but national approaches differ considerably. Sport can also be a vehicle to promote social inclusion of minorities and other vulnerable or disadvantaged groups and contribute towards better understanding among communities, including in post-conflict regions.”

Social engineering through football and sport in general is almost a mission impossible from scratch. I have seen it in an immense country like Indonesia, a former Dutch colony with which The Netherlands still have strong ties. If there are no “grass roots”, there is neither organized football for the young and talented and the non-talented alike. In many Dutch villages and small towns there are very strong amateur clubs with hundreds of members and numerous youth teams. You might say that the whole village plays football! Old and young meet in the club canteens. How to create such a basic structure and network where it is not existent?

In The Netherlands you get no physical education at school, but in the football clubs and in other sport clubs. Traditionally, physical education at school is marginal. Most parents like their children to become intellectuals in order to have a secured future. They think that physical development is the logical consequence of being a human being which in fact is not the case. Intellectual work is too one-sided, but if it becomes combined with physical movement it improves. If you move you get new ideas and insights. This is the philosophy of Johan Cruyff, our greatest football player ever. His Welfare Foundation for example supports the creation of small football fields in the cities, at home and abroad in the developing countries.

Honestly speaking, I must confess that the above is the ideal model. The model still stands in The Netherlands. The framework is strong, the Dutch Football Association is a strong and lively organisation. However, during the past decades on and off the field of play there is too much aggression between players and teams, not only of different ethnic origin, and also against referees. There are too many players who are not registered with the FA via the clubs, but still play. Negative developments in the ociety at large is reflected in the football world.


“May football safe the world?” is the title of a book by Raf Willems, a Flemish football journalist (2004). The central question is how “grassroots” sport may be developed if it does not exist. The first answer is that what is not naturally developed by improvisation, cannot last long. Artificial structures, products of abstract theories, cannot help us. There is one, second best option. Change education at primary, secondary and university levels into a pro sport environment. That would mean focused lessons in the morning, sport in the afternoon. Pupils would get marks for both on an equal footing. Part of school sport would imply competition between schools. There you have your second-choice organized grassroots sport! It is good for mental and physical health, to learn cooperation and to win and lose matches, for individualism and teamwork. To organise real fully fledged sport education at school is a task of the national state. Parents should be involved and other active citizens as volunteers who would assist the schools in running the school football club that takes part in the school competition. Much the same as in The Netherlands (I was a trainer and coach myself for the youth team of my youngest son), but then via the schools. Parents’ and other citizens’ teams would join the school club which would in the end become a regular, but still school-based football club.