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June 4, 2016

The spark of the gods

Friedrich Schiller, does his name ring a bell? Don’t check frantically Joachim Löw’s 23-man squad for the Euro, the man is not the Bundesliga latest Wunderkind.

As a matter of fact, he would qualify for two national teams, since he was awarded French citizenship by decree of the National Assembly on 26 August 1792, for his merits as a herald of liberty. This happened six years after the publication of his ‘Ode to Joy’, which Beethoven immortalised a quarter century later.

It is strange that Europe should have made of an emphatic ode to joy its official anthem. ‘Europe’ and ‘joy’, in these troubled days the connection is far from obvious. Will football and its big quadrennial continental party bring some joyfulness back into the morose setting?

It will not be easy. The host country, for one, seems to be poised towards ‘the final struggle’ rather than ‘the spark of the Gods’ sung by Schiller.

And yet, social sciences research, at its most rigorous, comes to the conclusion that, as disturbingly trivial as it may sound, football is joy. More precisely: it’s a wonderful pretext for being joyful.

According to the photos taken during the innovative field work carried out by the Loughborough team under Borja García with supporters from several European countries, football is not so much about watching football, but about exchanging smiles and taking group selfies, with both close friends and unknown foreigners.

Football is first and foremost about social bonds. These bonds can take different forms: sometimes they can be sometimes slightly masochistic – nothing equals the sweet-sour joy of mourning together a painful defeat. Very often they easily cross borders of all kinds, precisely because no developed linguistic competence is necessary. And because no real football fan, as our research has shown, never ever seems to get tired of talking about his passion.

Of course, the capacity of football to bring joy, has long been noticed by politicians. That’s why they unfailingly support their national federations in their bids for hosting mega-events. 20 years ago, after ‘thirty years of hurt’ and 200 years since Schiller’s poem, English spin-doctors turned simple ‘joy’ into the politically relevant ‘feel-good factor’.

Original manuscript of the 'Ode to Joy'

But organised joy ordered from above is superficial and ephemeral. The deep and sustainable joy is the one that is encapsulated in the souvenir of the smiles exchanges, like those in the pictures of our research guinea pigs. Or in the feeling of having been momentarily absorbed in a solidary community before returning to one’s ordinary individualist life.

This kind of joy happily ignored the national borders everybody seems to be talking about in Europe these days. Friedrich Schiller lucidly observed that it had the capacity ‘to unite again what customs have strictly divided’ and that under its ‘gentle wing’, all humans became ‘brothers again’.

Football as a little break of unifying joy in a strictly divided Europe? I’m not asking for more. Sincere thanks in advance.

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

June 3, 2016

Racism, what racism?

What has become ‘the Benzema affair’ this week is a wonderful triple case study.

Firstly, it’s an illustration of the hyper-sensitivity with regard to ethnic groups that was rather feeble in France for many decades and that has grown significantly over recent years, reaching a new level in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 2015.

Secondly, it’s a nice example of the mechanisms of ‘moral panic’ which David Ranc described exactly four years ago, at the beginning of another European championship, involving another French top-player, who happened to be of North African descent, too.

Thirdly, it is a case in point of what our recent UNESCO report ‘Colour? What Colour?’ described as ‘Racism accusations as rhetorical weapon in the media’. Here’s the excerpt concerned (from section 5.4, page 71):

Since racism has been tabooed in mainstream society, accusations of racism have become a rhetorical weapon in public debate. A perfect example of this was provided by the former FIFA president himself in summer 2014. Sepp Blatter responded to different allegations against African members of his organisation by saying:

‘Once again there is a sort of storm against Fifa relating to the Qatar World Cup. Sadly there’s a great deal of discrimination and racism and this hurts me. It really makes me sad.’[1]

Using ‘racism’ against individuals who very clearly have no racist intent is generally counter-productive and results in a devaluation and even trivialisation of the term itself.

In Germany, where for obvious historical reasons the media’s sensitivity to racist and discriminatory discourse is very high, a certain uneasiness is felt with regard to alleged cases of racism that, at close scrutiny, appear artificially construed by specific political groups or social milieus. According to Ingo von Münch, a reputed professor of constitutional law, racism charges have become a doubtful tool in short-term political conflicts. Used for forming hegemonic or ‘monopolistic’ opinions they threaten to undermine a vital principle of liberal democracies.[2]

Allegations of racism are unfortunately also instrumentalised with the aim of damaging the reputations of persons or influencing ordinary power struggles in football organisations. One may cite the case of Oliver Kahn, who was wrongly accused of having insulted Jonathan Akpoborie in a racist manner.[3] Or the case of Johan Cruyff, who in autumn 2011 allegedly had said to Edgar Davids in an Ajax supervisory board meeting: ‘You are sitting here because you are black’. Although Cruyff could credibly explain that the context gave the sentence a totally different meaning than the one reported in the press, the racism charges that ensued were difficult to dissipate.[4]

Rather than reinforcing the legitimate fight against racist and discriminatory attitudes, the hasty denunciation of racist or discriminatory discourse – whether based on sincere convictions or cynical instrumentalisation – that eventually turns out to be biased or plain wrong, may have very regrettable counter-productive side-effects. Media reports on racism and discrimination in football are a  double-edged sword: they may raise awareness, but they may also, dilute the fundamental intention and key message of the fight against racism and discrimination by blurring the lines and weakening the semantic effectiveness and weight of the concepts they use. In other words: by accusing individuals of racism in a non-differentiating manner, they run the risk of damaging the credibility of campaigns and initiatives.

The full report can still be downloaded as PDF here: http://www.essca.fr/EU-Asia/unesco-releases-report-on-racism-and-discrimination/


[1] Owen Gibson, ‘Sepp Blatter launches broadside against the “racist” British media’, The Guardian, 9 June 2014.

[2] Ingo von Münch, Rechtspolitik und Rechtskultur. Kommentare zum Zustand der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Berlin: Berliner Wissenschafts-Verlag, 2011, p. 212.

[3] Nils Havemann, Samstags um halb 4. Die Geschichte der Fußballbundesliga. Munich: Siedler, 2013, pp. 470f.

[4] ‘Johan Cruyff desmente comentários racistas’, Diario de Noticias, 22 November 2011. See also Ewan Murry, ‘Johan Cruyff explains alleged racist remark towards Edgar Davids’, The Guardian, 22 November 2011.

Post by Albrecht Sonntag in the category Identities - No comment

May 18, 2016

From Panama Pampers to Mexico Muddle

A guest contribution by Rainer Kalb.

Let’s sum up the recent episodes of our favourite soap opera.

Gianni Infantino, the newly elected FIFA president is a man of worldly manners who juggles between six or eight different languages. Having worked for years under Michel Platini, he must even be a master juggler.

After a few weeks in office only he already had the opportunity to give evidence to his skills. First, the Panama Papers leaked that he had sold the television rights of the Champions League for the ridiculously low sum of 110,000 $ to Ecuador. His defence line, according to which there were only two offers the better of which was chosen, sounds reasonable enough. But if an intermediary sells them for three times more to an interested TV channel, the question must be allowed by UEFA did not deal directly with the buyers, but charged a Swiss marketing agency to sell the rights via an Argentinian broker to Ecuador.

Like Beckenbauer, Infantino claims to have signed ‘blindly’ a ‘thousand contracts’. Note that the position of General Secretary (!) in a multi-million dollar business exempts you from reading documents that bind the organisation and engage a lot of money. It does not take a PhD in linguistics to understand then ‘Infantino’ means ‘little child’. Acting like an infant at age 46 is not a good omen for future responsibilities. So much for the Panama Pampers.

From Panama to Mexico, it’s just a three-hour flight. The distance between the Panama Papers and the FIFA reform congress in Mexico seems even shorter. At the congress Infantino presented Fatma Samoura as new general secretary of the ‘new’ FIFA. The 54-year old Senegalese who had served the United Nations for 21 years, seems to be beyond reproach, but the question must be allowed what Infantino’s intentions really are when appointing a person who is supposed to have a tight control over daily business and the use of FIFA’s revenues but has little to no knowledge of football (let alone European football).

Even more grotesk is the replacement of the previous executive committee by a so-called ‘Council’, which is supposed to be composed not only of football officials, although the latter remain. The supervisory bodies (ethics committee, appeal committee, audit and compliance committee and governance committee) were to be elected by the Congress, but since FIFA was unable to propose enough candidates who had passed the ‘cleanliness check’, Infantino imposed a shortcut, having the Council elect and dismiss its own supervisors! In other words: all doors are wide open again for influence-wielding, corrupting, and blackmailing. ‘Blatterism’ at its very best, as Mark Pieth, the resigned founder of the reform commission, called it bluntly.

The chairman of the independent audit committee, Domenico Scala, resigned right away, clearly disgusted with the Mexico Muddle.

Instead of making FIFA a cleaner institution, Infantino seems to be creating a mess. He will need king-size pampers to tidy it up.

Post by Albrecht Sonntag in the category Governance - No comment

February 21, 2016

Brexit questions and Euro2016 scenarios

So we’re set for 23 June. England’s Eurosceptics now have for months to pick apart what David Cameron claims was a successful re-negotiation of Britain’s special status within the European Union.

Getting over with it as quickly as possible is probably the best bet. No one wanted an entire year of aggressive campaigning bound to become hateful over time.

The vote will take place right in the middle of Euro2016. Which raises, of course, various questions of timing: is it wise to schedule a referendum of this importance at a moment when the attention of a large part of the public will be diverted to the state of Rooney’s knee? Does it make sense to mix the expected outpour of identity discourse with the surge of football nationalism that comes with every big international tournament?

Martyn Turner's cartoon for the Irish Times after England lost its quarter final to Portugal (on penalties!) on 24 June.

English history would say it’s rather risky for the man in office. On 18 June 1970 Prime Minister Harold Wilson lost the general elections against all odds. The only possible explanation for this surprise defeat was the surprise defeat of the English team at the World Cup that had occurred only four days earlier, in a quarter final that was played under the scorching Mexico mid-day sun in order to allow Europeans to watch it in early evening. As the reigning world champions, England had been favourites against West Germany, but lost 2-3 in a dramatic extra time dénouement after having led 2-0. Could it be that Thursday’s voters were Sunday’s depressed football fans?

Now that UEFA has in its wisdom blown up the European Championship to 24 participants it is not very likely that English voters will already be in a depressed mood after the first round. Chances are England will have sailed through their three matches against Russia, Slovakia and … Wales (the latter reminding us that the UK is represented at Euro2016 by three different nations, with Northern Ireland playing Ukraine, Germany and Poland, while the Scottish Europhiles are watching from home, having been eliminated by the very same Germans and Poles).

But even if England is in buoyant mood during the Euro, would that mean that nationalist fervour around what is likely to be the youngest team in the tournament would reinforce the ‘Leavers’? Or would the joyful noise from the continent make everybody on the island feel more ‘European’ at the moment of the vote?

And, to look at things the other way round, what would be the impact of a clear British ‘Leave’ vote on the remainder of the tournament? Would England’s quarter final be overshadowed by an emergency summit in Brussels?

The favourite scenario of all Europhobic Englanders would be the Danish one. In 1992 Denmark voted a resounding ‘NO’ against the Maastricht Treaty on 2 June, before winning, only three weeks later, a European Championship they had not even qualified for in the first place.

But, who knows, perhaps the Eurosceptics are heading for their worst-case scenario: the UK chooses to remain in the EU and the Three Lions play a smashing tournament from beginning to end, meeting France in the final in Saint-Denis, winning the Euro in a breath-taking penalty shootout and, just like in Wembley on 17 November, singing the Marseillaise again together with their rivals. The ultimate nightmare!

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

January 12, 2016

Oh well, Michel!

A guest contribution by Rainer Kalb on the fall of Michel Platini.

Michel Platini 1984 and 2016.

So you finally threw in the towel. You don’t want to become FIFA president any more. You say it’s no longer possible because of the ‘time frame’. In legal terms, this is perfectly correct. But time cannot really be ‘framed’, it’s fluid, isn’t? No one knows this better than football functionaries among whom you’re still very youthful at age 60. After all, Blatter only became a thing of the past at age 79.

As a young boy in Lorraine you were always looking forward to watching the Bundesliga highlights on the Sportschau. Today you must feel a lot of bitterness towards Germany. The Germans robbed you of the World Cup twice:  in 1982 Harald Schumacher brutally eliminated your friend Patrick Battiston in the World Cup semi-final in Sevilla; and four years later, again in the semi-final, a certain Wolfgang Rolff, today simple assistant coach in Hanover, took you out, just like he did in the European Cup final of 1983, when Hamburg won against Juventus thanks to Felix Magath’s goal.

And today – if your appeal does not miraculously reinstate you – it’s a German judge who thwarted all your ambitions by law. And now that Sepp Blatter has neutralized your friend and ally Wolfgang Niersbach, you lost your last support in Germany.

I presume you feel like good old Heinrich Heine, who sighed from his Parisian exile in 1844, ‘When I think of Germany in the night, I am deprived of my sleep!’

You’re going down with Blatter now – but how stupid must one be to fall into a trap Blatter did not even set? You told me once you were earning more money at UEFA in a month than in your entire first year as professional footballer in Saint-Etienne. But why then did you have to take the two million Swiss francs? Why the greed? You don’t even have the time to spend that money with all your obligations and travels!

For me, you will remain, along with Pelé, Beckenbauer and Cruyff, one of the best footballers ever. I will always remember how at Euro1984 you scored 9 goals in 5 matches as a midfielder. No one will ever come close to this. Certainly not Blatter. Like you recently said, he only ‘adorned himself’ with you, but would never let you ‘cast a longer shadow than he did’.

As a faithful companion of yours since 1981, I sincerely hope you will be allowed to watch at least one match at the French Euro this year. You already expressed, in one of your quips nobody understands but everybody appreciates, how strongly you feel about this: ‘If needs be’, you said, ‘I can always drive the car of Jacques Lambert’, the head of the organising committee with whom you already staged France 98.

But being a driver may no longer be the social group you belong to. And not all the drivers get to see the matches. When the terrorists blew themselves up in Saint-Denis on 13 November, the only victim around the Stade de France was a chauffeur, waiting for his clients because he did not have a ticket himself.

Rainer Kalb’s previous contribution can be found here.

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

December 15, 2015

Unsubscribe!

Football is a financial bubble. It has always been. Since the beginnings of professionalism, players’ wages have been perceived as shockingly high and club management as shockingly irresponsible. Over the last twenty years, the inflation of the amounts of money injected into European football has accelerated exponentially. And each time you’d expect the bubble to finally explode, it happily continues to swell.

For the summer of 2016, one may anticipate new summits of obscenity. Thanks to the new contract between the Premier League and its broadcasters, the financial means made available to the most mediocre of English clubs will inevitable provoke grotesque transfer fees across the continent.

In an ideal world these additional millions would be reinvested in the training of home-grown talent, in infrastructures for grassroots football, in the reduction of stadium ticket prices, or even – let’s dream a little – in socially relevant projects funded on a genuine strategy of corporate citizenship…

Alas! There will be none of this (except some alibi gestures). The history of football teaches us that each new level reached in terms of revenues is immediately fed back into players’ salaries. Agents of second-lever players will see their income increase substantially. The dealers of luxury sports cars in Stoke and Norwich will be delighted to manage the influx of twenty-year old footballers who don’t know what to do with their money. And if you happen to be the owner of a sextape involving a French international you’ll be in a position to significantly increase your gains from blackmail.

If only this game was not as telegenic! After all, it is television that is at the origin of this never-ending inflation. Football and television are like the junkie and his dealer (although it is no longer clear who is the junkie and who is the dealer).

Very frankly: don’t you feel sometimes like bursting the bubble? Simply for the pleasure of saying ‘Stop!’ to an inflation that has become absurd? If you do, unsubscribe. Just do it. It’s feasible. I pay no subscription, and I have no detoxification syndrome whatsoever. If you miss a new marvel of Lionel Messi, some friend from Turkey or elsewhere will send you the Youtube link the next day. Or you let your office colleagues describe it to you at the coffee machine – your blissful ignorance will even create social bonds! Call me a condescending snob, member of a disconnected cultural élite, but I am just no longer willing to participate in greasing the wheels of this money-printing machine.

Unsubscribe! Do it for the sake of the clubs! These clubs that always find a way to imagine themselves under such an unbearable competitive pressure that they quickly need a fix of some more dozens of millions. They will curse you for it at the beginning, but they will be grateful in the long run.

Over the last two years I have finished each talk I had the opportunity to lead with an actor of European professional football by asking him or her whether they did not see their own business as a bubble ready to burst. And they all, without exception, confirmed to me how absurd and insane the bubble was, almost begging for someone to explode it for them.

Take the burden off their shoulders – unsubscribe!

Read the French original in Le Monde.

Post by Albrecht Sonntag in the category Governance - No comment

December 10, 2015

What would Mr Thackeray say?

‘Vanity Fair, where you light on the strangest contrasts laughable and tearful:
where you may be gentle and pathetic, or savage and cynical with perfect propriety…’

Vanity Fair, Chapter XVII

In the middle of the 19th century, William Makepeace Thackeray published a long serialised novel in the satirical magazine Punch, which he named Vanity Fair. He borrowed his title from John Bunyan’s allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), where ‘Vanity Fair’ is one of the stations on the journey of redemption towards the ‘Celestial City’. It may be assumed that W.M. Thackeray chose this title because it not only allowed him to resume his vision of the human condition in a snappy expression but at the same time positioned himself as a detached and sarcastic observer of the human species, made up by individuals frantically running around in their absurd search for self-esteem and pride.

What would he say today on watching an event like the European football championship? Would he see, like in his famous novel, a ‘vain, wicked, foolish place, full of all sorts of humbugs and falsenesses and pretensions’ or would he be inclined to show more leniency in his judgement? Would he point out, with the biting irony that characterised his writing, the excessive proportions of this mega-event ? Would he see nothing but a big bustling fair of stereotypes upheld against better knowledge, a carnival of emotions shamelessly unleashed in public, a festival of the permanently noisy display of imaginary loyalties?

Or would he detect, behind the Babylonian confusion, the joyful celebration of an extraordinary game and the simple pleasure of the masses to find themselves, for once, united by shared passion?

William Makepeace Thackeray never knew modern football. He died at age fifty-two, in December 1863 in London, exactly at the same moment where, at the other end of town, the eleven representatives of pioneering football clubs and schools were about to come to an agreement on the rules of this new game which they had set out to codify a few weeks earlier. If he had attended one of their meetings at the Freemasons’ Tavern in Covent Garden, could he only have imagined what kind of ‘vanity fair’ this new sport would produce one and a half centuries later?

It is perfectly possible, though, that the Victorian novelist, had he been miraculously ‘beamed’ to the Poland of 2012, would not have felt out of place. After all, he certainly was, together with the London society of his times and his famous colleagues Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë or Lewis Carroll, an arduous visitor of the Great Exhibition of 1851, the first ever ‘World Fair’. A genuine mega-event avant la lettre, hosted in the spectacular ‘Crystal Palace’ which received his nickname from the satirical plumes of Punch, where Thackeray had just published his novel. One may therefore assume that the great writer would readily engage in dressing parallels between the ‘Great Exhibition’ of 1851 and the great European football exhibition of 2012. Both can be perceived as great opportunities for the host nations to showcase their achievements and indulge in a good dose of self-celebration – a ‘Vanity Fair’ in the crudest sense of the word. He would no doubt be impressed by the number of travellers converging on the host cities from all over the continent. True, he might be intrigued by the fact that the centre of interest of this huge fair was only a ball game, and a rather simple one at that. But then again, would it not only be logical that the industrial machines and inventions of the 19th century were finally replaced as the object of worship by something even more trivial or ‘vain’? As a matter of fact, it would only strengthen his point about the inherent stupidity of mankind, a vision that left him, in his own words, ‘more melancholy than mirthful’.

It is striking to see to what extent the great literary works of the 19th and early 20th century may provide us with keys for the understanding of contemporary society. If these novels and their characters still have something to say about the society we are living in, it is not only because their authors had outstanding skills of psychological empathy with their protagonists, but also because the psycho-social programming of the human mind, its desires, fears and aspirations, do not seem to have changed that much since the days of Thackeray. Large social groups still have the same hunger for collective pride, which is still mainly satisfied through the identification with nation-states. They still have the same need for the ‘social self-love’ that Emile Durkheim considered inseparable from the very existence of nation-states; they still have the same urge to claim their community’s singularity that Isaiah Berlin identified as one of the most irrepressible drives of modern history.

Our new book on The European Football Championship brings together seven different accounts of visitors to the ‘Vanity Fair of European Football’ that took place in Poland and Ukraine in summer 2012. What they have in common despite their different national origins and their respective focus of interest is the impression of witnessing a period of transition and uncertainty. A period in which feelings of belonging are still framed by the stronghold of national identity, but where loyalties and identifications, but also dominant ideologies, are permanently negotiated and even publicly debated. A moment in time where representations of self and other are increasingly fluid, but where ‘blind spots’ stubbornly persist. A phase in which collective stereotypes, self-perceptions and ‘vanities’ are considerably weakened by large-scale phenomena like migration, cultural globalisation and supranational integration.

The ‘Vanity Fair of European Football’ thus reveals itself as an ideal laboratory for the social scientist, where individuals and groups converge to redefine themselves and interact with each other, where, as Thackeray said, ‘the strangest contrasts laughable and tearful’ are laid out before the eyes of the researcher. It is certainly a place that William Makepeace Thackeray would have very much appreciated visiting. Behind his sarcastic description of the manifold weaknesses and follies of the human species that he examined like a biologist examines insects under his magnifying glass, Thackeray had a great compassion for their vain pursuits. With such interest for detail, capacity for empathy, and sense of humour, he would most certainly have made an excellent football anthropologist.

More on the book here.

An interview with the co-editors here.

Post by Albrecht Sonntag in the category Competitions, Identities, Public Sphere - No comment

November 18, 2015

The many lives of a song

On Saturday, 11 July 1998, I was sitting with my wife in one of the small cafés around the picturesque old port of Honfleur in Normandy, enjoying an afternoon coffee in the sunshine. A young father passed by, pushing the pram with his baby, lost in his thoughts, and quietly humming … la Marseillaise !

We had a large grin on our face. Only two weeks before, this would have been unimaginable. The young gentleman wasn’t probably even realising he was repeating in his head the national anthem one day before the much-awaited final against Brazil in Saint-Denis.

Within one magical week, the national anthem, this hoplelessly outdated 200-year-old ‘war song’, had become the irresistible hit of the summer, like the ‘Macarena’ or the ‘Lambada’ some years earlier.

A few days before I had attended the semi-final against Croatia in the Stade de France and had already been surprised to see people whom I had I known as rather laid-back, almost ‘blasé’, post-national citizens of the new Europe, howl bellicose rhymes about ‘impure blood watering the furrows of our soil’ as if their life depended on it.

One has to admit that the Marseillaise (which paradoxically was written in Strasbourg and got its name from the Parisians) is a musical master-piece. Easy to sing along despite a rather complex melody. The refrain ‘aux armes, citoyens!’ can be shouted at the top of one’s lungs without any risk of sounding false, and the opening line has a kind of eternal Mozartian beauty which even seduced the Beatles.

But that does not change the fact that it’s a war song, with war lyrics. And any kind of glorification of war, even if understandable in its historical context, was felt to be strangely out-of-date with the spirit of the 1970s and 80s. In these years the Marseillaise was cheekily parodied or seriously criticised rather than staunchly defended. Serge Gainsbourg released an ironic reggae version, the singer-songwriter Renaud declared that even in reggae-style it ‘made him want to vomit’, and the brilliant satirist Pierre Desproges regularly used the song’s old-fashioned lyrics for his absurd prose. Michel Platini famously said that over his entire active career, he had never sung the Marseillaise, because ‘this war anthem has nothing to do with the game’. And during the interviews I carried out for my PhD thesis several respondents referred to the Marseillaise as ‘barbaric’ or ‘ridiculous’.

In 1998, however, the Marseillaise was re-appropriated by the French. It was the times of rehabilitation of national symbols. The French were  in need of reassurance, destabilised by globalisation, and at the same time determined not to leave these symbols to the extreme right. Since then, the Marseillaise has become mainstream. At solemn occasions, people even sing it with their hand on their heart, a gesture which to my knowledge has no tradition in France and must have been copied from the Americans. One of the funniest performances ever was the improvised one by the French team two years ago after their stunning 3-0 victory against Ukraine that qualified them for the World Cup.

Some months later, in Brazil, when France played Honduras, the loudspeakers failed and the match was kicked off without the national anthems. Everybody had a laugh. But when I wrote a column in Le Monde the next day, just asking, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, whether we really needed these pre-match anthems, I touched a sensitive chord, at least according to the readers who tracked me down on my personal mailbox in order to let me know what a depraved, élitist cosmopolitan I was.

In its long, tumultuous history, the good old Marseillaise has had many different lives. It was written as a marching song for an army of ‘citoyens’ willing to defend their newly-won freedom in the 1790s; a century later it was a solemn reminder of revanchist duties during the third Republic; it became a slightly grotesque reminder of by-gone times of nationalism in the 1970s; and it was rediscovered as a convenient rallying cry of folklore patriotism at football occasions. Over the centuries, its old-fashioned lyrics had become ever more abstract. Who would have thought that the lines about ‘tyranny’s blood-stained banner’ or ‘those ferocious soldiers who cut the throats of your sons and women’ would come back to haunt the French in such a concrete, literal manner?

Yesterday evening, in Wembley, without any doubt the best possible place on this planet to play a football match after what happened last Friday, the Marseillaise started yet another life, as a transnational anthem for liberty, deploying all its evocative power. An overload of emotion. But a very important foto for the European family album! It will be difficult to hear the Marseillaise at future occasions without thinking of this moment. But perhaps, if we are very lucky, some young father, next June, will hum it innocently while pushing his tram. The day before the France-England final, in Saint-Denis.

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

November 17, 2015

So futile, so necessary

Football means nothing. It is a fantastic game, and its symbolic complexity allows individuals and groups (and researchers!) to project a lot of things onto it, but it does not carry any deep meaning as such. As Borja Garcia never tires of pointing out, football makes people happy precisely because it’s a futile thing and a provider of profoundly social events. Just like rock music in a Paris theatre, or other forms of trivial entertainment.

Wembley, Paris.

Which is exactly why  ideological fanatics hate it so much. The other reason why the Stade de France was a target for the terrorists on Friday night is the fact that football brings together such a large number of people in a relatively small place. Shared moments of futile amusement is probably what makes a city ‘the capital of abomination and perversion’, as the terrorists described Paris.

Which is exactly why it makes sense to play the England-France in Wembley tonight, even though nobody really feels like playing. The match will be a cathartic moment for a very large number of people after three days of shock and silence. It will allow the spectators to somehow publicly manifest their solidarity as representatives of a free Europe and simply as friends. Over the last three days, so many individuals have helplessly repeated in front of cameras and microphones that the only thing to do now was “carry on with our lives”. The Wembley match is a symbolic, large-scale confirmation of this attitude.

And the players, these spoilt brats of the entertainment industry, who would of course all have liked to go home to their families and digest this night in the catacombs of the Saint-Denis arena, have intuitively understood that they have an eminently social role to take. Neither the French players nor their German counterparts, who will play an entirely meaningless match against the Netherlands, seem to have hesitated.

Both England vs. France and Germany vs. Netherlands are among the fiercest rivalries of football history. Normally, a lot of prestige is at stake. Tonight, no one will think about rivalry and prestige, and the term ‘friendly’ will all of a sudden make sense. Just a shared moment of football, so futile, so necessary.

Post by Albrecht Sonntag in the category Posts - No comment

November 16, 2015

Can we still believe in (football) miracles?

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Trevor Francis, Bryan Clough and John Robertson, by Hans van Dijk / Anefo [CC BY-SA 3.0 nl

Let’s play a game. Do you know which team is currently in the 13th place of your country’s football second division? We are talking here of Queens Park Rangers in England, Laval in France, Alcorcón in Spain, Arminia Bielefeld in Germany, or 1461 Trabzon in Turkey. What future do you think that such a club will have in the next few  years? Imagine, for a moment, that this clubs fires the manager and decides to employ a young coach that was sacked by his previous employer only after 42 days in charge. Would it be possible for QPR, Laval or Arminia Bielefeld to earn promotion to the top tear, win the league, two League Cups, qualify for Europe and win two back-to-back UEFA Champions Leagues?

Not a single chance! Is, quite probably, your answer? And you are quite surely right. However, there was a time in which this was possible. In fact, there was a time in which this indeed happened. It was in the late 1970s, the club was Nottingham Forest and the young manager a striker turned coach from Middlesbrough by the name of Brian Clough, aptly assisted by his lieutenant Peter Taylor.

I write these lines after watching, for the second time, I Believe in Miracles, the recently released documentary by Welsh director Jonny Owen. In the movie, Owen looks back at the extraordinary achievements of Nottingham Forest during Clough’s peak years. Clough arrived to Forest in February 1975, with the team lingering in the bottom half of English football’s second tear. In the space of five years the reds from Nottingham went on to win a league and two European Cups. They also set a record for consecutive unbeaten matches in the top division – 42 matches – only surpassed by Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal a quarter of a century after. Forest and Clough did all this, moreover, whilst maintaining five players of the original 1975 second division squad (Viv Anderson, Martin O’Neill, Ian Bowyer, Tony Woodcock and John Robertson). Using Clough’s own words, I would not say this is the best football achievement in history, but it surely is in the top one.

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Post by Borja García in the category Governance, History, Memory - 1 comment

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