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December 6, 2016

Goodbye, Sepp!

A guest contribution by Rainer Kalb.

That’s all, folks! The next time we hear about Mr Joseph S. Blatter, it will be its obituaries. As the CAS confirmed yesterday, there will be, unlike what happened to Michel Platini, no reduction of his suspension. Even among football functionaries, a six-year ban for an over 80-year old means a life sentence.

What did Mr Blatter achieve? He changed the rules of world football when as a paid employee of FIFA he challenged in 1998 the Swedish volunteer Lennart Johansson. The then DFB president Egidius Braun fumed with indignation: ‘Never a salaried employee shall run against a honorary official!’ But so he did, and he steadfastly remained silent about the exact amount of the ‘indemnities’ he perceived for the honorary position as FIFA president once it was his.

Difficult to believe he would know nothing at all about the bribes and kickbacks during his numerous terms in office. All the more so as they had started during his time a general secretary under president Havelange. And what kind of president would Blatter have been if had not known what happened within his harmonious ‘football family’? Perhaps he should have renamed his function from ‘FIFA President’ to ‘FIFA Godfather’, in order to better describe the relationship he had with many.

And yet, it must be recognized that Blatter actually did do some things ‘for the good of the game’. Not so much for its administration and governance, but for the game itself. His greatest achievement was perhaps to force the adoption of the rule according to which a player is no longer offside ‘if level-with the second-to-last defender’, as well as the (admittedly delicate) definition of ‘passive offside’. Both measures were in favour of attacking football and good for the game’s attractiveness.

Along the same line, and also introduced under his leadership as general secretary, was the ‘back-pass rule’ and the simple but efficient instruction to home teams to provide dozens of extra balls in order to prevent the temptation to gain several precious minutes of time by kicking the ball into the stands.

Oh, he was a smart guy, our Joseph S. Blatter, who had the perfectly redundant middle name ‘Sepp’ – which is nothing but a nickname for Joseph anyway – officially registered, because he had always like the ‘F.’ of President Kennedy and perceived it as a key differentiator for really important people. But when he started to find himself for more powerful than the Pope – quite logically, as there were ‘more footballers on the planet than Catholics’ – some of us started to have whether our Swiss friend was not somewhat disconnected from reality. Or struck by acute megalomania.

I can testify that at the time when Blatter was still general secretary and loved to play the Master of Ceremony at drawings for international tournaments of qualifiers, he was jovial, entertaining, often funny. When he had become president, these same qualities metamorphosed into lying, cheating, and hypocrisy. The life sentence is a good thing. It’s never too late to bring someone back to reason.

Post by : Albrecht Sonntag in the category : Football Politics, Governance - No Comment

November 18, 2016

Genuine social engagement or cheap hypocrisy?

My football book of the year is, I’m afraid, written in German. It’s the result of three years of field research carried out by Ronny Blaschke, a freelance journalist, independent in the best sense of the word. Its original title ‘Gesellschaftsspielchen’ (don’t even try to pronounce this) may be literally translated by ‘small board games’ but probably best rendered by something like ‘Playing the social game’. The book, released by the well-known publisher Die Werkstatt (Göttingen), is a journey through the social engagement of professional football and the multiple forms it can take.

Through a large number of encounters and field reports the book opens a large and, for the German case, rather exhaustive perspective on the vast variety of initiatives aiming – sometimes without knowing it – at implementing the principles of corporate social responsibility (CSR). Very often this happens in close collaboration with actors of civil society or with public institutions like municipalities, schools, hospitals or prisons.

Actions in favour of social inclusion or vocational integration, health and nutrition, urban development or even political education (such as increasing historical awareness or fighting against discrimination, for instance) – the sheer array of initiatives is more than impressive.

Except that…

Except that all this looks like an uncoordinated patchwork.

Except that the expenditures are not at all commensurate with the income.

Except that you can’t help but wonder whether all this is based on a genuine recognition of social responsibility or rather designed as a fig-leaf.

Philanthropic sprinkling, that’s what it is in its current state and scope. Efforts are no doubt sincere, but not based on a global concept or holistic strategy. And somewhat meagre: in Germany, the total proportion of voluntary CSR action by football clubs represents 0.61% of the overall turnover of professional football (€ 2.62 bn in 2015, one billion of which went into players’ and coaches’ salaries only). In England, to which the book’s last chapter is dedicated, the proportion is hardly any higher: what is a total of € 78 million of CSR-related expenses in the largest sense (as communicated for the 2015/16 season, p. 269) compared to the 20 million that Manchester United presumably had to pay to Paul Pogba’s agent (who credibly claims he is no longer even ‘driven by money’)?

Ronny Blaschke

The best thing about the book is its tone. Ronny Blaschke does not take the part of the prosecutor accusing the ‘greedy football business’ (as the French love to do). The approach he adopts towards his over eighty very different interlocutors and the organisations they represent is marked by an attitude of critical empathy that allows him to dig deeper without prejudice or bias. He thus manages to bring to light the schizophrenia (or cognitive dissonance, if you prefer) of professional football clubs, who are increasingly aware of the social and environmental responsibility as large SMEs moving millions around, while at the same time being almost relieved to see themselves as prisoners of the ‘market mechanisms of global football’ that offer such a cosy excuse, even for intelligent and open-minded people like Reinhard Rauball, president of Borussia Dortmund and the DFL (p. 165), who at the same time recognises that there is a problem if ‘one fourth of TV rights revenues now go directly to players’ agents’.

Blaschke’s approach also reveals the sheer negligence of the media, so much occupied with staging and selling the spectacle that they become indifferent to its social stakes and impact.

The patient and meticulous field work on which this book is based – and which could serve as inspiration to some ‘football intellectuals’, if you grant me this aside – does not result in high-standing moral lecturing. Quite the contrary: Blaschke limits himself to asking the right questions. For instance, whether it is not too easy to ‘outsource’ social engagement into foundations (often understaffed and underfunded) rather than put CSR into the very heart of the corporate structures, in form of transversal departments that irrigate the entire strategic management. He also wonders whether it would be really so complicated for the leagues to impose on their clubs a minimum CSR investment threshold of one tiny little per cent of their annual turnover. In one of the interviews, Dietmar Hopp, the SAP founder-billionaire who has made his childhood club Hoffenheim into a premium address of German football, actually suggests ‘3% as appropriate’, before recognising right away that this would ‘ provoke an outcry’, p. 125). You can almost see this philanthropist (who has actually put much more money into cancer research and health infrastructure than into football) shrug his shoulders at the mentality of corporate football.

In quite a few countries football is a booming business. Its actors tend to forget that it is a profit-oriented sector whose very success is entirely dependent on a non-economic social need that was initially addressed by civil society associations (called ‘clubs’). Today these clubs have become full-fledged corporate organisations and it’s time they understand that their level of social responsibility has changed. Those who are in charge of these corporate players should take the time to read Ronny Blaschke’s excellent book. Maybe they would share my premonition that the football of the future would be well advised to give back to society a fair share of its totally disproportionate revenues. For professional football, embracing social and environmental sustainability will simply be a question of saving its soul.

This post was also published in French as column for Le Monde.

Post by : Albrecht Sonntag in the category : Football Politics, Governance, Public Sphere - No Comment

January 12, 2016

Oh well, Michel!

A guest contribution by Rainer Kalb on the fall of Michel Platini.

Michel Platini 1984 and 2016.

So you finally threw in the towel. You don’t want to become FIFA president any more. You say it’s no longer possible because of the ‘time frame’. In legal terms, this is perfectly correct. But time cannot really be ‘framed’, it’s fluid, isn’t? No one knows this better than football functionaries among whom you’re still very youthful at age 60. After all, Blatter only became a thing of the past at age 79.

As a young boy in Lorraine you were always looking forward to watching the Bundesliga highlights on the Sportschau. Today you must feel a lot of bitterness towards Germany. The Germans robbed you of the World Cup twice:  in 1982 Harald Schumacher brutally eliminated your friend Patrick Battiston in the World Cup semi-final in Sevilla; and four years later, again in the semi-final, a certain Wolfgang Rolff, today simple assistant coach in Hanover, took you out, just like he did in the European Cup final of 1983, when Hamburg won against Juventus thanks to Felix Magath’s goal.

And today – if your appeal does not miraculously reinstate you – it’s a German judge who thwarted all your ambitions by law. And now that Sepp Blatter has neutralized your friend and ally Wolfgang Niersbach, you lost your last support in Germany.

I presume you feel like good old Heinrich Heine, who sighed from his Parisian exile in 1844, ‘When I think of Germany in the night, I am deprived of my sleep!’

You’re going down with Blatter now – but how stupid must one be to fall into a trap Blatter did not even set? You told me once you were earning more money at UEFA in a month than in your entire first year as professional footballer in Saint-Etienne. But why then did you have to take the two million Swiss francs? Why the greed? You don’t even have the time to spend that money with all your obligations and travels!

For me, you will remain, along with Pelé, Beckenbauer and Cruyff, one of the best footballers ever. I will always remember how at Euro1984 you scored 9 goals in 5 matches as a midfielder. No one will ever come close to this. Certainly not Blatter. Like you recently said, he only ‘adorned himself’ with you, but would never let you ‘cast a longer shadow than he did’.

As a faithful companion of yours since 1981, I sincerely hope you will be allowed to watch at least one match at the French Euro this year. You already expressed, in one of your quips nobody understands but everybody appreciates, how strongly you feel about this: ‘If needs be’, you said, ‘I can always drive the car of Jacques Lambert’, the head of the organising committee with whom you already staged France 98.

But being a driver may no longer be the social group you belong to. And not all the drivers get to see the matches. When the terrorists blew themselves up in Saint-Denis on 13 November, the only victim around the Stade de France was a chauffeur, waiting for his clients because he did not have a ticket himself.

Rainer Kalb’s previous contribution can be found here.

Post by : Albrecht Sonntag in the category : Football Politics - 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

June 2, 2015

The European Hot Air Ballon

Guest contribution No. 3 by Rainer Kalb.

Following Sepp Blatter’s re-election as FIFA President the UEFA Executive Committee will meet in Berlin (probably on Friday) for a crisis meeting. The only topic on the agenda: how do we get out of our self-inflicted mess?

It is hard to believe that they will find a miracle solution. The whole drama began when Michel Platini grandiosely declared he was the only European able to beat Blatter, only to withdraw cowardly from the battle shortly afterwards. In the end the ‘powerful’ Europeans presented an Oriental prince instead. Difficult to be more pathetic…

It was of course clear that Russia, as host of the 2018 World Cup, would not vote against Blatter. But that France itself would stab Platini in the back was hardly believable. The rationale behind the French vote for Blatter? Well, it seems the FIFA boss had been instrumental in attributing the Women’s World Cup 2019 to France for the first time. Good to know. And who had been instrumental in attributing the Euro2016 to what was formerly known as ‘Grande Nation’? Difficult to be more hypocritical…

The eternal Sepp is rubbing his hands. He even managed to split German football in two. According to Blatter the ‘Kaiser’ himself told him he had ‘folded up’ DFB President Wolfgang Niersbach for having voted against Blatter. While Beckenbauer and Niersbach confirm the conversation, they contradict the ‘folding up’ of one by the other. Difficult to be more ridiculous…

After their embarrassing performance Platini and Niersbach will have to respond to the question how on earth they envisage cleaning up the FIFA stable. Platini already announced that all options would be on the table. Niersbach represents the world’s most powerful federation. But the only one to have a backbone is David Gill from England, who demonstratively stayed away from the first FIFA ExCo meeting following Blatter’s re-election.

Unfortunately his courageous stance will not hurt FIFA much. The English already ignored FIFA’s foundation in 1904, joined one year later, left again between 1920 and 1924 in order to protest against the re-acceptance of Germany, and boycotted it during World War II until 1946. Let’s face it: FIFA wouldn’t even falter if all European members of the Executive Committee went on strike.

A World Cup boycott and a Euro every two years with an invitation to Argentina and Brazil, as proposed by some, would only make sense if all 54 UEFA members agreed to participate. If this, however, results in, say, Argentina as European Champion and Russia as World Champion, it would look somewhat strange.

And what about the economic partners? If broadcasters like RTL in Germany withdrew from broadcasting the World Cup qualifiers, Adidas put an end to their equipment contract, and VISA dropped out as sponsor, what would happen? Easy to guess: you can already hear the Champagne corks pop in Nike’s headquarter, another (public?) television channel would eagerly step in, and VISA might remember that FIFA already shrugged their shoulders when they had to pay MasterCard a 100-million Euro indemnity for breach of contract and engagement with a direct competitor…

Thanks to European club football, the Champions League, and its economic power, UEFA clearly is the most important continental confederation within FIFA. It should be a proud fortress. Instead it looks these days like a hot air balloon that can easily be transformed into an empty rubber wrapper by one little needle-stick in the hands of Sepp Blatter.

Read the previous post by Rainer Kalb here.

Post by : FREE-TEAM in the category : Competitions, Football Politics, Governance - No Comment