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Archive the month of November 2015

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Within one magical week, the national anthem, this hoplelessly outdated 200-year-old ‘war song’, had become the irresistible hit of the summer, like the ‘Macarena’ or the ‘Lambada’ some years earlier.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 And any kind of glorification of war, even if understandable in its historical context, was felt to be strangely out-of-date with the spirit of the 1970s and 80s.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

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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.

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