August 24, 2014

Shooting minus the war

Cartoon by Egon Kaiser, EZ, 1992

Nothing really spectacular to report from the first Bundesliga week-end of the new season. Yet there is always something re-assuring in the banality of this yearly kick-off ritual. Especially after a summer during which both the radio in the morning and television in the evening had hardly anything else to report on but war (Syria, Irak, Ukraine), civil war (Lybia, even Missouri), or commemorated war (70 years of D-Day, 100 years of World War One).

Here’s what I wrote two years ago on this very same blog:

End of August. Time to update one of my all-time favourite football cartoons. If I remember correctly, it dates from 1992, but it never seems to become obsolete. You just have to update the text of the first three panels of the strip with what you see in the television news, and you can be sure that the fourth one is as valid as ever. (Of course you can feel FREE to replace ‘Bundesliga’ by ‘PremierLeague’, ‘Süper Lig’, ‘Primera División’, ‘Ligue 1′, ‘Extraklasa’, ‘Superligaen’ or whatever else you fancy). The cartoon will work in all European languages, and it would do so even without any words.

Chances are I can publish the same post in 2015. And 2016. And 2017…

What the cartoon also stresses is the inadequacy of the eternal comparison between war and football. How often the famous punch line of George Orwell on ‘war minus the shooting’ is taken out of its very specific context and repeated in order to make the highly original point that football is nothing more than a re-enactment of war? Take Paul Auster, the renowned American author, who declared after watching the 1998 World Cup in France, that ‘Europeans had finally found a way of hating each other without tearing each other to pieces’. Oh, dear, how profound!

The Orwellian war metaphore, along with the comparison of football to the ‘opium of the people’ of Marxist leaning, are the favourite quotes of good-meaning left-wing intellectuals. In France, for instance, you can be sure both metaphores are reliably taken out of the cupboard each time an international tournament places football on top of the media agenda. In today’s interactive media world there is something Pavlovian about the comments and reactions you can receive whenever you express yourself publicly on international football, trying to provide socio-psychological explanations for what is happening without condemning the way people are ‘being manipulated into nationalist frenzy’. Writing my daily World Cup column for Le Monde, I received a fair share of this kind of criticism, most of which was based on the unshakeable belief that football lovers are by definition alienated and brainwashed dummies who are incapable of critical distance to whatever happens on a football pitch.

One week into the World Cup, I picked up one of these comments of the previous day, which had rightly pointed out a weakness in my choice of words, and asked the question whether one had to ‘have a bad conscience for simply loving this World Cup’. I tried to explain that a lot of football fans were undergoing a state of ‘cognitive dissonance’ in sympathising with Brazilian protests for better social policies and at the same time simply loving the great football that was being played, and that this was a quite a normal mental contradiction, it appeared I had made my coming out as a cynic.

Well, then, so be it. I can identify with the guy in our cartoon. And if you ask me, he does not need to have a bad conscience for longing for a weekly break among all the bad news. Imagine him being a fan of VfB Stuttgart, or Beşiktaş, or Valencia CF – doesn’t that fully disqualify him as a cynic? For him this game is not ‘war minus the shooting’, but ‘shooting minus the war’.

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July 2, 2014

Football: It’s Time to Check the Privilege!

Part 2 by Nina Szogs

FIFA, by refraining from punishing Mexican fans for using homophobic chants during the World Cup match against Cameroon – despite claiming to have a zero-tolerance policy, missed an important moment to take action against discrimination in football.

“Football fans against homophobia” (Source:

“Football fans against homophobia”

Discussing the lack of awareness

In 2006, Pilz et al., for the German Bundesliga, argued that whereas racism has to some extent become part of a critical discourse in football stadia, homophobic and also sexist chants are often perceived as a legitimate part of football fan culture. Today, during the World Cup, we can observe that homophobia, similar to racism and sexism, is still an immense problem on and off the pitch. Not only have Mexican fans been accused of homophobic chants, but also Russian and Croatian fans were seen displaying racist and homophobic banners. Missing the chance to publicly condemn these discriminating practices during an international tournament like the World Cup, and make people worldwide aware of them, is one of FIFA’s great failures. [Read more]

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June 30, 2014

Football: It’s Time to Check the Privilege!

Part 1 by Alexandra Schwell

Football’s Dark Side: Corruption, Homophobia, Violence and Racism in the Beautiful Game” – this is the title of a new book written by Ellis Cashmore and Jamie Cleland. The authors contend that “Football may yet be the last major sport to boast that it harbours no prejudices”. However, they say, it “stands to reason that in a sport played by about 200,000 professionals, only a few have declared themselves to be gay”. Hence they conclude: “It can be reasonably assumed that football is a prohibitive environment for gay people”.

To be clear, Cashmore and Cleland are not accusing football of being an extraordinary homophobic, racist, or violent sport when compared to other sports, such as boxing. If we share the view that the social forces and power that create the distribution of economic, cultural, and social capital, and thus opportunities within society, come to the fore and are negotiated in football, then we should take a look at how this wider society links to the activity around and on the football pitch.

Let us take a random, but rather recent, example: In November 2013 a teacher in Baden-Württemberg, Germany launched an online petition and attempted to obtain enough signatures to oppose the ministry of education’s 2015 state curriculum. The new and highly contested curriculum includes a controversial section, which requires that the schools are expected to advance their pupils’ understanding of “gender diversity” across all disciplines.

[Read more]

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June 26, 2014

The World Cup 2014 in Brazil: better organised than the Olympics in London 2012?

Yesterday, I was quoted in a number of French newspapers as saying that the World Cup 2014 has been, so far, better organised than the London Olympics 2012. It is my duty to report that this does not in any way whatsoever misrepresent my views.
I stand by what I said.

[Read more]

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June 23, 2014

Thank you, guys

Fifteen years ago I had the privilege of living one of those adventures that remain with you for life. Back then I was quite far away from the academic world, working as a reporter in a Spanish sports newspaper. One day may boss decided, who knows why, that I was the best person to travel to Nigeria to cover the 1999 FIFA Youth World Cup. Little I knew then that I was going to have the opportunity to report on the first major triumph of a group of players which, defeated, bowed out of the 2014 World Cup yesterday after cruising to a meaningless 3-0 win over Australia. Certainly, I would have never thought when writing up a report on the final 4-0 crushing of Japan in a humid evening in Lagos, that some of the names in my text would feature eleven years later in other journalists’ reports of a World Cup final. It is perhaps because of this personal link that I cannot help to feel for this group of players who, as I argued in a post in this blog, made so many of us happy.

Brazil 2014 is certainly the end of a glorious generation of Spanish footballers that came to dominate the game in a fashion I could never have imagined. Not even when I first met Xavi, Iker Casillas or Carlos Marchena in the Spanish hotel in Calabar, a small city neat the Niger River, where Spain played two group-stage games of the 1999 Youth World Cup. The story of that month-long competition was one of coming out of age for a group of players and quite a privilege for me. Given the informality of the tournament, players and journalists shared hotels and many of the difficult moments in Nigeria. We were even able to forge some friendships that were maintained over time. It is also perhaps because of that more personal element that I have really struggled to see Xavi suffering because of his lack of fitness and his patellar tendons over the last couple of seasons. It has also been difficult to see the state of Casillas in the World Cup. The great captain who took us to heaven was a caricature of what he used to be.

Be that as it may, in this very sad and disappointing moment I can only have a word of gratitude for those who made this possible. It is of course necessary to start with Luis Aragonés, the scorer of Atlético de Madrid infamous goal in the 1974 European Cup final. Luis was a particular character, but he needs to be credited with giving a complete turnaround to the way Spain used to play and to feel on a pitch. He relayed of course on a bright group of players, later evolved by Vicente del Bosque to the work of art of Puyol’s header over Germany in South Africa, Casillas save on Robben or the team demolition of Italy in Kiev in Euro 2012.

This Brazil World Cup was perhaps one too many for some players. It is the moment to evolve the team, but it is not the moment to throw an idea of playing football in the bin. Some would say that Brazil changed and it does not play the attacking football of the Pele years. True. But it would be a real pity not to try to persevere in the idea of Luis Aragonés and Del Bosque that made many of us dream. In the meantime, in the moment to hand in our trophy of world champions, it is also the moment to say thanks. Thank you, guys. It was a very enjoyable journey.

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June 22, 2014

Lost in France

This blog is on World Cup holiday, lost in France (still the world’s number one tourist destination).

It's never too late to learn French, is it?

Unfortunately, the French insist on speaking, writing and reading their own language. Which is why the blog has turned into “une chronique quotidienne de la Coupe du monde” on the website of Le Monde, the great French daily. For those who are willing and capable of reading French, here are the links to the first week’s columns:


A bientôt !

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June 5, 2014

For the people or against the people?

A post from pre-World Cup Rio by Gosia Kowalska.

Football club colours on the beach in Rio.

Not surprisingly, football is omnipresent in Rio de Janeiro. On the countless football pitches in Flamengo Park in front of the hotel where I stayed during the ‘2nd International Conference on Mega-events and the City‘, referees’ whistles are heard almost 24 hours a day – even at 3 am when the waiters finish their work and gather to play a match before sunrise. As in so many places in the world, cariocas get together to watch football in cafes, and kids wear shirts with the names of their, and their fathers’, favourite players, but club colours are also seen on the beach where the flags of Botafogo and Fluminese proudly flutter over the neighbouring kiosks with agua de coco and caipirinha.

The World Cup, however, seems to belong to a very different sphere. It has to do with pacification of favelas and displacement, as well as with citizens’ protests against the wealth distribution and arrogance of FIFA and the country’s elites. Each time I asked my hosts about the World Cup and the Olympic Games, they hardly ever talked football;  they would rather discuss the power of the Rede Globo and the possible future of the new potential born within Brazilian society in the mass protests before the upcoming mega-events. Therefore, one pays less attention to advertisements and construction sites than to the constant noise of helicopters patrolling the supposedly uneasy favelas. Even those visitors who are determined not to leave southern Rio must pass through the not-so-glamorous districts of the city when taking a shuttle to the international airport . A short glimpse into their streets is enough to give one a sense of the flipside of the development and splendor of Ciudad Maravillosa.

Rio and its ‘two footballs’ are symptomatic of the global tensions between the rich and the poor. Both the World Cup and the Games stimulated discussion on the future shape of Brazilian capitalism and democracy, but they can also be analysed dialectically, as mirroring the widening gap between the leisure world of the affluent and the basic needs and rights of those who cannot afford it. Is the World Cup going to be a big football fiesta or rather a chance to show the world that the city, as the organisers of the conference claimed, is ‘already at war’? Probably both, and this schizophrenic image of a locality is not confined to Brazilian cities.

‘Democracy is the government of the people, by the people, for the people’, according to Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg address. He did not know that at the very same time, in November 1863, on the other side of the Atlantic, some guys were busy drafting the rules of a new ball game in the Freemasons’ Tavern in London. One and a half century later, football and democracy meet at the world’s most important mega-event in Brazil. For the people or against the people?

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May 21, 2014

Nothing is irrational

On year ago, on 23 May 2013, French sociologist Michel Crozier died at age 90.

Was he known at all outside France? The fact that he has a short wikipedia entry in English seems to suggest that he was not completely unknown. Rather than an obituary, these lines are just a modest tribute. His death reminded me of just how much I owe my interest for sociology to him. Maybe it’s because when I started to read his books in the early 1990s, I wasn’t even thinking about engaging into an academic career, completing a PhD and doing serious research. I only wanted to better understand my intriguing host country.

Michel Crozier (1922-2013)

His 1995 book on ‘The helplessness of the elites when it comes to reform themselves’, whose main title was ‘La crise de l’intelligence’, opened my eyes on the French higher education system just as much as Pierre Bourdieu did. And at the same time it did not have this dogmatic ideological underpinning that characterised Bourdieu’s writing and contaminated so much of French sociology.

Crozier helped me understand from within quite some idiosyncrasies of French culture, especially the ubiquitous penetration of all spheres of society by ‘the State’. And although I had no grasp whatsoever on methodology at the time, I intuitively liked how he built bridges between sociology, politics and management.

My favourite quote by Michel Crozier? I actually have two of them.

The first one,

“I did not become a sociologist by passing state exams, but by doing sociology.”

sums up nicely what research is about: it’s not about making a career in academia in the first place, but to understand society better. Seing things this way not only makes you less prisoner of the absurdities of academic life, but also allows you to have a lot more fun.

The second one is a reply to critics who accused him of not dealing with emotions, desires and passions in his analysis:

‘Nothing is irrational. The understanding of the context allows us to understand the rationality of behaviour that seemed irrational before.’

I am not even certain I fully agree. The FREE project is a lot about emotions, desires and passions, isn’t it? On the other hand, it’s no doubt the context that may help to understand why certain emotions occur at certain moments.

Funny how sometimes you realise with a delay of twenty years the influence a person’s thoughts may have had on your own ideas. Better late than never.

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May 14, 2014

One thousand shots in the top corner. A tribute to Didier Braun

Sao Paolo, 19 November 1969: Pelé scores a penalty for Santos against Vasco da Gama. His one thousandth goal. The match is stopped, the bells are ringing. If one believes the list enclosed in his autobiography, it could actually have been goal No. 1002. Who cares? Celebration was easier with a penalty anyway.

Mendoza, 11 June 1978: Rob Rensenbrink scores the 1000th goal of the World Cup history (a penalty, the first goal of 2-3 defeat against Scotland).

Saint-Denis, 12 July 1998: Emmanuel Petit chose the World Cup final to score the thousandth goal of the French national team, the third goal against Brazil.

Middlesbrough, 29 October 2005: Cristiano Ronaldo scores a worthless header for Manchester United in injury time, concluding 1-4 defeat – and at the same time scoring the 1000th goal for United in the English top league.

Belfast, 6 September 2006: Xavi Hernandez opens the score with the 1000th goal of the Spanish national team in a Euro qualifier against Northern Ireland (who eventually won 3-2 thanks to a hattrick by David Healy!).

All these goals were obviously followed by others. Football never stops and, to quote once again Sepp Herberger, ‘after the match is before the match’.

'Curtain'. The 1000th and last 'Lucarne'.

When Didier Braun, however, published his 1000th and last ‘Lucarne’ (‘Top corner’) in L’Equipe some months ago, he made it very clear that it would be his last one. This came as bad news to all those who had grown addicted to this little journalistic jewel hidden somewhere on the football pages of the great sports daily. Didier’s ‘top corner’ shot was not only the article one read first, it was also the one you loved to go over a second time. And enjoyed reading it aloud to your wife in the evening. Due to the fact that its author slavishly respected the self-imposed limit of 1,000 characters (and only very exceptionally granted himself an extra of max. 5%), each single word had to be chosen with care and tested on its absolute necessity.

‘La lucarne’ – this is generally where Michel Platini’s free kicks finished. Didier’s short texts were very similar: based on great technical skills, skillfully curled around the wall of triviality, and before you know it, it’s another unstoppable punchline.

There are always plenty of tears in the stadium when a legend of the club plays his last game before retirement. But who celebrates the retirement of those who make reading about football such a pleasure? Let this blogpost be a tribute to one of the best of his profession.

Didier has not always been at L’Equipe. After a short ‘transfer’ to a short-lived competitor in the 1980s he worked for several years for the French Football Federation in the national training centre of Clairefontaine. Which made him a football journalist who not only had earned a master’s degree in history, but had also accumulated technical expertise on the highest level. Which allowed him turn, after have joined L’Equipe again, to draft detailed analyses of playing systems, technical and tactical innovation, variations and interpretations. After having read his explanations, one had the impression of having gained a better understanding.

Outside L'Equipe in Boulogne-Billancourt.

After the 2006 World Cup he was not very keen anymore ‘to hang around in stadium aisles and spend my time waiting for a handful of quotes’ and returned to the office as editor. The project of the daily 1,000-character colum came up in 2008. The idea was to seize a fresh piece of current football news, but to cast a different look at it from a critical, often amused distance, and to relativise the ‘buzz’ by putting things into historical perspective. The first ‘Lucarne’ was published on 12 August 2008. Its title was ‘ephemeral’, which was what it was expected to be. But finally, as Didier wrote 999 columns later, football, ‘which is at the same time game, spectacle, industry, mirror of its epoch, is so rich with facts, gestures, passions, peculiarities, entertaining variations, that is provides the chronicler with a multitude of topics, allowing him finally to reach a thousand texts without much pain’.

Both in the ‘Lucarnes’ and his blog on ‘Another history of football‘, he often managed to point out, very much tongue-in-cheek, that all these football scandals, public indignations, money  issues, extraordinary performances and evidences of decline, are nothing but an ‘eternal repetitition’. Nothing new under the floodlights! He always never got tired of reminding his readers that, however much they may be tempted by nostalgia, it was no use regretting the ‘golden age’ of football, simply because there never was one.

Next season, we will have to cope with his absence. Not easy. And for himself? Well, the doors of L’Equipe’s archives, this unbelievable treasure trove of the history of sport, will always remain open to him. And there are still so many black-and-white photos of players and games and goals that only an encyclopedic football memory will be able to identify and date. Good to know there’s one around!

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May 5, 2014

Homophobic or Hysterical?

Nils Havemann has recently participated in a round table discussion in Stuttgart with former German international Thomas Hitzlsperger, who made the headlines at the beginning of the year with his coming-out as homosexual. Four months later, he reflects on what the countless reactions to this coming-out actually say about German society.

In early January 2014 you could easily get the impression that German football – in fact, the entire German public opinion – had only one topic. Thomas Hitzlsperger rather carefully orchestrated coming out in DIE ZEIT, which also had a considerable echo in England or France, sparkled a big debate on how ‘homophobic’ German football and German society as a whole really were.

Thomas Hitzlsperger at the recent roundtable in Stuttgart.

The first thing you could learn from the heated discussions all across the media spectrum and social networks was that it is indeed possible to be accused of homophobia even if you paid full and sincere respect to Hitzlsperger – which is not very difficult, as the former VfB Stuttgart captain is an intelligent, eloquent and sympathetic gentleman – and his decision to publicly announce his homosexuality. The online editorial staff of the daily Die Welt discovered ‘homophobic’ tendencies even in two journalistic flagships of ‘political correctness’, the taz and Die Zeit itself.

Moreover, it came as no surprise that Hitzlsperger’s coming-out was a wonderful opportunity for many commentators to indulge in the usual bashing of German football officials, which actually reached a new peak. Die Zeit, itself viewed with suspicion by Die Welt (see above), criticised the half-heartedness of the German Football Association (DFB) in its struggle against homophobia though its president Wolfgang Niersbach had clearly been among the very first to affirm his respect and support for Hitzlsperger.

The tone of the discussions gave the impression that homosexuals are a discriminated fringe group in Germany. This is surprising, as German society is in its vast majority not ‘homophobic’ at all. The Federal Republic abolished the criminal prosecution of homosexuality in 1969, and like elsewhere in the liberal democracies of Europe, the 1970s and 1980s saw the number of prominent coming outs increasing continuously. Needless to say that at first they triggered a sniff in very conservative and, of course, clerical circles, but today homosexuality is widely accepted in Germany. It has even become a kind of non-topic. The fact that the German foreign minister of the second Merkel government (Guido Westerwelle) was homosexual did not raise any eye-brows; for thirteen years now the country’s capital has been governed by a homosexual mayor (Klaus Wowereit); one of the country’s most popular entertainers (Harpe Kerkeling) and its longest-standing female TV police inspector (Ulrike Folkerts) are also among the number of well-known homosexuals.

But why, then, did it take so much time before a famous German football player came out? Without any doubt (and as the FREE project’s work package on feminisation tends to confirm), football is a domain where traditional ideals of masculinity are still dominant. And stadiums are places where people release aggressions against other groups, often in hyperbolic manner. Take these two facts together and you understand why amongst spectators of big football events tasteless jokes or dumb insults against homosexuals are still to be heard.

And yet, in today’s overheated, often hysterical media landscape, what social group, what minority, what celebrity is not offended, derided or mocked at the first occasion? Even those media who in the debate on homosexuality are singing the beautiful song of social harmony and tolerance are very eager to take part in publicly lynching the sexual practices of prominent sportsmen. How much scorn Lothar Matthäus had to bear because of his predilection for rather young women? How many amused comments were given on Boris Becker’s ‘broom closet romp’? How many vitriolic jokes were made on Franz Beckenbauer who on his old days procreated a child allegedly on a Christmas party? Why did hardly anyone protest against these personal attacks? Do German journalists think that homosexuals are more sensitive to verbal cruelties than any other social group and therefore have to be put in a very special comfort zone? Isn’t this the real discrimination? To think that homosexuals are wimps who need more than anyone else protection against the otherwise widespread habit of insulting and offending people in public?

What the artificial outrage about the alleged ‘homophobia’ in German football and society revealed was not only sheer hypocrisy in large parts of the media, but also the fact that homosexuals are indeed not a discriminated minority in Germany. The huge echo to Hitzlsperger’s coming out could rather be seen as part of a well-managed press campaign which has been aiming for several years at obtaining the same rights and welfare state privileges for homosexuals that traditional heterosexual long-term relationships enjoy. It is of course absolutely legitimate in a democracy to fight for such interests, but it is not legitimate (and at the end of the day, counter-productive) to use and abuse cheap accusations like ‘homophobia’ or ‘intolerance’ against other groups who either reject these claims or consider other problems and interests as more important. Considering the aggressiveness of these debates, it is sometimes necessary to remind everybody that tolerance is not a one-way street and that each group may be expected to be tolerant to different opinions and lifestyles.

Nils Havemann

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