One hundred years ago yesterday the German Army took the fortified city of Liege. The Belgians fought on valiantly, but eventually only a tiny sliver of their country remained free from occupation. As Michael Portillo showed in his series on Railways and the Great War last night, many civilians were executed for providing information to the allies about German troop movements. This was often sent across the electrified fence marking the border with the Netherlands by shooting an arrow!
Today, Belgium is a deeply divided country. The Flemish nationalists did well in the recent election and their long-term aim is to dismantle the Belgian state. This blog article suggests that it is only the national football team that really holds the country together: Belgium's divided politics
Football is thus important in Belgian politics and Roland Duchâtelet had his own political party and served in the Senate before he turned to football. The European Union is important to Belgium, both because its main institutions are located there and are a significant source of employment, but also as a super state that compensates for the shell like Belgian state.
As I argued in a recent Voice of the Valley article: 'The European dimension of Roland Duchâtelet’s model is to be found in his network of European clubs. For some time there has been an interest in the ‘Europeanising’ potential of football in terms of creating a stronger European identity. When the Luxembourg federalist Viviane Reding was the commissioner responsible for sport, she was proactive on matters relating of football but the current post holder (Mrs Andruolla Vassilou in case you had forgotten) has a much lower profile The Champions League, and to a much lesser extent the Europa League, goes some way in the direction of Europeanisation by creating Europe-wide ‘super leagues’.
However, most clubs play in domestic competitions which make up the bulk of matches. It might be possible in the future for teams to join a league across a national border, or leagues could be merged as Roland Duchâtelet advocated without success for the Belgian and Dutch leagues.
In our 2011 book on the Europeanisation of football we argued that the Commission had an agenda in relation to football as they saw it as an Europeanising force that could reach EU citizens in a way that other interventions could not. However, in our view UEFA was even more important in this respect (particularly after Ms Reding had changed portfolios) which is why we asked a senior UEFA official to contribute a chapter to the book (in a personal capacity, and he has now left the organisation). He argued that a European public space might be emerging "which describes the direct transactional interaction between citizens from different member states who share the same concerns [such as an interest in football]; it would be an essential step towards the creation of a European demos."
After discussing the Champions League as one of the most effective European symbols, he discussed the need for a 'Europeanisation' of football so as to promote "greater sensitivity to a common European identity". He acknowledged the presence of strong local identities in football, but also thought that it placed people in an enlarging European framework. The challenge was how to link clubs across Europe through some kind of network. Well, Roland has an answer. It may be utopian, and it may not work, but there is a lot of momentum behind it and on one level it places Charlton among the vanguard of European clubs.'
I am not suggesting that someone from the Commission or Uefa rang Roland and put this idea in his head, but as a clued up person, he must have been aware that it was 'dans le vent'. However, I think that the analogy that he makes with Europe's Erasmus programme for students to spend time at other European universities is an inappropriate one.
For critics of the network model, it involves Charlton being landed with players who are not up to the rigours of the Championship. We shall have to see how it develops over time. I will be running another survey soon to see if fans' views of Roland have become more favourable since the beginning of the year.