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Within one magical week, the national anthem, this hoplelessly outdated 200-year-old ‘war song’, had become the irresistible hit of the summer, like the ‘Macarena’ or the ‘Lambada’ some years earlier.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 And any kind of glorification of war, even if understandable in its historical context, was felt to be strangely out-of-date with the spirit of the 1970s and 80s.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?


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

November 1, 2015

Sound assumptions, false conclusions

It is only recently that the excellent German intellectual weekly newspaper DIE ZEIT – whose outstanding quality was recently (and rightly) praised by our friend Simon Kuper – introduced a football page. Yet another proof of the game’s increasing socio-cultural and political impact. The page still has to find a stable quality: the interviews are generally very good, but I am afraid not every article is a highlight – sometimes it’s simply well-formulated trivialities, sometimes the texts are simply beside the point. But once in a while it provides tasty food for thought.

The picture from the 1930 World Cup final that illustrated the article in DIE ZEIT.

The recent article ‘After the earthquake’ (DIE ZEIT No. 42/2015, from 15 October), by journalist Cathrin Gilbert and Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, the renowned literature theorist and philosopher from Stanford University, is a good example for the latter case.

With regard to the current FIFA scandal(s), they go beyond condemning the obvious in an attempt to design a fundamentally new approach to global football governance. According to them the perspective must change completely: rather than overloading football with a symbolic meaning it does not inherently possess, but which opens the door to all kinds of political and economic manipulation of the game and its governance bodies, they call for a new ‘sobriety’.

What is needed, according to Gilbert and Gumbrecht, is a professional management of football by ‘cold specialists’, who unlike the ‘hot amateurs’ who run the game in the national and international federations – all the Platinis, Beckenbauers, Blatters or Niersbachs – are not flawed or hampered in their decision-making by their own ‘emotional investment’.

The author’s basic assumption that ‘football does not have any higher, intrinsic values’ is sound. But the conclusions they draw from it are wrong.

Firstly, their claim that the components of football tradition (old clubs, legendary stands, etc.) are ‘only a souvenir of football history, but no longer a central phenomenon’, i.e. simply ‘elements of nostalgia that enhance the attractiveness of the event in the stadium’, is misleading. Just because something is more imagined than real does not mean it is not of utmost importance to those who believe in it.

Secondly, the alternative they describe – taking inspiration on the American model of professional sport, complete with closed leagues, franchises, salary caps, draft and occasional updates of the rules – would turn out, as much as Professor Gumbrecht admires its efficiency, to be very counter-productive when applied to European football – especially for ‘cold specialists’ who aim at maximising its entertainment impact and business potential.

Thirdly, the authors’ declaration that national teams have become obsolete seems simply runs against evidence. They describe the World Cup as a ‘grotesque exception to the kind of football that has conquered the world’ and ask the rhetorical question whether ‘the double-coding of football’ – in club competitions and national teams – is still necessary.

My answer is very simple: ‘Yes, it is. Maybe not necessary, but very efficient. ’ We’ve had this discussion in the 1990s, but the popular response to the French World Cup and the following ones have clearly shown that there is not only room for two footballs, but that they actually need each other (1).

We are living the age of two footballs and it happens to be an age of unprecedented popular and economic success for both club football and national teams. In the wake of the paradigm shifts of the 1990s, they have undergone a ‘mutually beneficial divorce’, which has helped them to adapt remarkably smoothly to the dialectics of cultural globalisation between enjoyment of postnational, multicultural creolisation and the longing for nostalgic, cultural singularity (2).

Epitomised in the English Premier League and the UEFA Champions League, postmodern club football stands for unlimited mobility and multiculturalism, while at the opposite end of the football spectrum the national teams represent strong roots and a kind of imaginary, untainted, not-for-profit cultural ‘purity’. Their perceived antagonism has not only stabilised, but actually reinforced their appeal (and their revenues). Football’s global community of fans wants both. They are, as I put it at the WCSF conference in Copenhagen last May, at the same time ‘smart consumers and hopeless romantics’ (3).

All of us are, to various degrees. It’s the human condition in the times we have been put in. And football is a lovely looking glass for observing ourselves.

(1) See my chapter ‘France 98 – a Watershed World Cup’ in: Kay Schiller and Stefan Rinke (eds), The FIFA World Cup 1930 – 2010. Politics, Commerce, Spectacle and Identities. Göttingen: Wallstein-Verlag, 2014, pp. 318-336.

(2) See the final chapter of my book Les identités du football européen, Presses universitaires de Grenoble, 2008, or my article in Les Cahiers du Journalisme No. 19, 2009.

(3) ‘Smart consumers and hopeless romantics’ is also the title of my forthcoming contribution to the conference proceedings.

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

October 4, 2015

The Winterkorn’s Tale

A guest contribution by Rainer Kalb on the links between Volkswagen and the Bundesliga.

Martin Winterkorn.

What’s in a name? Saint Martin, who had marched a long way from Hungary via Italy to France, still did less kilometers in his life than an average Volkswagen Diesel. When he died in November 397 A.D., his body was not carried by a diesel transporter either, but in a bark on the river Loire to Tours, where he was buried.

Saint Martin is most famous for having cut his cloak in two in order to share it with a beggar. Question: will Martin Winterkorn, who earned 16 million Euro per year, share anything with anybody? He was supposed to sign a new two-year contract as Volkwagen chairman, bringing in an even richer harvest. But then winter broke out in Wolfsburg, and his golden indian summer was over. Still he insists on generous payments after having had to resign over the emissions cheating scandal.

What does this mean for VfL Wolfsburg? Despite the optimism of director Klaus Allofs who believes that his football business will continue as usual under the new Volkswagen boss named Müller – albeit unfortunately not Gerd or Thomas – nothing will be the same as before.

In what world does Allofs think he lives? When a huge industrial company has to pay fines of billions of Euros, when eleven million cars must be recalled and fixed, when sales are likely to collapse and massive compensations to be paid, when suppliers will be suffering and people will lose their jobs, VfL Wolfsburg, the costly toy of Volkswagen, will have to give away more than half a cloak in order to preserve a reason for being. Even in the Champions League half of the fans turn their back on them. Aspiring young professionals in Niedersachsen may be well advise to head for good old poor Braunschweig in second division rather than Wolfsburg.

The VfL will become an excellent point in case for the 50+1 rule, staunchly defended by the DFB and the League, which guarantees the majority of voting rights to club members rather than investors. Wolfsburg will illustrate just how quickly a corporate-owned club can be drawn into  downward spiral.

But the Wolfsburg earthquake will even be felt in Munich. Not only because Audi, Volkswagen’s accomplice in cheating, holds almost ten per cent of FC Bayern, but because Martin Winterkorn holds a comfy chair in the record champion’s supervisory board. Can anybody let me know how a guy who presumably knew nothing about what happened at Volkswagen, may be in a position to ‘supervise’ what’s going on at Bayern?

Karl Hopfner, the honorable Bayern president, observed that Martin Winterkorn sits on the board as a private person and not as a representative of VW and/or Audi. But that’s fairly thin ice he’s walking on. Bayern may be able to support Rummenigge the luxury watch smuggler and Hoeness the tax dodger, but should it support someone who is at least morally responsible for eleven million frauds? As a trustworthy private person?I beg to differ.

Rainer Kalb’s previous contribution can be found here.

Post by Albrecht Sonntag in the category Governance - No comment

September 11, 2015

A kick-off to a particular kind of Europeanisation

Over the last twenty years ‘Europeanisation’ has become a key concept in European Studies, almost a research field of its own. The current meaning of the term must have been introduced around 1994 in a seminal JCMS article by Robert Ladrech (possible that there are some earlier occurrences that I am unaware of). Prior to this rather recent semantic shift, ‘Europeanisation’, both in its English and French version, was a term used mainly in the 19th century, in contexts of cultural hegemony. The Oxford English Dictionary of 1989, for instance, defines it at ‘to make European in appearance, form, habit, or mode of life’ and cites some literary quotes concerning the ‘Europeanisation’ of India, Egypt or Japan.

I was therefore quite surprised to bump into it in a newspaper article dated 5 September 1955. The text in question is the report on the first football match of a pan-European club competition, known then as ‘The European Champions Clubs Cup’ and today as ‘The Champions League’. At the end of his match analysis in L’Equipe, the French sports daily who was behind the whole idea of this competition, Gabriel Hanot expressed his fear that ‘national competitions might be sacrificed to the Europeanisation of football’.

Sporting 1955Funny enough, the ‘Europeanisation of football’ has now become a serious object of study. And the fear that the Champions League might one day eclipse all other competitions and become a closed league of ‘super-clubs’ is still regularly voiced today. In 1955, the match between Sporting Portugal and Partizan Belgrade (final score: 3-3) was of interest to insiders only. Major media did not care at all. In comparison, the space devoted last week across all media in France, Germany, Britain or Spain, to an event as secondary as the simple draw for the first round group stage gives testimony to the degree this Europeanisation of the football horizon has reached.

One aspect of the match in question deserves to be mentioned in particular: the fact that in its very first official game the European Cup was able to cross Cold War borders and bring together a team from the Western edge of the Continent with one from behind the Iron Curtain. Salazar’s Portugal and Tito’s Yugoslavia did not even have diplomatic relations, which complicated the travelling (the Partizan players had to insert a stop-over in Paris) but by no means prevented the match from taking place. For the Cup’s organisers, it went without saying that Central and Eastern Europe needed to be present in this new competition, and besides Partizan, teams from Budapest and Warsaw also competed (Dynamo Moscow had declined the invitation, apparently for meteorological reasons).

Today we’re in a miniature Cold War again, with Russia and the EU imposing sanctions on each other. France will have to reimburse around a billion Euros to Russia for not delivering the two Mistral war ships it had already built on command of the Russian marine. But that will not keep Paris Saint-Germain from travelling to Donezk (of all places) this autumn to play their Champions League game against Chaktior, while Olympique Lyon will play Zenith Saint Petersburg.

But as in 1955, football somehow manages to ignore the political circumstances. It pursues its own Europeanisation agenda, kicked off in Lisbon exactly sixty years ago.

Post-scriptum 1: Re-writing history by omission?

I was of course not the only one to recall this landmark event last week, when I wrote a column in Le Monde. Quite a few blogs in various countries posted something on this ground-breaking match. UEFA also published an in-depth article on its own website.  And guess what? They managed somehow not to mention L’Equipe. Am I alone in thinking a short reference to those without whom the match would not even have taken place would have been appropriate?

Post-scriptum 2: Anecdotal coincidences

How fitting that almost to the day sixty years after this historic kick-off, the FREE project presented its last panel at the annual UACES conference, where its first outlines were defined in September 2008 in a pub in Edinburgh (note that the local flagship club, Hibernians, was one of the sixteen participants of the first European Cup in 1955, making it to the semi-final where they were eliminated by French champions Stade de Reims). In 2015 the loop-closing FREE panel took place in Bilbao, a stone’s throw away from San Mames, the stadium of the local  Athletic FC. In other words: the only place across all Europe where the Bosman Ruling had no effect whatsoever :-)

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

August 23, 2015

Magic, not religion

A guest contribution by Katarzyna Herd, PhD candidate in ethnology at the Department of Arts and Cultural Sciences of Lund University.

In the autumn of 2012, when studying Applied Cultural Analysis at Lund University, I was accepted as an intern at Malmö FF. Shortly afterwards I saw my first match live, and that left me with many questions. Simply, I could not make sense of the intense emotional involvement, of the loud singing and flares, of about 16,000 people adorned in white-blue scarves who would voluntarily spend their evening in cold rain screaming abuse at referees and players, and leave frustrated and upset only to return a week later to shout, hop, and suffer more mental torture.

Magic made in Malmö.

As the internship drew to an end, I found myself confused but also addicted to this strange scene. Thus, my MA thesis called Dream Factory: Magic and Myth-Making in Football turned out to be an attempt to understand what football as a socially constructed space is, and what role it has in its local environment. The fieldwork was collected during eight months that I spent in Malmö FF, using ethnographic methods like interviews, go-alongs, observations and focus groups. The material included in the thesis shows how creative, flexible and rich this environment is.

Theoretically, the analysis is based on magic and myth-making. I used the concept of magic as presented by Marcel Mauss in his book The General Theory of Magic (1972). Mauss places magic between religion and technology. He distinguishes magic from religion in that its rites serve technical objectives, unlike religion which carries the notion of the sacred. Magic employs gods and demons, but these are treated as tools, not sacred beings to be worshipped. Magic is also context-based as a magical rite cannot happen just anywhere. That is why some of the behaviour that would be unacceptable in other circumstances appears during matches, as for example aggression, but also men hugging and singing become parts of the rite.

It is clear to me that football, contrary to the common cliché that compares it to a religion, relates to magic. Rather than worship, all different groups involved in football co-create their different rites while performing them. They use each other as means to achieve their objectives. Being ‘magicians’, those involved believe in their powers and they all try to claim ownership over their creations. It is common enough to hear supporters say that they are the club, not the fast-changing players or the management. The reference to magic may also explain how a collective phenomenon can assume individual forms as football offers a plethora of possibilities to get engaged on a personal level.

The local football club supplies its spectators with a possibility to create stories and histories. The relative vulnerability of the football club opens up possibilities for creative struggles and interpretations, and invites spectators to use all possible forms to express themselves, show their views and make the emotional side of football visible.

The depth of football’s history and context makes it into a perfect battleground for myth-making. No matter whether the focus of the different groups involved lies on football skills, financial benefits, making of banners, local patriotism or violence, all are able to tear a bit of the club for themselves and add their own interpretation of what football really means. As the French sociologist Henry Lefebvre wrote, every society needs a space where one can perform an act of rejuvenation, crown a king, and sacrifice a deity. On a match day, at a stadium, you can have that all.

Feel FREE to download the complete master thesis
under .

Post by Albrecht Sonntag in the category Identities - No comment

August 21, 2015

Play with pride

Casey Stoney playing for Arsenal.

It seems as if there is no week in which a British elite athlete comes out as an openly LGBT+ person. The last one, Rugby League star Keegan Hirst, who confessed to have been on the verge of suicide after having to live his homosexuality in secret, being even married with two kids. Before him, England’s football captain Casey Stoney or Olympic diver Tom Dailey also grabbed headlines with their respective coming out stories. The stories of Hirst, Stoney and Daley have all three elements in common. First, the three athletes are top performers in their respective sports, with Daley being even a World Champion and an Olympic medallist. Second, the public reaction to their coming out has been extremely supportive and positive, from the media, the fans and, if reports are to be believed, also team mates, coaches and officials. Third, after each one of these, there is one recurring question: Will we ever see a top male footballer coming out in England? Not for the moment, it seems, but perhaps the first steps are being taken to make this easier.

The FREE project research has reminded us of how masculine and hetero-normative top professional football in Europe is. However, in our research we have also found positive stories of inclusion and fight against homophobia in the game. In this post I would like to focus on the efforts of fan groups in England to make football a safer environment for both players and fellow supporters. For example, in our Loughborough conference we listened to a paper that presented the (mostly positive) experiences of a Norwich City transgender supporter.

I recently attended the football supporters’ congress, organised in Manchester by Supporters Direct and the Football Supporters Federation. It was a positive surprise to find out that one of the workshops of the congress was focused on the development of a community of LGBT+ fan groups. Under the generic name of Pride in Football, LGBT+ fan groups of different clubs in the professional game are coming together to build a support structure that could ensure an inclusive football experience in the stands. Their objective is to work together to ensure that as many clubs as possible in the English leagues have an LGBT+ fan group if the supporters want to stablish one. This is still a small organisation, but it has grown from only three clubs to twelve fan groups, which is encouraging for it seems as if supporters are also feeling free to ‘come out’ in the stands. What is more important, English football stakeholders are supporting the development of Pride in Football. For example, the Premier League has recently provided some funding for a ‘strategy day’, where LGBT+ fan groups came together, in Birmingham, to discuss their next steps.

These are all small steps, but having an inclusive atmosphere in the stands can only be positive for football in general and, hopefully, this will lead to players feeling safe to come out when they are still at the peak of their professional careers. There needs to come a day in which, like Hirst, Stoney or Daley, any top male football player can play with pride, and for this to happen the role of the supporters should not be underestimated.

Post by Borja García in the category Posts - No comment

August 4, 2015

Historical landmarks

One of the first posts of this blog dealt with clever screenwriting in television drama. In the brilliant Danish series Borgen the Prime minister used a landmark in the country’s football memory – the Euro 1992 surprise win against Germany – as a kind of emotional reminder of national solidarity.

But most of time, football memory actually serves as historical landmark, smartly used by screenwriters to help their audience link the story to the epoch and setting in which it is supposed to take place.

Paul Gascoigne on his way to his most famous goal (15 June 1996).

Football memory turns out to be an instant reminder of an era. For those old enough, it is a link to their personal biography: many will easily recall where exactly they were when Gazza scored his incredible goal against Scotland or when Gareth Southgate two weeks later missed his penalty.

Three examples from recent TV fiction:

The first third of the rather ambitious television drama From There to Here is set in June 1996, a period in which according to director Peter Bowker, ‘football came home’ and there ‘was a confidence in British culture as Cool Britannia was in full swing and Blur and Oasis did battle in the charts’. To no surprise, both the Gascoigne stroke of genius and the Southgate tragedy are used as anchors to conjure up the spirit of the times.

The popular crime fiction Endeavour – a kind of prequel to the legendary Inspector Morse series of the 1990s is set in the Oxford of the 1960s. Season 2 takes place in 1966, and in one of episodes the World Cup is of course on every television screen, and the story is organised along the successive matches of the English team.

Nandor Hidegkuti scores the final goal for Hungary (25 Nov. 1953)

And in the rather unpretentious detective series Grantchester, set in the vicinity of Cambridge in the early 50s, another football landmark is used in the dialogue between two of the protagonists. When the (presumably working class) police inspector informs the (presumably rather high-brow) vicar that he is in bad mood because ‘England lost 6-3 last night – we got beaten 6-3 by a team from nowhere, at a sport we invented!’, it is clear that the legendary Hungarian victory in Wembley on 25 November 1953. The fact that the rest of the episode clearly takes place in late spring does not really matter, does it? Why use the coronation of Elizabeth II (which took place in June), when you can create the atmosphere of the period so much better with a football result?

Football events as convenient anchors in time. Not really surprising in a country like England, where football is engrained in popular life and collective memory. And where there will always be at least one among the screenwriters to make the link between an epoch and a football event for himself. In a national culture like France, where football plays a much less important role and screenwriters may have different educational backgrounds, this is less the case.

Take for instance the excellent mini-series Disparue, a fiction in eight episodes inspired by the Spanish TV hit Desparecida and comparable in quality to the Danish series The Killing. The entire story takes place, very explicitly, between 21 June and mid-July 2014, and not a single person in the city of Lyon only once mentions the World Cup, neither in the restaurant run by two of the protagonists nor in other public or professional environments. My own memory of these weeks would rather suggest a lot of talk on 21 June about the surprisingly brilliant performance of the French team against Switzerland, or at least one reference to the totally exaggerated media hype preceding the quarter final against Germany on 4 July.

Of course you don’t need football as historical anchor for a story supposed to take place in the present. A reference to the World Cup would, however, have certainly added plausibility. French screenwriters – take note!

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

July 5, 2015

How to produce new Catalans

It is not every day that a researcher has the opportunity to be the eye-witness of a nation in the making. Sunday evening 7 June 2015, at the intersection between Avinguda de Sarria and Avinguda Josep Taradellas in the centre of Barcelona, was such a moment. Bumping into a joyful crowd that was waiting for the victory parade of their Champions League heroes in an open-deck bus, we had over two hours to improvise an in-depth session of participant observation. From the reports in the following day’s newspapers, it appears that our ‘field work sample population’ was perfectly representative of the entire city, which for the occasion metamorphosed into a very, very long ‘Fanmeile’.

As is usual nowadays on such Fanmeilen, the patiently waiting crowd was entertained with music from loudspeakers placed at regular intervals along the itinerary of the bus. Next to the DJ, a nice lady was handing out Barça flags to those (a minority) who were not already equipped with garment or objects in the club’s colours, while an equally nice security man was scratching his head somewhat anxiously given the impressive number of persons sitting and standing in the middle of the street.

The crowd had several distinctive features: it was fully trans-generational, encompassing every single age group of the city; it had a striking gender parity within each of these age groups; and it was very visibly ethnically inclusive, with a rather significant percentage of individuals from various migrant origins.

Every now and then the DJ played ‘El Cant del Barça’, the official anthem of FC Barcelona, the lyrics of which are not really on a higher level of poetic sophistication than what can be heard in other stadia, but which seems to be mandatory learning content in primary education, judging from the degree of familiarity shown by the schoolchildren.

The latter were easy to observe since the youngest among them had been placed on the garbage container in order to give them a good view on the bus (as shown by my little photo gallery). They were, of course, excited, and while not all of them were necessarily understanding what exactly was being celebrated, they were certainly all intuitively getting the point that this was an exceptional moment, a kind of cheerful, but solemn ritual allowing individual persons to publicly show their belonging and obedience to a larger social group.

In other words: this was socialisation at work. Right before our eyes, kids from various backgrounds were being turned into little Catalans. For life, probably. The composition of the public, the sheer size of the crowd, and the Catalan flags hanging from every second balcony clearly gave evidence to the fact that the clichéd Barça motto ‘Més que un club’ is not an usurpation. As a matter of fact, this is not a club at all. It’s a national team.

This impression is confirmed when you walk into the Barça museum, where you have to go past a poster that enumerates ‘Catalan Identity. Universality. Social Commitment. Democracy’ as the pillars of the Barça identity.  It sounds like a political platform.

The evening reminded me of two very good book chapters on FC Barcelona. The first one figures in Simon Kuper’s wonderful Football against the Enemy, written in the mid-1990s, at a moment when ‘every day shop signs in Spanish went down and were replaced by Catalan signs’. For Simon Kuper, Catalan nationalism was all about symbolic recognition, not concrete political independance: ‘The Catalans do not want a state of their own, but they want something vaguer than that, symbols to prove they are a separate people’, and Barça is ‘the symbol that this nation needs in lieu of a state’. Certainly not a wrong perception twenty years ago, but it would be difficult to write the same thing today, as it would no longer sound reasonable to qualify Barça as an ‘under-performing’ club.

Ten years later, Franklin Foer also dedicated a chapter to Barça nationalism in How Soccer Explains the World. For him Catalan nationalism is already much more tangible, but it appears to him as an open and inclusive nationalism, like the liberating idea introduced by the French Revolution before it was perverted (mainly by the German romantics) into what then become no doubt the most powerful ideology of the 19th and 20th century.

Foer’s enthusiastic vision of Catalan nationalism is not naive, but it is shortsighted: proto-nationalism that is based on an existing and practiced language and on strong cultural self-awareness, and that may at the same time credibly claim to have undergone a long period of oppression, almost naturally appears as a sympathetic cause. It’s when independence has been reached and a newly existing state is charged with protecting borders, redistributing resources, and defending so-called national interests when things have a tendency to turn nasty.

Producing new Catalans with the help of cultural symbols is not too complicated. Especially if you can use the powerful emotions that football is capable of providing. But maintaining openness, inclusiveness and ethnic diversity in a future independent state will be the real test. A slightly more demanding one than a Champions League final.

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

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