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November 18, 2016

Genuine social engagement or cheap hypocrisy?

My football book of the year is, I’m afraid, written in German. It’s the result of three years of field research carried out by Ronny Blaschke, a freelance journalist, independent in the best sense of the word. Its original title ‘Gesellschaftsspielchen’ (don’t even try to pronounce this) may be literally translated by ‘small board games’ but probably best rendered by something like ‘Playing the social game’. The book, released by the well-known publisher Die Werkstatt (Göttingen), is a journey through the social engagement of professional football and the multiple forms it can take.

Through a large number of encounters and field reports the book opens a large and, for the German case, rather exhaustive perspective on the vast variety of initiatives aiming – sometimes without knowing it – at implementing the principles of corporate social responsibility (CSR). Very often this happens in close collaboration with actors of civil society or with public institutions like municipalities, schools, hospitals or prisons.

Actions in favour of social inclusion or vocational integration, health and nutrition, urban development or even political education (such as increasing historical awareness or fighting against discrimination, for instance) – the sheer array of initiatives is more than impressive.

Except that…

Except that all this looks like an uncoordinated patchwork.

Except that the expenditures are not at all commensurate with the income.

Except that you can’t help but wonder whether all this is based on a genuine recognition of social responsibility or rather designed as a fig-leaf.

Philanthropic sprinkling, that’s what it is in its current state and scope. Efforts are no doubt sincere, but not based on a global concept or holistic strategy. And somewhat meagre: in Germany, the total proportion of voluntary CSR action by football clubs represents 0.61% of the overall turnover of professional football (€ 2.62 bn in 2015, one billion of which went into players’ and coaches’ salaries only). In England, to which the book’s last chapter is dedicated, the proportion is hardly any higher: what is a total of € 78 million of CSR-related expenses in the largest sense (as communicated for the 2015/16 season, p. 269) compared to the 20 million that Manchester United presumably had to pay to Paul Pogba’s agent (who credibly claims he is no longer even ‘driven by money’)?

Ronny Blaschke

The best thing about the book is its tone. Ronny Blaschke does not take the part of the prosecutor accusing the ‘greedy football business’ (as the French love to do). The approach he adopts towards his over eighty very different interlocutors and the organisations they represent is marked by an attitude of critical empathy that allows him to dig deeper without prejudice or bias. He thus manages to bring to light the schizophrenia (or cognitive dissonance, if you prefer) of professional football clubs, who are increasingly aware of the social and environmental responsibility as large SMEs moving millions around, while at the same time being almost relieved to see themselves as prisoners of the ‘market mechanisms of global football’ that offer such a cosy excuse, even for intelligent and open-minded people like Reinhard Rauball, president of Borussia Dortmund and the DFL (p. 165), who at the same time recognises that there is a problem if ‘one fourth of TV rights revenues now go directly to players’ agents’.

Blaschke’s approach also reveals the sheer negligence of the media, so much occupied with staging and selling the spectacle that they become indifferent to its social stakes and impact.

The patient and meticulous field work on which this book is based – and which could serve as inspiration to some ‘football intellectuals’, if you grant me this aside – does not result in high-standing moral lecturing. Quite the contrary: Blaschke limits himself to asking the right questions. For instance, whether it is not too easy to ‘outsource’ social engagement into foundations (often understaffed and underfunded) rather than put CSR into the very heart of the corporate structures, in form of transversal departments that irrigate the entire strategic management. He also wonders whether it would be really so complicated for the leagues to impose on their clubs a minimum CSR investment threshold of one tiny little per cent of their annual turnover. In one of the interviews, Dietmar Hopp, the SAP founder-billionaire who has made his childhood club Hoffenheim into a premium address of German football, actually suggests ‘3% as appropriate’, before recognising right away that this would ‘ provoke an outcry’, p. 125). You can almost see this philanthropist (who has actually put much more money into cancer research and health infrastructure than into football) shrug his shoulders at the mentality of corporate football.

In quite a few countries football is a booming business. Its actors tend to forget that it is a profit-oriented sector whose very success is entirely dependent on a non-economic social need that was initially addressed by civil society associations (called ‘clubs’). Today these clubs have become full-fledged corporate organisations and it’s time they understand that their level of social responsibility has changed. Those who are in charge of these corporate players should take the time to read Ronny Blaschke’s excellent book. Maybe they would share my premonition that the football of the future would be well advised to give back to society a fair share of its totally disproportionate revenues. For professional football, embracing social and environmental sustainability will simply be a question of saving its soul.

This post was also published in French as column for Le Monde.

Post by Albrecht Sonntag in the category Football Politics, Governance, Public Sphere - No comment

October 24, 2016

A club like all the others

It is only fifteen years ago that German historians started to study the role of sport in the dark years of Nazism. For over half a century both federations and clubs have been somewhat reluctant to open their archives to the researchers. Instead they preferred to refer to the more than elusive narratives that could be found in the occasional commemorative publication.

Since the beginning of the century, however, historical research has shed some new light on the behaviour of sport organisations between 1933 and 1945. Some of the work was of excellent quality, like our friend Nils Havemann’s standard Football under the Swastika (2005) or the very good case study on Schalke 04 (six times champions under the Nazi regime) Between Blue and White, there’s Grey by Stefan Goch and Norbert Silberbach (2005).

Not all of the publications, however, applied the same academic rigour, and some of them appeared to be biased by ideological premises. And as might be expected in a milieu where the attachment to a club is founded on emotions and dearly held collective beliefs, the historiography of German football has also engendered a number of myths and legends.

It is hardly surprising that one of these myths concerns FC Bayern Munich, today the world’s largest sports club in terms of membership (with 277 000 adherents), but in the 1930s a club among others with a thousand members. Legend has it that Bayern, contrary to their local arch-rival TSV Munich of 1860, had shown a kind of passive resistance to the regime of the Third Reich. Roughly speaking, they were said to have been dragging their feet when the Nazis imposed their totalitarian “Gleichschaltung” process on all spheres of society.

The story of a club which tried to do everything to protect its Jewish members, among whom its emblematic president Kurt Landauer, has been popularised over recent years not so much by the club itself, but by books and films that pretended to be well-documented and based on serious research.

It turns out that the historical truth is somewhat less glorious. As a matter of fact, Bayern have been no better and no worse than the vast majority of sport organisations during this period. Like most other clubs, Bayern were quick to “clean” their ranks from Jewish members, efficiently and rigorously, as early as spring 1933. And like most other clubs, they even went beyond the expectations of the new regime, which was not even too eager to displease international public opinion during the preparation of the 1936 Olympics.

The details can be found in a recent volume edited by Markwart Herzog, director of the Schwabenakademie Irsee and a good friend of the FREE Project. The book on “The Gleichschaltung of Football in Nazi Germany” (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2016) contains a chapter by Herzog on the “aryanisation” of FC Bayern Munich, for which he consulted, among other sources, the archives in the Munich Registration Court, where clubs and civil society associations deposit their statutes and all subsequent modifications. These files provide ample and irrefutable evidence for the fact that Bayern was a club like every other, whose directors were eager to please the new regime, some of them by ideological conviction, some simply scared to death by the prospect of being prohibited from playing.

Markwart Herzog had a good laugh when he studied these documents that had all those years been publicly available but neglected by those historians who had taken the role of “hagiographers” of Bayern Munich.

Markwart Herzog

Needless to say that in the small community of German football historians his book chapter (featured in an article in Der Spiegel) caused a good deal of commotion. And as could be expected, he was entitled to a little shit storm on the social networks.

And how does the great FC Bayern Munich position itself in this matter? Very smartly, they have made no comment whatsoever. In prudent modesty (quite unlike their habitual communication style) the club itself had never actively put forward its allegedly “heroic” attitude during the dictatorship. As a result, it is now under no justification pressure and in a position where it can let the historians (the good ones) do their work.

This blogpost is the English version
of an original column for Le Monde.

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

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

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