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Archive the month of December 2014

December 20, 2014

A simple truce

Promotion by Mercart Tours, Edinburgh.

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

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

The new Ploegsteert Christmas Truce memorial.

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

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

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

Langemark cemetary in Flanders.

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

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

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

December 14, 2014

Four days that changed Europe

Monday 13 December 1954 : An Anglo-Hungarian summit

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

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

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

Tuesday 14 December 1954: A case of English hubris

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

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

Wednesday 15 December 1954: An innovative French idea

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

Thursday 16 December 1954: A European gamble

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

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

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

December 2014: The remains of those days

Gabriel Hanot (1889-1968)

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

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

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

December 2, 2014

Elegant prose for the wider public

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post by : Albrecht Sonntag in the category : Posts - No comment