The Equality Euros: football and UK inequality

With the 2016 European Championship now firmly underway, you’ve probably already placed yourself in one of two categories: those who can’t wait for it to end, and the many more looking to get behind their national side and share in its triumphs and glorious defeats.  In either case, the Euros also provide a timely opportunity to compare more than the sporting prowess of different countries. It also allows us to reflect on how the home nations compare to other competing teams when it comes to economic equality.

So how do they fare? Without comparable inequality data for all European countries (or the ability to separate out qualifiers England, Wales and Northern Ireland) it is difficult to be definitive about how our Gini scores match up, but various sources show that the UK’s income distribution is consistently among the most unequal in Europe. More equal competitors, like Iceland, Sweden and the Czech Republic, show that vast economic divisions are not inevitable.

If the tournament was based on the most equal countries winning, and we assumed the home nations all had the UK Gini, England and Wales would finish behind the much more equal group winner Slovakia, and assuming only one qualified, they’d get knocked out by Group F runner up Austria. Northern Ireland, meanwhile, would lag behind Germany and Poland at the groups stage and then face an egalitarian group winner in the knockouts.*

If it was based on pay gaps, we wouldn’t even make it out of the groups. Research has shown that the UK has the worst wage inequality in the European Union, with a Gini index for wages of 0.404 compared to the EU average of 0.346. We are extremely polarised, being home to nearly half of the top 1 per cent of EU wage earners and yet with a sizeable number of people among the EU’s poorest 40 per cent. This underlines how vital our system of taxes and benefits is for helping to level the playing field.

You might be wondering whether football is really the best candidate for a blog on inequality. With players’ wages reaching astronomical levels, it’s true that some footballers take home in just one week what the average worker would earn in a decade – clearly all perspective is out the window. But there is a slight mitigating argument to be made, namely that the sport provides an example of social mobility in action. It is almost certainly one of the rare areas of public life where the idea of “rags-to-riches” is still part of the culture.

You might also argue that their pay is more closely linked to performance than CEOs, many of which receive absurdly high pay. Nevertheless, it’s a systemic problem in football that top talent is rewarded beyond the dreams of avarice, while other club staff have to fight for a wage they can live on. That’s why we support Pay Compare’s Fair Footy campaign for pay ratio disclosure in football clubs.

The income gap in this country is a matter of national shame, not pride, with a gulf between the rich and the rest of us that sees the 1% racing away while we struggle to afford our homes and hold on to our public spaces. We already know what we need to do to improve trust and social participation, discourage crime, increase social mobility, lengthen life expectancy and reduce debt. Failing to tackle inequality is an own goal.

So, having struggled valiantly through shoehorned football metaphors and hackneyed sports clichés, we’re wishing the very best of luck to the home nations. In the meantime, why not support us in the team effort for a more equal and fair society?

Lucy Shaddock, Policy & Campaigns Officer


*Assumes England, Wales and Northern Ireland all have the UK Gini coefficient of 31.6%; Slovakia 26.1%; Austria 27.6%; Germany 30.7% and Poland 30.8%. Based on 2014 data, the latest comparable data available from Eurostat.