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February 21, 2015

Unintended consequences of a mega-deal

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post by Albrecht Sonntag in the category Governance - No comment

February 10, 2015

Naming, re-naming and de-naming

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

The old Volksparkstadion on a rare sunny day.

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

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

The Volksparkstadion between 2001 and 2015.

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

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

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

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January 24, 2015

Soft power, hard pressure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post by Albrecht Sonntag in the category Posts - No comment

January 9, 2015

The freedom to hate football

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Albrecht Sonntag.

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

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December 20, 2014

A simple truce

Promotion by Mercart Tours, Edinburgh.

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

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

The new Ploegsteert Christmas Truce memorial.

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

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

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

Langemark cemetary in Flanders.

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

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

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

December 14, 2014

Four days that changed Europe

Monday 13 December 1954 : An Anglo-Hungarian summit

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

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

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

Tuesday 14 December 1954: A case of English hubris

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

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

Wednesday 15 December 1954: An innovative French idea

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

Thursday 16 December 1954: A European gamble

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

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

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

December 2014: The remains of those days

Gabriel Hanot (1889-1968)

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

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

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

December 2, 2014

Elegant prose for the wider public

Lunch with Klaus Zeyringer yesterday in a nice little Angers restaurant. Klaus is a well-known, prolific literary critic and author of numerous books among which a major history of Austrian literature since 1650. And a recent cultural history of football, for which he just won the second prize for the best football book of the year awarded by the German Academy for Football Culture (the first prize going to a photographic volume on the football of the 1970s that rang a nostalgic bell with the jury).

Does the world need yet another cultural history of football? I had doubts, but after reading Zeyringer’s elegant prose with real pleasure I can come forward with three good arguments in favour of writing and reading such a book.

First, the natural, by no means artificial, manner in which the links between football history and literary history in various national backgrounds are drawn. Klaus Zeyringer is helped here by his linguistic competences, intercultural sensitivity and impressive erudition, and – as I learnt over lunch – by the knowledge of his wife, a scholarly expert on Latin American cultural history at the University of Munich.

Second, the courage to tell the story of football in a non-chronological order, with sudden flashbacks and well-chosen illustrative anecdotes, jumping from the past to the present tense, and not even according to a very strict thematic order. It gives the 430 pages a remarkable fluidity, avoiding (not entirely, but almost) redundancies and awkward transitions.

Third, the fact that the book quotes www.free-project.eu among its references. Could there be a better proof for up-to-date research that underpins this literary undertaking?

Of course, the scholar in me had, despite the esthetic pleasure of the reading experience, a kind of after-taste. The problem is not that there are some omissions and that some national contexts are treated with particular  emphasis. The cultural history of football is so rich and complex and global that you will never do it justice in one volume. Even the particularly dense and detailed history by our friend Paul Dietschy received some criticism for having ‘neglected’ specific names and places.

No, the problem lies in the fact that this is a book that is the fruit of intensive research, carried out by a renowned academic, concluded by a list of relevant academic references that gives evidence to the seriousness of the endeavour, and published in the ‘Wissenschaft’ series of a reputed publishing house. It’s not just an essay on football. But in order to facilitate the reading, it does not quote its inspirations properly. Sometimes the name of an author pops up here and there, but there are also passages that are clearly inspired by the works cited in the bibliography and that don’t carry any reference to a source or author. Is it only me? Have I developed a fixation on academic referencing or become a kind of fundamentalist of scholarly dogma?

Be it as it may, the publishing house has opted for a ‘grey zone’ that smells like an unsatisfactory compromise. What I must admit, though, is that the book is clearly not written for fellow academics. Its objective, as it appears to me, is to reach out to a cultivated public that has come to understand that football is definitely an important form of popular culture with surprising links to what is traditionally considered ‘high’ culture, a public that is only waiting for the key to open the doors to a better understanding of this fascinating socio-cultural phenomenon. There is no doubt that Klaus Zeyringer provides more than a handful of such keys, and he does so in a prose that is not only elegant and refined, but also refreshingly accessible.

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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

Post by Albrecht Sonntag in the category Posts - No comment

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