November 19, 2014
Football, like education or the corporate world, is a revealing and often contradictory field for the academic study of diversity. The tensions between ethnic communities, cultural norms and linguistic practices were on the agenda of a recent French-German ‘Junior Colloquium’ organised on 6 November 2014 by Jean-Christophe Meyer and Pierre Weiss at the University of Strasbourg, with the support of the CIERA (the Paris-based Interdisciplinary Centre for Studies and Research on Germany).
Given my receding hairline I was invited as ‘senior scholar’ and expected to provide critical and constructive feedback to the PhD candidates who presented their work. And given the quality of the presentations and interest of the research projects, I was very pleased to do so.
An illustration used in one of the presentations struck me particularly. Only a few days after Willy Sagnol’s awkward statements about the different skills of African and ‘Nordic’ players in his team had confirmed that even a former top-class footballer and successful coach who is clearly beyond suspicion when it comes to allegations of racism is prisoner to a rhetoric of racist stereotypes, the paper showed how an entire (and altogether sympathetic) club like Borussia Dortmund markets its children’s fan club in a manner that deserves at least the adjective ‘ethnocentric’.
As a matter of fact, when promoting membership in the ‘BVB KidsClub’, Borussia addresses only white and blond children. And since four of the five enthusiastic fans portrayed in the advert to the right are girls, it would be difficult to believe that the photo is simply the result of carelessness: it rather suggests that the marketing department has identified a clearly defined target group.
Without indulging into bad jokes about the club’s name – after all, ‘Borussia’ is nothing but a latinised version of ‘Prussia’ – or its colours – perhaps all fans need to dye their hair in yellow now? – this marketing strategy leaves a very bad aftertaste.
There is something profoundly weird about it: the Ruhrgebiet is one of the most multiethnic regions in Germany, and the BVB has regularly brought home-grown talent of different origins to international level. Surely the youth teams of the club don’t apply the same recruitment practices as the KidsClub! And there are few other practices that have been as instrumental as football in making German society understand its multicultural character. The ‘United Colours of Germany’, as France Football renamed the national team in 2010, has earned a lot of sympathy as a much more realistic representation of a multi-ethnic society than its predecessors.
The fact that the KidsClubs seems light years away from reality reminded me of a video clip that was used around 1997 or 1998 in the German bid for hosting the 2006 World Cup. The clip, which showed Franz Beckenbauer playing with a handful of ten-year-olds, gave testimony to the producers’ careful effort to include several ‘visible minorities’ among the children. I remember that given the German citizenship law at the time I showed the document to a group of international students calling it ‘hypocritical’, since none of the kids in the video would actually have the chance to play for Germany in 2010 or 2014, when they would be in their mid-twenties.
Though I was right at the time, football history has now told me that things can change. So much for the good news. The bad news is that, as Sagnol’s discourse and Borussia’s marketing remind us, it is easier to change the laws than to modify deeply engrained patterns of thought.