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July 5, 2015

How to produce new Catalans

It is not every day that a researcher has the opportunity to be the eye-witness of a nation in the making. Sunday evening 7 June 2015, at the intersection between Avinguda de Sarria and Avinguda Josep Taradellas in the centre of Barcelona, was such a moment. Bumping into a joyful crowd that was waiting for the victory parade of their Champions League heroes in an open-deck bus, we had over two hours to improvise an in-depth session of participant observation. From the reports in the following day’s newspapers, it appears that our ‘field work sample population’ was perfectly representative of the entire city, which for the occasion metamorphosed into a very, very long ‘Fanmeile’.

As is usual nowadays on such Fanmeilen, the patiently waiting crowd was entertained with music from loudspeakers placed at regular intervals along the itinerary of the bus. Next to the DJ, a nice lady was handing out Barça flags to those (a minority) who were not already equipped with garment or objects in the club’s colours, while an equally nice security man was scratching his head somewhat anxiously given the impressive number of persons sitting and standing in the middle of the street.

The crowd had several distinctive features: it was fully trans-generational, encompassing every single age group of the city; it had a striking gender parity within each of these age groups; and it was very visibly ethnically inclusive, with a rather significant percentage of individuals from various migrant origins.

Every now and then the DJ played ‘El Cant del Barça’, the official anthem of FC Barcelona, the lyrics of which are not really on a higher level of poetic sophistication than what can be heard in other stadia, but which seems to be mandatory learning content in primary education, judging from the degree of familiarity shown by the schoolchildren.

The latter were easy to observe since the youngest among them had been placed on the garbage container in order to give them a good view on the bus (as shown by my little photo gallery). They were, of course, excited, and while not all of them were necessarily understanding what exactly was being celebrated, they were certainly all intuitively getting the point that this was an exceptional moment, a kind of cheerful, but solemn ritual allowing individual persons to publicly show their belonging and obedience to a larger social group.

In other words: this was socialisation at work. Right before our eyes, kids from various backgrounds were being turned into little Catalans. For life, probably. The composition of the public, the sheer size of the crowd, and the Catalan flags hanging from every second balcony clearly gave evidence to the fact that the clichéd Barça motto ‘Més que un club’ is not an usurpation. As a matter of fact, this is not a club at all. It’s a national team.

This impression is confirmed when you walk into the Barça museum, where you have to go past a poster that enumerates ‘Catalan Identity. Universality. Social Commitment. Democracy’ as the pillars of the Barça identity.  It sounds like a political platform.

The evening reminded me of two very good book chapters on FC Barcelona. The first one figures in Simon Kuper’s wonderful Football against the Enemy, written in the mid-1990s, at a moment when ‘every day shop signs in Spanish went down and were replaced by Catalan signs’. For Simon Kuper, Catalan nationalism was all about symbolic recognition, not concrete political independance: ‘The Catalans do not want a state of their own, but they want something vaguer than that, symbols to prove they are a separate people’, and Barça is ‘the symbol that this nation needs in lieu of a state’. Certainly not a wrong perception twenty years ago, but it would be difficult to write the same thing today, as it would no longer sound reasonable to qualify Barça as an ‘under-performing’ club.

Ten years later, Franklin Foer also dedicated a chapter to Barça nationalism in How Soccer Explains the World. For him Catalan nationalism is already much more tangible, but it appears to him as an open and inclusive nationalism, like the liberating idea introduced by the French Revolution before it was perverted (mainly by the German romantics) into what then become no doubt the most powerful ideology of the 19th and 20th century.

Foer’s enthusiastic vision of Catalan nationalism is not naive, but it is shortsighted: proto-nationalism that is based on an existing and practiced language and on strong cultural self-awareness, and that may at the same time credibly claim to have undergone a long period of oppression, almost naturally appears as a sympathetic cause. It’s when independence has been reached and a newly existing state is charged with protecting borders, redistributing resources, and defending so-called national interests when things have a tendency to turn nasty.

Producing new Catalans with the help of cultural symbols is not too complicated. Especially if you can use the powerful emotions that football is capable of providing. But maintaining openness, inclusiveness and ethnic diversity in a future independent state will be the real test. A slightly more demanding one than a Champions League final.

Post by Albrecht Sonntag in the category Football Politics, Identities - No comment

June 2, 2015

The European Hot Air Ballon

Guest contribution No. 3 by Rainer Kalb.

Following Sepp Blatter’s re-election as FIFA President the UEFA Executive Committee will meet in Berlin (probably on Friday) for a crisis meeting. The only topic on the agenda: how do we get out of our self-inflicted mess?

It is hard to believe that they will find a miracle solution. The whole drama began when Michel Platini grandiosely declared he was the only European able to beat Blatter, only to withdraw cowardly from the battle shortly afterwards. In the end the ‘powerful’ Europeans presented an Oriental prince instead. Difficult to be more pathetic…

It was of course clear that Russia, as host of the 2018 World Cup, would not vote against Blatter. But that France itself would stab Platini in the back was hardly believable. The rationale behind the French vote for Blatter? Well, it seems the FIFA boss had been instrumental in attributing the Women’s World Cup 2019 to France for the first time. Good to know. And who had been instrumental in attributing the Euro2016 to what was formerly known as ‘Grande Nation’? Difficult to be more hypocritical…

The eternal Sepp is rubbing his hands. He even managed to split German football in two. According to Blatter the ‘Kaiser’ himself told him he had ‘folded up’ DFB President Wolfgang Niersbach for having voted against Blatter. While Beckenbauer and Niersbach confirm the conversation, they contradict the ‘folding up’ of one by the other. Difficult to be more ridiculous…

After their embarrassing performance Platini and Niersbach will have to respond to the question how on earth they envisage cleaning up the FIFA stable. Platini already announced that all options would be on the table. Niersbach represents the world’s most powerful federation. But the only one to have a backbone is David Gill from England, who demonstratively stayed away from the first FIFA ExCo meeting following Blatter’s re-election.

Unfortunately his courageous stance will not hurt FIFA much. The English already ignored FIFA’s foundation in 1904, joined one year later, left again between 1920 and 1924 in order to protest against the re-acceptance of Germany, and boycotted it during World War II until 1946. Let’s face it: FIFA wouldn’t even falter if all European members of the Executive Committee went on strike.

A World Cup boycott and a Euro every two years with an invitation to Argentina and Brazil, as proposed by some, would only make sense if all 54 UEFA members agreed to participate. If this, however, results in, say, Argentina as European Champion and Russia as World Champion, it would look somewhat strange.

And what about the economic partners? If broadcasters like RTL in Germany withdrew from broadcasting the World Cup qualifiers, Adidas put an end to their equipment contract, and VISA dropped out as sponsor, what would happen? Easy to guess: you can already hear the Champagne corks pop in Nike’s headquarter, another (public?) television channel would eagerly step in, and VISA might remember that FIFA already shrugged their shoulders when they had to pay MasterCard a 100-million Euro indemnity for breach of contract and engagement with a direct competitor…

Thanks to European club football, the Champions League, and its economic power, UEFA clearly is the most important continental confederation within FIFA. It should be a proud fortress. Instead it looks these days like a hot air balloon that can easily be transformed into an empty rubber wrapper by one little needle-stick in the hands of Sepp Blatter.

Read the previous post by Rainer Kalb here.

Post by FREE-TEAM in the category Competitions, Football Politics, Governance - No comment

May 19, 2015

Until death do us part – a tribute to Steven Gerrard

A guest contribution by Rainer Kalb.

‘Until death do us part’ – already a risky formula in marriage. Let alone in professional football, where it is already a lie at the very moment of contract signature (which is limited in time anyway). Clubs, players and most of all agents know well that the document is not worth the ink it is printed and signed with. Which is probably one of the reasons players prefer ball-pens.

Steven Gerrard saying goodbye to Anfield.

The end of the season is always an occasion to pause for a moment. Especially when a legend like Steve Gerrard celebrates his farewell in a place like Anfield. A good opportunity to remind all those mercenaries and legionnaires, birds of passage and profiteers that there are still some faithful heroes around.

Always for the Reds, never for another club. I am not a statistics fetishist, but the sheer number of over 700 matches for one single club is incredible. Among all these matches, I remember the UEFA Cup final of May 2001 in Dortmund , when Liverpool beat CD Alaves with a Golden Goal. Gerrard had scored Liverpool’s second goal, and the game remains one of the most beautiful of the hundreds I have seen live in a stadium.

In 2005 Gerrard also won the Champions League, but he never was English champion. Just like his German counterpart, ‘faithful Charlie’ aka Karl-Heinz Körbel, who also played over 700 times for Eintracht Frankfurt (with an unbelievable 602 Bundesliga matches between 1972 and 1991), who also won the UEFA Cup (1980) and who lifted four times the German Cup, but never the champion’s trophy.

Germany has had its share of faithful heroes : Fritz Walter, Uwe Seeler, Berti Vogts, Wolfgang Overath, Hans Georg „Katsche“ Schwarzenbeck, Sepp Maier. There are even some left today: Bastian Schweinsteiger, for instance, or Philipp Lahm. And other examples can be found in other European leagues. But the trend towards mercenary behaviour is unbroken and stronger each year.

An observer who has followed professional football over decades does not even manage to laugh any more at the cliché of the ‘new sporting and human challenge’ proffered by players at the moment of signature. Quite the contrary: one almost feels ashamed to see it in print. Is there still a single fan who believes that players like Kevin-Prince Boateng or, who knows, Sami Khedira, sign at Schalke for the ‘sporting challenge’? Or to appraise a ‘new culture’? If these players were not buried under heaps of money they would probably laugh at themselves.

Professionalism has always induced mobility. And it is understandable that the best are lured by the richest. In Germany we have helplessly witnessed over decades how Bayern Munich implemented its strategy of weakening their best competitors by seducing their major players: del’Haye, Matthäus and Effenberg from Mönchengladbach; more recently Lewandowski and Götze from Dortmund. Thank God they got Heynckes – another eternal faithful – only as coach.

Some developed a counter-strategy, selling their top players abroad, in order not to feed the insatiable hunger of Bayern: Günter Netzer or Uli Stielicke are good examples.

But today football has become a travelling circus specialised in blackmailing: ‘more money now or else I wait until I leave on free transfer and you won’t get anything’ – this kind of shameless greed makes the professional football of the 1970s and 1980s look like a ‘golden age’ of stability and gentlemanly behaviour.

In the brave new world of 21st-century European football, ‘until death do us part’ may be valid for the fans, but no longer for players. It’s like in marriage: the number of divorces has also been on the rise for decades…

Post by Albrecht Sonntag in the category Memory - No comment

April 14, 2015

A football poet

Eduardo Galeano (1940-2015)

Last summer I picked up his wonderful book again. I had read it for the first time just before the 1998 World Cup in France, intrigued by its title and inhabitual tone, shaking my head in disbelief over the ridiculous title it had been given in its German version, and enjoying every single one of the short chapters, 150 brief reflexions on the “lights and shadows” of football history. It was different from the usual football books: here was not a football writer trying to adopt a poetic approach, but a real poet declaring his love to football.

Reading Eduardo Galeano’s El fùtbol a sol y sombra was inspiring. It opened a whole series of unexpected possibilities:

For instance: you could be a militant leftist, but still refuse to let your love of the game be tarnished by the Marxist mantra according to which football keeps the masses from thinking about their condition. You could see all the unpleasant sides of contemporary football and still see in it ‘the celebration of the eyes that watch it, and the joy of the bodies that play it’.

Or: Anecdotic evidence was nothing evil! Quite the contrary: the numerous anecdotes on which Galeano hinged his thoughts taught me that the perception and narration of events, places and heroes was always more important than the pure historical fact.

More: Taking poetic and even lyrical liberties when writing about football was not prohibited and could even reveal the sociocultural meanings of football in a deeper manner than ‘serious’ research analysis. Metaphors, hyperboles, literary references need not be banned from ‘serious’ analysis: If they help to understand this strange game, let them in!

And most of all: I finally found a famous voice who confirmed my conviction that football memory WAS important! In his very personal afterword to El fùtbol a sol y sombra Galeano – who elsewhere declared himself ‘obsessed with remembering’ in a ‘land condemned to amnesia’ – deplored the elitist ignorance of football displayed by official history.

The chapter I was looking up last summer was the one about Maradona’s ‘hand of God’, which I wanted to quote in one of my columns for Le Monde after Suarez’ vampire episode against Italy. I remembered how Galeano had explained that Maradona’s act was ‘justified’ by all the ‘historical wrongs’ the Argentinian people (like all Latin American peoples) had suffered from the hand of Europeans, and consequently expressed in my column – which I entitled ‘The Teeth of God’ – the certitude that rather than being condemned, Suarez would be excused or even celebrated in Uruguay.

What a pity Eduardo Galeano will not add a chapter on Suarez to his fabulous collection. But browsing through his book again, it is actually easy to make it up in one’s head: a little letter of tenderness and forgiveness to one those underdog heroes that oscillate between sol y sombre and that make football so much bigger than the simple game it still is.

"I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead: 'A pretty move, for the love of God.' And when good football happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don't give a damn which team or country performs it."

Post by Albrecht Sonntag in the category History, Memory - No comment

February 21, 2015

Unintended consequences of a mega-deal

In terms of commercialisation, the Premier League is definitely a league of its own. By managing to sell the rights for live TV broadcast of games for a total of 5.14 bn pound (almost 7 billion euro) for three seasons, it has reached a new dimension. You could almost hear the champaign corks popping in the clubs’ headquarters, but it is perfectly possible that this windfall may not only make all of them richer, but also have some unintended consequences.

On the surface, the first reaction is of course the panic that is rising in the other European leagues, especially among French and German clubs. Experience tells them that each substantial raise in revenue for the Premier League is very likely to be poured directly into players’ salaries and transfer fees. In boardrooms across the continent – with the exception of Madrid, Barcelona and Munich, presumably – presidents and managers are scared to death they won’t be able to compete any more with what Burnley, Hull or Stoke have to offer and that the most talented players will soon have left for England.

But this fear is no doubt exagerated. After all, the Premier League’s salaries and the UK tax system have always been widely more attractive in financial terms than any other European championship. Moreover, the aggregate number of players in the 20 top-tier clubs is not going to increase, which means that there is a limit to the number of would-be football migrants from the continent. The frantic search for new ways of imitating the Premier League is not only doomed to failure but not even necessary in the first place.

The real change inducted by this mega-deal could be summed up as ‘higher expectations’. Not necessarily from the worldwide spectator community – the Premier League already provides brilliant entertainment and drama enacted by global star players. What is much more likely to change is the regard of society. The way English football business is conducted will be scrutinised much more closely by the critical eyes of the public. The demand for good governance, the insistence on fair and decent treatment of employees, affordable ticket prices, redistribution of money to grassroots football, funding of community programmes. In short: now that football has really become big business, the call for serious, credible, and sustained Corporate Social Responsibility is a logical consequence.

In a forthcoming German book (to be reviewed on this blog in March), former DFB president Theo Zwanziger, recalls how, in 1992, ‘social responsibility’ all of a sudden became an issue in the world’s largest sport organisation: ‘Commercialisation played a considerable role, especially the earnings opportunities that arose from TV rights. In this context, it became clear that the DFB could not only cash in, but also had to be willing to assume social responsibility.’

And that was peanuts compared to the amount of money that is circulating today! Club owners in England are likely to insist on their ‘return on investment’, but society is likely to remind them that the revenues are generated by supporters’ investment, i.e. expensive pay TV subscription, in the first place. Chances are the clubs are not getting away with some nice alibi philanthropy this time around.

Post by Albrecht Sonntag in the category Governance - No comment

February 10, 2015

Naming, re-naming and de-naming

Since the early 2000s, with the World Cup six years ahead being a good pretext to modernise the football stadia infrastructure across the country, German clubs and cities have been eager to generate revenues through ‘naming’. From the famous ‘Allianz Arena’ to the ‘Signal-Iduna-Park’, the traditional names often simply referring to geography have been replaced by references to corporate partners or brands.

The old Volksparkstadion on a rare sunny day.

Some have been re-named in the meantime, such as the perfectly named ‘Easy-credit-Stadion’ in Nürnberg (2006-2012), which has now become the ‘Grundig Stadion’. But the prize for the most rapid and frequent turnover goes to the stadium of the HSV (Hamburger Sportverein – please be so kind as to pronounce ‘Hah-Ess-Fow’), the only club that has played the entire 51 seasons of the Bundesliga (see the ticking of the clock at the bottom of the club’s homepage and in the stadium itself). The place has carried four different names in the only fourteen years since its complete renovation in 2001.

Initially baptised ‘Volksparkstadion’ after the big municipal park in which it was built in 1925, it was destroyed by WWII air raids and rebuilt as a traditional German track-and-field stadium on the rubble of the bombings in 1953. In 1974 it saw the legendary defeat of the national team to East Germany, in the first round of the World Cup.

The Volksparkstadion between 2001 and 2015.

At the beginning of the new century it was decided to rebuild it completely as a pure football stadium, and in 2001 it was inaugurated as the ‘AoL Arena’, the naming rights being sold to the Hamburg-based internet provider AoL Deutschland. In 2007, after AoL shut down its main business on the German market, the club turned to a bank, signing a contract for the name of ‘HSH Nordbank Arena’ for the period of 2007-2013. Due to the financial crisis, however, the bank had to drop out in 2010, and since then the stadium has been named after a soulless Dutch conglomerate Imtech.

What is truly revolutionary, however, is the recent decision by the club’s new sponsor Klaus-Michael Kühne, co-founder and CEO of the huge Kühne & Nagel Logistics group, who was ready to purchase 7,5% of the club’s shares for no less than 18,75 million Euro, but only under the condition that the stadium would be called Volksparkstadion again as of summer 2015! Mr Kühne will be forever loved for this by tens of thousands of Hamburgers. And the HSV thus becomes a pioneer in a new business model, which consists in generating revenue by ‘de-naming’…

Very clearly, in today’s Europe of football, tradition has its price. Real Madrid and FC Barcelone would be well advised to resist the temptation to damage their incredibly powerful brands ‘Santiago Bernabeu’ and ‘Nou Camp’. But perhaps their planned re-naming into ‘Abu Dhabi Santiago Bernabeu’ and ‘Qatar Airways Nou Camp’ is part of larger plan, with a powerful future sponsor waiting in the shadow to invest some millions in ‘de-naming’? Who knows, Hamburg might have started a new trend!

Post by Albrecht Sonntag in the category Posts - No comment

January 24, 2015

Soft power, hard pressure

A ‘culture of fairness’ in sport as foreign policy tool was what the participants at a recent symposium in Brussels wished for.

The Stuttgart-based ifa (Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations) had invited an interesting, though somewhat eclectic, list of speakers to the representation of Baden-Württemberg, and Julia Hass, an old acquaintance from the FREE conference in Copenhagen, had composed an interesting programme that touched on a whole variety of issues linked to the role of sport in international relations, cooperation  and development.

Very quickly, after Grant Jarvie’s keynote speech on the more general issue of sport’s potential and limits in international cultural relations, the discussions focused on the question to what extent sport’s (and mostly football’s) amazing soft power potential was used, misused and abused (sometimes with very limited success) by both the national political actors eager to host major events and, of course, the international sports federations responsible for their organisation. The timid hope, formulated by Joseph Maguire, to move ‘from classical Realpolitik to pragmatic ethic politics in sport’ was shared by everybody, though not necessarily with the same soft optimism.

There was, however, a certain consensus among speakers and audience on how organisations like FIFA, the IOC or the IAAF, to name but the most prominent ones, could be pushed towards more ethic responsibility, transparency and accountability: by means of increasing pressure from the basis. The fact that in several democratic countries, some cities and regions have recently decided in local referenda that they were no longer willing to play the mega-event game, was acclaimed as a positive step forward on the road to raising awareness in the organisations concerned that the time is ripe for change.  It was also pointed out that in a totally connected global communication environment it was increasingly difficult for some hosts to draw soft power capital from events that rather highlighted social ills and reprehensible practices no longer deemed acceptable by international standards. As often with events of this type, the lively discussions between audience and experts would have deserved more time and would probably have been just as rich without the relatively high number of individual presentations by the speakers. But leaving with regret for not having had the time to go deeper in the debate is, I presume, rather a sign of success for such a symposium.

Pep Guardiola at a press conference in Riyadh on 17 January.

A few weeks after the event, an recent anecdote recalled precisely that it is no longer possible to simply ignore public indignation. While at the Brussels event, the German ambassador for women’s football and former national coach of Qatar’s women’s football team, Monika Staab, had very credibly concluded from her educational work in countries of the Arab world that ‘football gives women and girls self-confidence’, Bayern Munich had to take harsh criticism for finishing their January training camp in Qatar with a friendly against Saudi Arabian top-team Al-Hilal, a match to which no female fans were allowed (and which took place almost immediately after the first flogging of journalist Raif Badawi).

What is remarkable in this context is that the criticism did not only come from backbench MPs eager to be quoted in the media, but also from former DFP president Theo Zwanziger and most notably from long-standing members of the club. Bayern president Karl-Heinz Rummenigge first refused the criticism and lauded the ‘perfect conditions’ offered to his team in Qatar and Saudi-Arabia, but was finally pushed to kind-of apologise in a public statement for failing to raise human rights issues.

What this ‘case study’ shows is of course not that professional football clubs should do the diplomatic work that their national politicians are often too hypocritical for (‘Realpolitik’?). Rather, the most interesting lesson is that the ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ (CSR) of these clubs is an increasingly important aspect of their activity. As Johannes Axter, co-founder of the association street football world pointed out during the ifa event in Brussels, ‘football’s social responsibility is not systematically recognised’. It may well be that the ethical and political component of football’s CSR will be under ever closer scrutiny in the coming years. The ‘culture of fairness’ that was highlighted in the title of the Brussels symposium is likely to become part of the expectations that prominent actors of the international sport scene will have to meet.

Post by Albrecht Sonntag in the category Posts - No comment

January 9, 2015

The freedom to hate football

Charlie Hebdo Supplement on 'The Football Horror', 13 May 1998. Cover page on 'World Cup Torture' by Wolinski, assassinated on 7 January 2015.

I never was an unconditional fan of Charlie Hebdo. When I moved to France from Germany and progressively discovered the unbelievably wide spectrum covered by the magazine press, I could at first not believe my eyes when I made acquaintance with Charlie Hebdo, Fluide glacial, L’Echo des Savanes and other disrepectful offspring of May 1968. Surely this degree of irreverence, impertinence and insolence, that even sold quite well, was not imaginable in many countries. Certainly not in Germany. Even Monty Python and Spitting Image appeared rather tame and well-behaved in comparison.

Later I learned to understand the historical background of the incredibly aggressive and explicit French tradition of caricature and satire. Three key periods may explain its defiant ferocity: the libertarianism and anti-obscurantism of the French enlightenment, which abolished blasphemy as early as 1791; the battle for ‘la laïcité’ and a truly secular state at the beginning of the 20th century ; and the fight against censorship Gaullist France, which ended in a massive wave of post-1968 media liberalisation.

For the French, even for those who are at unease with the tone and style of Charlie Hebdo, Le Canard Enchaïné or Les Guignols de l’Info, the very existence of this type of satire is a democracy barometer.

Needless to say that Charlie Hebdo did not like football at all (and that’s an euphemism). Strongly influenced by the radical criticism of sport of Marxist heritage, they considered contemporary football a particularly despicable combination of the religion of neoliberalism with with competition as its dogma and the fascist cult of the body.

'We have the same tastes!' - Cartoon by Tignous (1998), assassinated on 7 January 2015.

I have made it clear elsewhere that I never signed up to the analysis of football as ‘opium of the masses’ and that there were good reasons not to do so. But I had to admit that their criticism of football chauvinism on all levels – which did not falter even at the height of the 1998 World Cup euphoria – was consistent, and well in line with Georges Brassens’ shoulder-shrugging description of all these ‘idiots happy to be born somewhere’. And I requested and received their kind authorisation for reproducing in my 2008 book one of their cartoons that combined their dislike of football and their anti-clericalism.

As Rosa Luxemburg – who was also assassinated for her ideas – famously said: ‘Freedom is always the freedom of the one who thinks differently.’ Which of couse includes the right to hate football! Quite obviously, there is no need to agree with the often radical opinions of Charlie Hebdo, and there is no obligation to like the fierceness of their style, but the confrontation with their drawings and texts is a very healthy exercise in democratic serenity and a more than welcome reminder that humour is a great tool of controversial debate in a pluralistic society.

Albrecht Sonntag.

See also: ‘European Values’, published on ideasoneurope.org and on the European Notepad.

Post by Albrecht Sonntag in the category Posts - No comment

December 20, 2014

A simple truce

Promotion by Mercart Tours, Edinburgh.

Just in case you don’t know what to do over Christmas, you can still book the ‘Christmas Truce Centenary Tour’ from 23 to 27 December sold by the Edinburgh-based tour operators Mercat Tours. The programme includes of course a football match on the Flanders fields where the famous Christmas Truce matches between British and German soldiers are supposed to have taken place.

Two years ago, I asked the question ‘Did the Brits and the Germans really play football on Christmas eve 1914?’. I came to the conclusion that despite the absence of clear evidence, it was possible to answer with a prudent ‘probably yes’. But the question, already at that time, was not so much whether the matches had been a historical fact, but rather what of memory would make of this endearing story. Even if they never really happened as imagined in Michale Foreman’s lovely children’s novel (1989) or in the 2005 French movie ‘Joyeux Noël’ by Christian Carion (see trailer here), our desire to commemorate a moment of humanism in the nightmare of the World War trenches simply wanted the story to be true.

The new Ploegsteert Christmas Truce memorial.

In a few years, memory will have replaced history altogether. The commemoration craze of 2014 cannot afford to have doubts. A recent book by a Belgian journalist appears to have ‘irrefutable’ new sources, quoting the notes of the German soldiers Johannes Niemann and Kurt Zehmisch. And now that the small Flemish town of Ploegsteert has made the memory even more concrete in a momument that was officially inaugurated on 11 December by Michel Platini himself, the Christmas Truce has irrevovably become the Christmas Truth.

What a wonderful contemporary case study for the construction of a lieu de mémoire ? All it takes is a stort that is too good not to be true, a strong collective desire to celebrate human beings rather than war heroes, and a fast-growing sector of commemorative tourism that allows local politicians to combine sincere humanistic beliefs with economic potential.

If the future visitors of the football monument at Ploegsteert also take the time to visit, for instance, the excellent exhibition in the huge Cloth Hall of Ypres and one of the numerous cemetaries that cover Flanders, the Christmas Truce story will have contributed to a good history lesson.

Langemark cemetary in Flanders.

To anybody interested in the history (not memory) of sport, I would personally recommend the Langemark cemetary, which gives evidence to how thousands of Prussian students, entire ‘Studentenschaften’ deeply nationalised by the ‘Turnen’ movement, happily volunteered to get slaughtered in what they no doubt believed would be a kind of great sports event. They were told they would be home by Christmas. But a hundred years later, they’re still in Flanders.

The proximity of Ploegsteert and Langemark – a mere 30-minute drive – is an excellent illustration for the fact that sport is neither essentially good nor bad. It is what the circumstances, the zeitgeist, and the dominant discourse make of it.

Post by Albrecht Sonntag in the category History, Memory, Posts - No comment

December 14, 2014

Four days that changed Europe

Monday 13 December 1954 : An Anglo-Hungarian summit

Sixty years ago, on 13 December 1954, the English champion Wolverhampton Wanderers welcomed the great Honved Budapest for a friendly at Molineux stadium. For teams from Eastern Europe, such matches were an opportunity to generate some revenues (though as stressful one given they travelled back on train via London and Paris in order to be back on time for their next championship match). For their Western hosts, too, it was a lucrative affair: the fact that 55,000 spectators attended the match scheduled at 7:30 on a Monday evening gives an idea just how much awe the Hungarians inspired, especially since the consecutive 6-3 and 7-1 thrashings of England in November 1953 and May 1954 respectively.

According to some sources, the Molineux pitch was deliberately and excessively watered before the kick-off in order to handicap the technically superior Hungarians. If this rumour is true, the decision was no doubt inspired by the World Cup final in Bern five months earlier, where the German team had no doubt been favoured by the pouring rain – ‘Fritz-Walter-Wetter’, as they called it.

Wolves won 3-2, with exactly the same score as the Germans, after being two goals down just like the Germans had been. It seems to have been a rather outstanding match, and both teams had been up to the expectations. The fact that Gabriel Hanot from L’Equipe had bothered to travel all the way to Staffordshire in order to attend this Anglo-Hungarien summit gives ample evidence to their reputation and the interest such a highlight triggered elsewhere.

Tuesday 14 December 1954: A case of English hubris

In these days before Live-Tickers and sports channels, Hanot was not in a hurry. For the rotative presses of L’Equipe, the match had ended too late anyway, and his report was due only for the Wednesday edition. Which gave him time to have a look at how the English press reacted to the game.

The Daily Mirror’s jubilant praise of the Wolves’ performance, crowned by the claim they were now ‘Champions of the world’, raised his eyebrow. While he agreed that the victory of the home team had been more than deserved, he couldn’t help but consider the Mirror’s heading somewhat over the top. He decided to comment upon it in his article, coming to the conclusion that without at least a return game or, even better, a full-fledged European clubs competition including, for instance, Milan or Real Madrid, such claims could not be upheld. And he finished his report saying that such a competition would indeed deserve to be launched.

Wednesday 15 December 1954: An innovative French idea

His colleagues in Paris reacted with enthusiasm and published the article with an additional subtitle announcing ‘L’Equipe launches the idea of a European club championship which would be more innovative and more sensational than a European championship of national teams’. And without having the slightest clue on how exactly they were going to realise it, they were firmly determined to take their chance and start a campaign in favour of such a competition.

Thursday 16 December 1954: A European gamble

And they followed up right away: in their Thursday edition, an article signed Jacques de Ryswyck already presented a rather precise outline of the project.  There would be one club per federation, there would always be a home and an away leg, matches would be scheduled on mid-week evenings and everything would be broadcast by international television. If that does not sound like the Champions League, what does?

Nine months later, after a period of intensive lobbying with FIFA, the newly founded UEFA, and a range of clubs all across the continent who saw the potential of the idea, the Coupe des Clubs Champions Européens saw the light of day. A remarkable success story of entrepreneurial spirit that was simultaneously underpinned by the prospect of increasing mid-week sales on a highly competitive press market, by the shared conviction that the future of football was European rather than national, and the sheer excitement of creating the missing competition, the ultimate yardstick of European football.

If there’s one ‘invented tradition’ of truly European dimension, created bottom-up by ordinary people from civil society and producing, decade after decade genuinely European ‘lieux de mémoire’, it’s well the European Cup. In a book published in 1965, the German novelist and journalist Hans Blickensdörfer paid tribute to Gabriel Hanot’s ‘courage and willpower’ in creating ‘footballs common market’ before the launch of the European Economic Community. He added, ‘at the risk of being mocked by those who notoriously know better, I pretend that the European Cup has been an ice-breaker of political relevance’.

December 2014: The remains of those days

Gabriel Hanot (1889-1968)

In December 2014, one cannot help but feel a little bit nostalgic: On the 60th anniversary of their legendary win over Honved, Wolves secured a last-minute 1-0 away win against Sheffield Wednesday which consolidates their place in the no-man’s land of the middle of the table of the English 2nd Division (now pompously called ‘Championship’). Honved, who are already in their winter break and would have been available for a historical re-enactment, will have to fight hard in spring to avoid relegation from Hungary’s top-flight, now called ‘OTP Bank Liga’. L’Equipe itself is fighting against the decline of the printed press. And while the game of 1954 is remembered in England, as several articles over the last days showed, just what football clubs in Europe owe to the visionary French journalist-entrepreneurs is all but forgotten.

What’s more: the likelihood of another Anglo-Hungarian summit of European football is not very high for the years to come. In September 1955, the first European Cup started with 16 teams from 16 different nations, including three from behind the Iron Curtain. One year later, there were five of them. Next spring, the Champions League will count exactly one club from Eastern Europe among its last sixteen. European football is more Western than ever, more money-dependent than ever, caught in a system that will perpetuate these two tendencies. Not exactly what its inventors had in mind.

Post by Albrecht Sonntag in the category Competitions, Memory, Posts - No comment

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