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On 12 December Jonny Wilkinson announced that he is retiring from international test rugby. “Jonny Who?” non-rugby fans may ask. “And why is there sporting news on a blog dedicated to the world of EU affairs?” ask other readers.
So, who is Jonny Wilkinson? Jonny Wilkinson is a legend of world rugby, respected and admired by fans all over the world. He played through four world cups, won one of them by slotting the winning drop goal in the dying seconds of extra time, played a total of 91 test matches for England and 6 for the British & Irish Lions, and scored 1,246 test points, which makes him the second highest scorer in rugby history.
But why does this feature on an EU-related blog? First of all, with all this UK-bashing going on in EU-Brussels right now, it is good to think of some of England’s greats, thereby trying to deescalate – at least a bit – the current discussions. Of course, there is also the crucial factor that the author of these lines is a rugby fanatic. But mostly, because he (Jonny, not the author) is an inspirational figure both on and off the pitch.
Constantly striving for perfection, he (again, Jonny, not the author) was a model of hard work and dedication. He is said to be the first on the pitch and the last one to leave it during training sessions – this resulted in his almost surgical precision when it came to slotting penalties, conversions, and drop goals.
He was the kind of player who was not afraid of doing the dirty work when his team needed it. As the cliché goes, he really did wear his heart on his sleeve and put his body on the line for his team
As well as being one of the world’s best players, he is also one of the world’s most modest players. Never did he seek the limelight, and he always put his team first. Full of respect for his team mates and opponents, he learnt French when he came to Toulon in 2009 and speaks it in very well.
So, again, what does all this have to do with the world of EU affairs? Well, hard work, dedication, humility, respect, and intelligence are qualities which will be needed to get through the current crisis. As such, Jonny is a role model for all EU affairs professionals and European politicians.
Today I don’t want to discuss budgetary deficits or the WEEE Directive as I feel, like many others, caught up by the collective frenzy of the World Cup. Although I don’t really like football, I have read, over the last couple of weeks, a lot of articles, comments and alternately shared hopes and disappointments. What particularly stood out of this complex literature is the incredibly high political dimension that accompanies this World Cup.
In the particular case of France, the fate of the team has become so political that I started to think of football as a political utopia. Football, as any utopia, reflects our society and can bring out the best and the worst. It is festive, has no skin colour, no social preference, and has an “unbelievable potential to bring us together” to quote Dave Zirin from the Guardian.
But it can also be aggressive, arrogant, and dictated by money. When the French Black-Blanc-Bleur team won the World Cup in 1998, it was celebrated as a success for immigration and integration. Today, after their pathetic collapse, the team is the shame of the country, and many politicians have expressed concern about their country’s reputation on the international scene as well as the way in which the team’s behaviour may influence French youth.
Should French leaders and the media expect so much from a football team? There has been too much politics, too much money, and too much arrogance inside and outside of the team. When taken too seriously, football can become as excessive and disappointing as a perverted utopia. This is what makes football so vibrant and human, but sometimes also unfair and full of disillusions.
The EU loves a good crisis. In the past we’ve had a Treaty crisis, a referendum crisis, an economic crisis, and a Euro crisis – and now, we have a World Cup crisis.
So far this has not been a good World Cup for EU Member States. Favourites Spain lost their opener to a non-EU European country (Switzerland), Germany have literally just lost to a “wannabe” EU Member State (Serbia), and France’s defeat last night accompanies similar under-par performances from EU big-shots Italy, Portugal, and England, the UK’s sole representatives.
Before the competition started some Brussels-based folk tried to put together their dream-EU World Cup team, but now it must be doubted whether such a team could go far in the competition.
Argentina have been the early pace-setters, with the other South American countries (Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile, Brazil and Mexico) all looking “useful” and creating problems for the European nations.
The African countries have shown glimpses of brilliance (Ghana) followed by slightly longer periods of mediocrity (South Africa) and just plain stupidity (Nigeria), but the same could be said for the EU nations. Basically, the EU collective has yet to play anything near to its best in the Rainbow state.
But can an EU Member State win the World Cup? Of course – after all, they have won two of the last three - but the challenges from other global regions are growing all the time.
EU countries now have to compete with the likes of South Korea, Mexico, and the United States who offer stiffer tests than they did ten years ago. Many of these countries’ best players have themselves gained experience in the EU’s national leagues, become better players for it, and now enjoy putting one over their more fancied opponents.
The EU as a bloc is struggling to find its place in a globalised world, but nowhere is this truer than football, as this World Cup has gone to show. The drawback, of course, is that it is much harder to introduce protectionist measures when it comes to a national football team than it is to slap a few hefty tariffs on imports from a developing country.
Perhaps then football is the true result of globalisation, untainted and unsullied by corrective regulations and out of reach of national lawmakers. Globalisation in its purest form. But for how long?
It’s not as if road cycling is a particular mass phenomenon in the UK, but a fourth place in the form of Bradley Wiggins and with six stage victories to the name of Mark Cavendish – the last coming on the final showpiece stage on the Champs Elysées – should be seen as a huge achievement in a country where most people are too busy at this time of year watching cricket or tendering to the allotment to care about the Tour de France.
Le Tour has been through hell and back in the last decade, with previous winners being stripped of their achievements after being revealed as drug cheats. Alberto Contador, this year’s victor, has been dogged by allegations for many years but has so far never faced any individual sanctions.
His victory has detracted from the return of 37-year old Lance Armstrong, looking for a record eighth victory ten years after his first. Armstrong claims not to be fazed by his third place and admitted to being genuinely surprised by how good Contador was, but says he will be back next year with a new team – possibly containing both Cavendish and Wiggins.
Beyond the headliners of the Spaniards and the Brits, two brothers from the tiny Grand Duchy of Luxembourg – Andy and Fränk Schleck – came 2nd and 5th respectively. Andy – the younger by 5 years – also won the coveted white jersey for the best young rider on the tour.
So is Le Tour back to its best? Almost certainly yes. A number of young cyclists are coming through, we have a young and talented champion who looks to be a major force for the next few years, and the sport is growing in popularity all over the world.
But the issue of drugs continues to be a frequent irritant, as readers of Paul Kimmage’s excellent book Rough Ride will know all too well. The reputation of Le Tour rests on the Contadors, the Cavendishes, the Armstrongs, and the Schlecks being clean – no, better still, whiter than white. For any blemish could threaten to permanently stain an event which enraptures the majority of Europe for three weeks of every year.
Followers of the Belgian football team can be forgiven for being in the doldrums recently. After qualifying for every World Cup from 1982 to 2002 – finishing fourth in 1986 – recent years have seen an alarming slump, during which they have failed to qualify for the last three major tournaments – and now the 2010 World Cup in South Africa also looks out of reach.
The Lobby has been watching Belgium on a regular basis since arriving in the country, sometimes taking the long metro ride to Heysel, occasionally driving to Genk in pouring rain on a Wednesday night for a meaningless friendly, and memorably taking the train to Liège where the match against Estonia clashed with the I Love Techno weekend in the city. Evidently, more people loved techno on that weekend than the Belgian national team.
But who is that knight in shining armour, approaching from the north, ready to reinstill some pride back into the Belgian football team? Why, it’s the Dutchman Dick Advocaat, former coach of the Netherlands and 2008 UEFA Cup winners Zenit St Petersburg! Advocaat has signed a contract to take over the Belgian team from 1 January 2010, and although no further information is forthcoming it seems likely that he will be in charge up to and possibly beyond the European Championships in Poland and Ukraine in 2012.
Advocaat is known as “the little general”, and there’s little doubt that the Belgian side could do with some military discipline if they are to recapture their glory years of the 1980s and early 1990s. With an abundance of rising stars coming through the Jupiler League, such as Steven Defour, Axel Witsel, and Eden Hazard, the future looks – if not bright – then slightly less bleak than it did a few months ago.
*If any expats (or Belgians, god forbid!) would like to join us on our regular trips to see Les Diables Rouges/Rode Duivels, please drop a line to The Lobby blogteam.
With all the talk about the new EU Presidency, The Lobby feels that the official kick-off to the Swedes’ term in charge will be this weekend in Brussels with the Swedish Presidency football tournament. This year’s event brings together more than 16 Member State teams and much of the EU affairs community.
Held at Stade des Trois Tilleuls in Boitsfort on June 27-28 and July 4-5, it will mark the outgoing Czech and incoming Swedish Presidency. Officials, lobbyists, journalists, stagiaires, and Commissioners (yes, you read that correctly), will be busy kicking each other…sorry, playing the beautiful game.
In keeping with last year’s Slovenian Presidency tournament, The Lobby will be there to demonstrate its considerable footballing ability. Players to watch this year include Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, playing for the Finns, together with fans’ favourites Ilja Lorenzo Volpi for the Italians and Michael Brown for the Brits. Unfortunately, we have been informed that the exchange of business cards or any other lobbying activities are not permitted in the penalty box during corner kicks.
A swimming pool and a bar/small restaurant will also be open during the whole tournament to cater for non-footballers. So if you have no weekend plans you could do worse than pop down to Boitsforts to cheer on your national team, enjoy a cold refreshment, and soak up a pretty cool atmosphere.
- Ilja and Michael
Last night’s Champions’ League Final was one of those games which – unless you’re a Barcelona fan – will not live too long in the memory. After a bright start, Manchester Utd wilted after Barça took the lead, and from then on the result was never really in doubt.
The Spanish side’s victory ensures that Spain now heads the league table of European Cup victories, with 12, whilst England and Italy lie joint second with 11. The much hyped duel between Utd’s Ronaldo and Barça’s Messi never really took off either, despite the latter heading in the second goal which effectively sealed the victory. The real stars of the show were Barcelona’s midfield duo of Xavi and Iniesta, who pick up their second major title in a year following Spain’s victory in the European Championships in 2008.
Utd meanwhile must content themselves with one Premiership title, a League Cup, and a World Club title achieved back in December by beating the little known Ecuadorian side Liga de Quito in Tokyo, of all places. But the one they really wanted took place in Rome last night – so why didn’t they show up?
To non-afficiandos of Belgian football, (and I am sure there are some of you!) you may not know that there is a stalemate at the top of Belgian league between Anderlecht and Standard Liège. This means that two sudden-death “test matchs” – a first in the history of the league – will take place this week.
This led to an appeal by my Standard-mad Belgian flatmate that this was a sporting and cultural event not to be missed. Convinced, we raised ourselves at the ungodly hour of 6h00 on Sunday, bleary-eyed and still tired from the previous night’s festivities. A one-hour drive, two and half hours being rained upon in the queue – only to be told that we were too far back to have a chance of a ticket.
Demoralised and damp, we decided to head back to Bxl for a hearty breakfast, only to spot a gap in the barriers at the very front of the queue for tickets. How much do we want these tickets? We jumped in, skipping a few thousand people in the process and straight away were wracked by guilt. Catholic consciences kicked in and we decided that the fans we had skipped were just as keen as us for tickets, only prepared to get up that bit earlier. So, we stepped out of line, ticketless but with moral fibre intact.
My Mum would have been proud, my football loving Dad disgusted.