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May 14th, 2014

One thousand shots in the top corner. A tribute to Didier Braun

Sao Paolo, 19 November 1969: Pelé scores a penalty for Santos against Vasco da Gama. His one thousandth goal. The match is stopped, the bells are ringing. If one believes the list enclosed in his autobiography, it could actually have been goal No. 1002. Who cares? Celebration was easier with a penalty anyway.

Mendoza, 11 June 1978: Rob Rensenbrink scores the 1000th goal of the World Cup history (a penalty, the first goal of 2-3 defeat against Scotland).

Saint-Denis, 12 July 1998: Emmanuel Petit chose the World Cup final to score the thousandth goal of the French national team, the third goal against Brazil.

Middlesbrough, 29 October 2005: Cristiano Ronaldo scores a worthless header for Manchester United in injury time, concluding 1-4 defeat – and at the same time scoring the 1000th goal for United in the English top league.

Belfast, 6 September 2006: Xavi Hernandez opens the score with the 1000th goal of the Spanish national team in a Euro qualifier against Northern Ireland (who eventually won 3-2 thanks to a hattrick by David Healy!).

All these goals were obviously followed by others. Football never stops and, to quote once again Sepp Herberger, ‘after the match is before the match’.

'Curtain'. The 1000th and last 'Lucarne'.

When Didier Braun, however, published his 1000th and last ‘Lucarne’ (‘Top corner’) in L’Equipe some months ago, he made it very clear that it would be his last one. This came as bad news to all those who had grown addicted to this little journalistic jewel hidden somewhere on the football pages of the great sports daily. Didier’s ‘top corner’ shot was not only the article one read first, it was also the one you loved to go over a second time. And enjoyed reading it aloud to your wife in the evening. Due to the fact that its author slavishly respected the self-imposed limit of 1,000 characters (and only very exceptionally granted himself an extra of max. 5%), each single word had to be chosen with care and tested on its absolute necessity.

‘La lucarne’ – this is generally where Michel Platini’s free kicks finished. Didier’s short texts were very similar: based on great technical skills, skillfully curled around the wall of triviality, and before you know it, it’s another unstoppable punchline.

There are always plenty of tears in the stadium when a legend of the club plays his last game before retirement. But who celebrates the retirement of those who make reading about football such a pleasure? Let this blogpost be a tribute to one of the best of his profession.

Didier has not always been at L’Equipe. After a short ‘transfer’ to a short-lived competitor in the 1980s he worked for several years for the French Football Federation in the national training centre of Clairefontaine. Which made him a football journalist who not only had earned a master’s degree in history, but had also accumulated technical expertise on the highest level. Which allowed him turn, after have joined L’Equipe again, to draft detailed analyses of playing systems, technical and tactical innovation, variations and interpretations. After having read his explanations, one had the impression of having gained a better understanding.

Outside L'Equipe in Boulogne-Billancourt.

After the 2006 World Cup he was not very keen anymore ‘to hang around in stadium aisles and spend my time waiting for a handful of quotes’ and returned to the office as editor. The project of the daily 1,000-character colum came up in 2008. The idea was to seize a fresh piece of current football news, but to cast a different look at it from a critical, often amused distance, and to relativise the ‘buzz’ by putting things into historical perspective. The first ‘Lucarne’ was published on 12 August 2008. Its title was ‘ephemeral’, which was what it was expected to be. But finally, as Didier wrote 999 columns later, football, ‘which is at the same time game, spectacle, industry, mirror of its epoch, is so rich with facts, gestures, passions, peculiarities, entertaining variations, that is provides the chronicler with a multitude of topics, allowing him finally to reach a thousand texts without much pain’.

Both in the ‘Lucarnes’ and his blog on ‘Another history of football‘, he often managed to point out, very much tongue-in-cheek, that all these football scandals, public indignations, money  issues, extraordinary performances and evidences of decline, are nothing but an ‘eternal repetitition’. Nothing new under the floodlights! He always never got tired of reminding his readers that, however much they may be tempted by nostalgia, it was no use regretting the ‘golden age’ of football, simply because there never was one.

Next season, we will have to cope with his absence. Not easy. And for himself? Well, the doors of L’Equipe’s archives, this unbelievable treasure trove of the history of sport, will always remain open to him. And there are still so many black-and-white photos of players and games and goals that only an encyclopedic football memory will be able to identify and date. Good to know there’s one around!

Posté par : Albrecht Sonntag in the category : Posts - No comment

March 10th, 2014

Words of Wisdom

Sepp Herberger, the father of the famous ‘miracle of Bern‘, was not only known for his remarkable tactical cleverness, but also for his aphorisms. Used at the time mainly to shut up critical journalists, some of them have entered the German dictionary as legendary words of wisdom. When the intellectual weekly Die Zeit published a list of the most famous quotes of the 20th century, it included Herberger’s ‘The ball is round’, usually understood as something close to ‘anything can happen any time’, and often cited together with ‘The match lasts 90 minutes’, which pretty much fits all occasions. Two other wonderful stock quotes are ‘After the match is before the match’ and ‘The next opponent is always the most hardest’, perfectly applicable to professional life, or life in general for that matter.

My personal favourite, however, remains his answer to the ultimate question of what makes so many people watch so many football matches: ‘Because they don’t know the outcome’ (‘weil sie nicht wissen, wie’s ausgeht’). It is true that hardly any other sport matches the capacity of football to respond to the ‘quest for excitement’ identified by Norbert Elias. Statistical research has shown that no other team game tends to create and maintain as much ‘instability’ in the evolution of scores as football; a fact that was once attributed by Gérard Ernault to its inherent fluidity, ‘which equalises chances between players and teams more than static and more repetitive sports’.

‘Because they don’t know the outcome’ - well, come to think of it, nowadays they do, don’t they? This week’s Champions League round of 16 return leg should pit up the best teams of Europe, the ones that made it through long and tough qualification stages to the knock-out phase. A certain density of performance levels should normally be expected. In reality, however, I am not going to watch any of the return matches, simply for lack of ‘excitement’. Six of the eight outstanding matches are devoid of any suspense, and the two matches with a minimum of uncertainty are played by teams that one might suspect of not being able to go beyond the quarter-final stage anyway.

More than ever the Champions League seems to be controlled by literally one handful of clubs. No need really to stage a total of almost 30 evenings a year if the competition starts to be interesting only from the semi-finals onward. And given the distribution schemes of the revenues generated by the event, the same handful will be even richer next year, widening further the already frightening gap to the others. At the same time, in a large number of major European championships, the winner 2014 can be reasonably predicted as early as in March (the English Premier League being the only one to maintain a suspense configuration of four potential champions). And the winner will invariably come from the small pool of usual suspects.

I am certainly not the first to raise such concerns. For several years now, the tendency described above has been deplored by many observers. For the time being, the decrease of suspense has not yet been sanctioned by a significant decline of public interest. Perhaps because the marketing machines of the Champions League and the major national leagues is rather efficient. But it may well be that the spring of 2014 will be remembered as a tipping-point.

One way or another, allowing such a concentration of market power is risky business. Even liberal market capitalism, with all its laissez-faire principles, has introduced safeguards against monopoly building and abuse of dominant positions. Football, for which fair competition is essential, does not really seem to see the necessity. Both UEFA and national leagues would be well advised to reconsider solidarity principles when it comes to formulating financial redistribution or perequation schemes. They would to well to remember Herberger’s words of wisdom. Once people will realise that they actually do know the outcome, that the ball is no longer round, and that the match is over long before the ninety minutes have been played, the game will no longer be the same.

Posté par : Albrecht Sonntag in the category : Posts - No comment