November 19, 2014

United Colours of Blond Germany

Football, like education or the corporate world, is a revealing and often contradictory field for the academic study of diversity. The tensions between ethnic communities, cultural norms and linguistic practices were on the agenda of a recent French-German ‘Junior Colloquium’ organised on 6 November 2014 by Jean-Christophe Meyer and Pierre Weiss at the University of Strasbourg, with the support of the CIERA (the Paris-based Interdisciplinary Centre for Studies and Research on Germany).

Given my receding hairline I was invited as ‘senior scholar’ and expected to provide critical and constructive feedback to the PhD candidates who presented their work. And given the quality of the presentations and interest of the research projects, I was very pleased to do so.

An illustration used in one of the presentations struck me particularly. Only a few days after Willy Sagnol’s awkward statements about the different skills of African and ‘Nordic’ players in his team had confirmed that even a former top-class footballer and successful coach who is clearly beyond suspicion when it comes to allegations of racism is prisoner to a rhetoric of racist stereotypes, the paper showed how an entire (and altogether sympathetic) club like Borussia Dortmund markets its children’s fan club in a manner that deserves at least the adjective ‘ethnocentric’.

Multicultural Germany?

As a matter of fact, when promoting membership in the ‘BVB KidsClub’, Borussia addresses only white and blond children. And since four of the five enthusiastic fans portrayed in the advert to the right are girls, it would be difficult to believe that the photo is simply the result of carelessness: it rather suggests that the marketing department has identified a clearly defined target group.

Without indulging into bad jokes about the club’s name – after all, ‘Borussia’ is nothing but a latinised version of ‘Prussia’ – or its colours – perhaps all fans need to dye their hair in yellow now? – this marketing strategy leaves a very bad aftertaste.

There is something profoundly weird about it: the Ruhrgebiet is one of the most multiethnic regions in Germany, and the BVB has regularly brought home-grown talent of different origins to international level. Surely the youth teams of the club don’t apply the same recruitment practices as the KidsClub! And there are few other practices that have been as instrumental as football in making German society understand its multicultural character. The ‘United Colours of Germany’, as France Football renamed the national team in 2010, has earned a lot of sympathy as a much more realistic representation of a multi-ethnic society than its predecessors.

The fact that the KidsClubs seems light years away from reality reminded me of a video clip that was used around 1997 or 1998 in the German bid for hosting the 2006 World Cup. The clip, which showed Franz Beckenbauer playing with a handful of ten-year-olds, gave testimony to the producers’ careful effort to include several ‘visible minorities’ among the children. I remember that given the German citizenship law at the time I showed the document to a group of international students calling it ‘hypocritical’, since none of the kids in the video would actually have the chance to play for Germany in 2010 or 2014, when they would be in their mid-twenties.

Though I was right at the time, football history has now told me that things can change. So much for the good news. The bad news is that, as Sagnol’s discourse and Borussia’s marketing remind us, it is easier to change the laws than to modify deeply engrained patterns of thought.

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

October 6, 2014

Fair competition and legitimacy

Post No. 100 of the FREE Blog!

Level playing field?

Like many team sports football is essentially competitive. Even among friends the game provides more pleasure if played with the aim of winning. But each competition needs rules that are perceived as just. Nothing is as likely to kill the interest of the game than the perception that there is no level playing field for the participants.

As a spectator sport football will not be able to remain the attractive game that it is if there should be a widespread and lasting perception of unfair competition. There is much talk, and rightly so, about match-fixing, a scourge that must be eradicated in order to protect this sport from irreversible damage. But match-fixing is just the extreme tip of the iceberg. Even without any fraud and tampering, football competitions on whatever level will only remain legitimate if they provide a fair chance of success to all participants.

Hence the eternal debate on video refereeing. True, moments of injustice are one of the most powerful sources of football’s capacity to produce narratives that take root in collective memory. This being said: in the long run, injustice is only tolerable if it remains the exception. Today, however, technological progress exposes each tiny error in broad daylight.

Hence also the need for an improved solidarity between the participants of professional competitions. The tendency towards a monopolisation of victories by an ever smaller number of participants – clearly observable in the Champions League for several years in a row – will not be sustainable in the long run. If the redistribution of generated revenues continuously favours the rich to the detriment of the less wealthy, the competition as a whole will lose its legitimacy.

Hence, finally, the necessary but highly sensitive initiative introducing the famous financial fair-play. Once more, the perception of a rule against which some are more equal than others would deal a fatal blow to the legitimacy of the legislator who set it up in the first place.

These are but three measures aimed at regulating competition and correcting its excesses. All of which only make sense on a European level, since football, as many activities, has undergone a seemingly irreversible process of Europeanisation.

It is tempting to draw a parallel between these measures and the attempts of the European legislator to regulate the big single market that was built on the pillar of the promise of ‘undistorted and fair competition’. A single market that was, by the way, launched almost exactly at the same time as the Champions League. Two decades years later, has it kept this promise? Has its evolution not reinforced the perception that competition systematically favours the strong and rich? That the benefits from market integration always serve an elite, while the drawbacks invariably hurt the weak?

Football is only a game, and a rather simple one. But quite often it can help making sense of market mechanisms in a tangible and understandable way. Sometimes one cannot help but feel that the political actors would be well advised to take inspiration in the Europe of football if they really want to understand why their legitimacy seems to be eroding from one election to the next.

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September 29, 2014

Fake neutrality

A new deal signed, to the satisfaction of all.

For better or for worse, sport, politics and big business are closely linked. Nowhere is this more apparent than around  sport mega-events, where political and economic agendas are omnipresent. Between Sochi and Rio de Janeiro, the year 2014 has again provided ample illustration for how the immense social reach of sport is instrumentalised for global soft power politics but also for domestic political choices in favour of neoliberal policies, often to the detriment of social, environmental and urbanistic sustainability.

Even Thomas Bach, the ever-cautious president of the International Olympic Committee, recently admitted, in a surprising access of candour, that

‘Sports must acknowledge its relationship to politics and big business and work with those who run global society while still maintaining its neutrality.’ (1)

But what does ‘maintaining its neutrality’ really mean? Decisions made by sports governing bodies are never neutral: whenever they attribute a major event to an applicant federation (behind which there is invariably a political leader), they either give in to the attempts of instrumentalisation by big business and politics or, at very rare moments of courage, make a political statement which by definition cannot be neutral.

Last week a coincidence of calendar gave, once more, evidence for the fact that the claimed neutrality of sport governing bodies inevitably comes out as fake neutrality. While Ukrainian top-club Shakhtar Donetsk is forced, for reasons known to all, to play this week’s Champions League fixture against FC Porto in Lviv (situated 1 200 km from its home stadium, the Donbass Arena, which was badly damaged this summer), the UEFA Executive Committee decided to award four matches of the European Championship 2020, to be held in thirteen different cities across the continent, to Saint Petersburg.

Are the members of the Executive Committee only aware that they are sending out a message? True, they were hostage to a self-imposed geographical balance for this event, which forced them to select bids from the regional zone called ‘East’, and Minsk would hardly have been a better choice in political terms. But would it not have been possible to exclude Russia and ‘satellite’ states politely from this bid on the ground that Russie will already host the 2018 World Cup, with matches dispesed all across its huge territory?

Of course, it would have been possible. Just like it was possible, as Middle East expert James Dorsey has convincingly argued, to persuade Turkey behind closed doors to withdraw its initially well-considered application because of what had happened during the Gezi park protests.

What does Saint Petersburg have that Istanbul does not have? The answer is: Gazprom. And the dozens of million Euros it bestows upon both UEFA (as partner of the Champions League) and FIFA (partner of all competitions 2015-2018). Money that prompts sport leaders to continue ‘business as usual’.

When informed about the outcome of the Euro2020 host cities selection process, Vitaly Mutko, Russian minister for sport and, of course, present at the signatures of Gazprom sponsorship contracts with international sport bodies, openly showed his relief by acknowledging that ‘there was a chance that because of the current political situation, the authorities would refuse to let us host matches’. Only to set things straight again, adding ‘But we are really happy that the world of sport and politics are kept separate.’ (2)

UEFA, sadly, missed an opportunity to show boldly that they are not.

(1) Speech held at Incheon, South Korea, on the occasion of the Asian Games.

(2) quoted by Reuters

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September 13, 2014

The Europeanisation of US football

Guest contribution by Keith Rathbone, PhD candidate in French social and cultural history at Northwestern University. A previous contribution of Keith on players’ mobility was published by this blog in April.

Jürgen Klinsmann and Julian Green: American citizens communicating in German?

When Julian Green, the young Bayern Munich prospect, agreed to play internationally for the United States, knowledgeable American football fans cheered. Many others, however, raised concerns about his right to play for the United States. Although he was born in Tampa, and thus had American citizenship, he passed his whole childhood in Berlin with his German mother. The situation only got worse when Green spoke on television to ESPN to explain his decision. His imperfect English and stilted manner of speaking further alienated him in the minds of a vocal few that believed it would be a travesty for him to don the red, white, and blue jersey. Disquiet about his presence rose to such a level that Sunil Gulati, the president of the United States Soccer Federation, felt compelled to issue a statement regarding the background of the Team USA players. ‘I don’t agree with (the criticism),’ Gulati said, ‘nothing about that makes those players any less American. It would be pretty hard to convince me that they have less right to play for our country. It’s a globalized world.’

Gulati’s remarks were well founded in the history of the US Men’s National Team: Green is hardly the first European to play for the United States. A closer examination of when ‘Europeans’ played for the US illustrates the successive waves of immigration to American shores and reveals the important role of the coach in shaping the character of the team.

Immigrants from Europe have played a key role on American soccer teams from the beginnings of international competitions. In the 1930 World Cup, the US team called up a five of Scots, including Andrew Auld, Jim Brown, Jimmy Gallagher, Bart McGhee, and Alexander Wood.  Jimmy Gallagher did not even have American citizenship. One player also came from England, George Moorhouse, who later captained the 1934 US Team in Italy. At the 1950 World Cup, when the American team beat the English 1-0, the team included players from England, Germany, Belgium, Scotland, Poland, and the former Free State of Fiume. The team captain, Ed McIlvenny, hailed from Scotland and was not a US citizen at the time of the match with England, although he had declared his intention to become one.

Unfortunately for American football fans, the channel of European talent to American shores dried up after the end of Second World War. The start of the economic boom in Europe shrunk the number of young, immigrant football players. The multitude of Europeans had given way to rough, home grown journeymen such as Paul Caligiuri, John Kerr, and Bruce Murrey. The US Men’s National Team reached did not reach the World Cup again until 1994.

Throughout the 1990s, the United States haphazardly invited Europeans, usually sons of American servicemen. On a few occasions, these naturalisations ended in disaster. David Regis, a French player who had not participated in qualification became part of the team right before the 1998 World Cup. His presence arguably hurt Team USA as they started him in the place of the popular Jeff Agoos. Locker room chemistry suffered and the US finished in last place.

The latest World Cup, however, brought a more intelligent naturalisation and increased visibility of European-born players. German Jürgen Klinsmann, the first non-American U.S. Men’s National Team coach in recent years, quickly restored the European pipeline. He sought out players with connections, however tenuous, to the United States and encouraged them to play for their adoptive homeland. For Klinsmann these European players, principally German, brought a measure of class and experience. In the 2014 World Cup, the American side brought along John Brooks, Tim Chandler, Fabian Johnson, Jermaine Jones, and Julian Green, all German-American bi-nationals.

For decades, Europe principally benefited from the movement of football talent across the globe as talented players from the colonies immigrated back to the Metropole to find sporting glory. The growing number of European-born players on the American team heralds a new trend of football globalisation. Talent now drains from the centre of the football universe (Europe) into its peripheries (North America, Africa, and the Middle East). Team USA in particular looks poised to ‘steal’ even more skilled players such as Gedion Zelalem (Hertha Berlin) but it’s hardly the only country to benefit from this transmigration. Many African teams have been benefiting from it for more than a decade. It is hard to know what the long terms effects of this reverse migration might be but it is certain that right now the academies of Europe’s top clubs and the national technical centers are training the very players who are most likely to threaten and undermine European hegemony in the game.

Keith Rathbone

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September 7, 2014

Of ruthless panzers, fake luxury cars, and impotent eagles

1990 - The classical Panzer

Football has always been a major producer of stereotypes. The invention of ‘national playing styles’ at the beginning of 20th century drew, inevitably, massively on extra-sportive stereotypes accumulated over the centuries and safely stored in national narratives of perception and self-perception. The fact that for over a century, football discourse has been produced (and endlessly repeated) mainly within almost hermetically closed linguistic and cultural areas only contributed to consolidate stereotypical images and vocabulary, often against better knowledge.

But stereotypes can change, too, even if it takes time and repetitive counter-evidence. Some of the literature from social psychology draws a clear distinction between stereotype and prejudice, the difference being that the former may be weakened or even turned around and the latter is essentially immune to change.

[Read more]

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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]

Post by Nina Szogs in the category Identities, Posts, Public Sphere - No comment

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]

Post by Dàvid RANC in the category Posts - 35 comments

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.

Post by Borja García in the category Governance, History, Memory - No comment

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