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Archive for the category : Memory

October 24, 2016

A club like all the others

It is only fifteen years ago that German historians started to study the role of sport in the dark years of Nazism. For over half a century both federations and clubs have been somewhat reluctant to open their archives to the researchers. Instead they preferred to refer to the more than elusive narratives that could be found in the occasional commemorative publication.

Since the beginning of the century, however, historical research has shed some new light on the behaviour of sport organisations between 1933 and 1945. Some of the work was of excellent quality, like our friend Nils Havemann’s standard Football under the Swastika (2005) or the very good case study on Schalke 04 (six times champions under the Nazi regime) Between Blue and White, there’s Grey by Stefan Goch and Norbert Silberbach (2005).

Not all of the publications, however, applied the same academic rigour, and some of them appeared to be biased by ideological premises. And as might be expected in a milieu where the attachment to a club is founded on emotions and dearly held collective beliefs, the historiography of German football has also engendered a number of myths and legends.

It is hardly surprising that one of these myths concerns FC Bayern Munich, today the world’s largest sports club in terms of membership (with 277 000 adherents), but in the 1930s a club among others with a thousand members. Legend has it that Bayern, contrary to their local arch-rival TSV Munich of 1860, had shown a kind of passive resistance to the regime of the Third Reich. Roughly speaking, they were said to have been dragging their feet when the Nazis imposed their totalitarian “Gleichschaltung” process on all spheres of society.

The story of a club which tried to do everything to protect its Jewish members, among whom its emblematic president Kurt Landauer, has been popularised over recent years not so much by the club itself, but by books and films that pretended to be well-documented and based on serious research.

It turns out that the historical truth is somewhat less glorious. As a matter of fact, Bayern have been no better and no worse than the vast majority of sport organisations during this period. Like most other clubs, Bayern were quick to “clean” their ranks from Jewish members, efficiently and rigorously, as early as spring 1933. And like most other clubs, they even went beyond the expectations of the new regime, which was not even too eager to displease international public opinion during the preparation of the 1936 Olympics.

The details can be found in a recent volume edited by Markwart Herzog, director of the Schwabenakademie Irsee and a good friend of the FREE Project. The book on “The Gleichschaltung of Football in Nazi Germany” (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2016) contains a chapter by Herzog on the “aryanisation” of FC Bayern Munich, for which he consulted, among other sources, the archives in the Munich Registration Court, where clubs and civil society associations deposit their statutes and all subsequent modifications. These files provide ample and irrefutable evidence for the fact that Bayern was a club like every other, whose directors were eager to please the new regime, some of them by ideological conviction, some simply scared to death by the prospect of being prohibited from playing.

Markwart Herzog had a good laugh when he studied these documents that had all those years been publicly available but neglected by those historians who had taken the role of “hagiographers” of Bayern Munich.

Markwart Herzog

Needless to say that in the small community of German football historians his book chapter (featured in an article in Der Spiegel) caused a good deal of commotion. And as could be expected, he was entitled to a little shit storm on the social networks.

And how does the great FC Bayern Munich position itself in this matter? Very smartly, they have made no comment whatsoever. In prudent modesty (quite unlike their habitual communication style) the club itself had never actively put forward its allegedly “heroic” attitude during the dictatorship. As a result, it is now under no justification pressure and in a position where it can let the historians (the good ones) do their work.

This blogpost is the English version
of an original column for Le Monde.

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

June 4, 2016

The spark of the gods

Friedrich Schiller, does his name ring a bell? Don’t check frantically Joachim Löw’s 23-man squad for the Euro, the man is not the Bundesliga latest Wunderkind.

As a matter of fact, he would qualify for two national teams, since he was awarded French citizenship by decree of the National Assembly on 26 August 1792, for his merits as a herald of liberty. This happened six years after the publication of his ‘Ode to Joy’, which Beethoven immortalised a quarter century later.

It is strange that Europe should have made of an emphatic ode to joy its official anthem. ‘Europe’ and ‘joy’, in these troubled days the connection is far from obvious. Will football and its big quadrennial continental party bring some joyfulness back into the morose setting?

It will not be easy. The host country, for one, seems to be poised towards ‘the final struggle’ rather than ‘the spark of the Gods’ sung by Schiller.

And yet, social sciences research, at its most rigorous, comes to the conclusion that, as disturbingly trivial as it may sound, football is joy. More precisely: it’s a wonderful pretext for being joyful.

According to the photos taken during the innovative field work carried out by the Loughborough team under Borja García with supporters from several European countries, football is not so much about watching football, but about exchanging smiles and taking group selfies, with both close friends and unknown foreigners.

Football is first and foremost about social bonds. These bonds can take different forms: sometimes they can be sometimes slightly masochistic – nothing equals the sweet-sour joy of mourning together a painful defeat. Very often they easily cross borders of all kinds, precisely because no developed linguistic competence is necessary. And because no real football fan, as our research has shown, never ever seems to get tired of talking about his passion.

Of course, the capacity of football to bring joy, has long been noticed by politicians. That’s why they unfailingly support their national federations in their bids for hosting mega-events. 20 years ago, after ‘thirty years of hurt’ and 200 years since Schiller’s poem, English spin-doctors turned simple ‘joy’ into the politically relevant ‘feel-good factor’.

Original manuscript of the 'Ode to Joy'

But organised joy ordered from above is superficial and ephemeral. The deep and sustainable joy is the one that is encapsulated in the souvenir of the smiles exchanges, like those in the pictures of our research guinea pigs. Or in the feeling of having been momentarily absorbed in a solidary community before returning to one’s ordinary individualist life.

This kind of joy happily ignored the national borders everybody seems to be talking about in Europe these days. Friedrich Schiller lucidly observed that it had the capacity ‘to unite again what customs have strictly divided’ and that under its ‘gentle wing’, all humans became ‘brothers again’.

Football as a little break of unifying joy in a strictly divided Europe? I’m not asking for more. Sincere thanks in advance.

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

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 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

September 11, 2015

A kick-off to a particular kind of Europeanisation

Over the last twenty years ‘Europeanisation’ has become a key concept in European Studies, almost a research field of its own. The current meaning of the term must have been introduced around 1994 in a seminal JCMS article by Robert Ladrech (possible that there are some earlier occurrences that I am unaware of). Prior to this rather recent semantic shift, ‘Europeanisation’, both in its English and French version, was a term used mainly in the 19th century, in contexts of cultural hegemony. The Oxford English Dictionary of 1989, for instance, defines it at ‘to make European in appearance, form, habit, or mode of life’ and cites some literary quotes concerning the ‘Europeanisation’ of India, Egypt or Japan.

I was therefore quite surprised to bump into it in a newspaper article dated 5 September 1955. The text in question is the report on the first football match of a pan-European club competition, known then as ‘The European Champions Clubs Cup’ and today as ‘The Champions League’. At the end of his match analysis in L’Equipe, the French sports daily who was behind the whole idea of this competition, Gabriel Hanot expressed his fear that ‘national competitions might be sacrificed to the Europeanisation of football’.

Sporting 1955Funny enough, the ‘Europeanisation of football’ has now become a serious object of study. And the fear that the Champions League might one day eclipse all other competitions and become a closed league of ‘super-clubs’ is still regularly voiced today. In 1955, the match between Sporting Portugal and Partizan Belgrade (final score: 3-3) was of interest to insiders only. Major media did not care at all. In comparison, the space devoted last week across all media in France, Germany, Britain or Spain, to an event as secondary as the simple draw for the first round group stage gives testimony to the degree this Europeanisation of the football horizon has reached.

One aspect of the match in question deserves to be mentioned in particular: the fact that in its very first official game the European Cup was able to cross Cold War borders and bring together a team from the Western edge of the Continent with one from behind the Iron Curtain. Salazar’s Portugal and Tito’s Yugoslavia did not even have diplomatic relations, which complicated the travelling (the Partizan players had to insert a stop-over in Paris) but by no means prevented the match from taking place. For the Cup’s organisers, it went without saying that Central and Eastern Europe needed to be present in this new competition, and besides Partizan, teams from Budapest and Warsaw also competed (Dynamo Moscow had declined the invitation, apparently for meteorological reasons).

Today we’re in a miniature Cold War again, with Russia and the EU imposing sanctions on each other. France will have to reimburse around a billion Euros to Russia for not delivering the two Mistral war ships it had already built on command of the Russian marine. But that will not keep Paris Saint-Germain from travelling to Donezk (of all places) this autumn to play their Champions League game against Chaktior, while Olympique Lyon will play Zenith Saint Petersburg.

But as in 1955, football somehow manages to ignore the political circumstances. It pursues its own Europeanisation agenda, kicked off in Lisbon exactly sixty years ago.

Post-scriptum 1: Re-writing history by omission?

I was of course not the only one to recall this landmark event last week, when I wrote a column in Le Monde. Quite a few blogs in various countries posted something on this ground-breaking match. UEFA also published an in-depth article on its own website.  And guess what? They managed somehow not to mention L’Equipe. Am I alone in thinking a short reference to those without whom the match would not even have taken place would have been appropriate?

Post-scriptum 2: Anecdotal coincidences

How fitting that almost to the day sixty years after this historic kick-off, the FREE project presented its last panel at the annual UACES conference, where its first outlines were defined in September 2008 in a pub in Edinburgh (note that the local flagship club, Hibernians, was one of the sixteen participants of the first European Cup in 1955, making it to the semi-final where they were eliminated by French champions Stade de Reims). In 2015 the loop-closing FREE panel took place in Bilbao, a stone’s throw away from San Mames, the stadium of the local  Athletic FC. In other words: the only place across all Europe where the Bosman Ruling had no effect whatsoever :-)

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

August 4, 2015

Historical landmarks

One of the first posts of this blog dealt with clever screenwriting in television drama. In the brilliant Danish series Borgen the Prime minister used a landmark in the country’s football memory – the Euro 1992 surprise win against Germany – as a kind of emotional reminder of national solidarity.

But most of time, football memory actually serves as historical landmark, smartly used by screenwriters to help their audience link the story to the epoch and setting in which it is supposed to take place.

Paul Gascoigne on his way to his most famous goal (15 June 1996).

Football memory turns out to be an instant reminder of an era. For those old enough, it is a link to their personal biography: many will easily recall where exactly they were when Gazza scored his incredible goal against Scotland or when Gareth Southgate two weeks later missed his penalty.

Three examples from recent TV fiction:

The first third of the rather ambitious television drama From There to Here is set in June 1996, a period in which according to director Peter Bowker, ‘football came home’ and there ‘was a confidence in British culture as Cool Britannia was in full swing and Blur and Oasis did battle in the charts’. To no surprise, both the Gascoigne stroke of genius and the Southgate tragedy are used as anchors to conjure up the spirit of the times.

The popular crime fiction Endeavour – a kind of prequel to the legendary Inspector Morse series of the 1990s is set in the Oxford of the 1960s. Season 2 takes place in 1966, and in one of episodes the World Cup is of course on every television screen, and the story is organised along the successive matches of the English team.

Nandor Hidegkuti scores the final goal for Hungary (25 Nov. 1953)

And in the rather unpretentious detective series Grantchester, set in the vicinity of Cambridge in the early 50s, another football landmark is used in the dialogue between two of the protagonists. When the (presumably working class) police inspector informs the (presumably rather high-brow) vicar that he is in bad mood because ‘England lost 6-3 last night – we got beaten 6-3 by a team from nowhere, at a sport we invented!’, it is clear that the legendary Hungarian victory in Wembley on 25 November 1953. The fact that the rest of the episode clearly takes place in late spring does not really matter, does it? Why use the coronation of Elizabeth II (which took place in June), when you can create the atmosphere of the period so much better with a football result?

Football events as convenient anchors in time. Not really surprising in a country like England, where football is engrained in popular life and collective memory. And where there will always be at least one among the screenwriters to make the link between an epoch and a football event for himself. In a national culture like France, where football plays a much less important role and screenwriters may have different educational backgrounds, this is less the case.

Take for instance the excellent mini-series Disparue, a fiction in eight episodes inspired by the Spanish TV hit Desparecida and comparable in quality to the Danish series The Killing. The entire story takes place, very explicitly, between 21 June and mid-July 2014, and not a single person in the city of Lyon only once mentions the World Cup, neither in the restaurant run by two of the protagonists nor in other public or professional environments. My own memory of these weeks would rather suggest a lot of talk on 21 June about the surprisingly brilliant performance of the French team against Switzerland, or at least one reference to the totally exaggerated media hype preceding the quarter final against Germany on 4 July.

Of course you don’t need football as historical anchor for a story supposed to take place in the present. A reference to the World Cup would, however, have certainly added plausibility. French screenwriters – take note!

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

May 19, 2015

Until death do us part – a tribute to Steven Gerrard

A guest contribution by Rainer Kalb.

‘Until death do us part’ – already a risky formula in marriage. Let alone in professional football, where it is already a lie at the very moment of contract signature (which is limited in time anyway). Clubs, players and most of all agents know well that the document is not worth the ink it is printed and signed with. Which is probably one of the reasons players prefer ball-pens.

Steven Gerrard saying goodbye to Anfield.

The end of the season is always an occasion to pause for a moment. Especially when a legend like Steve Gerrard celebrates his farewell in a place like Anfield. A good opportunity to remind all those mercenaries and legionnaires, birds of passage and profiteers that there are still some faithful heroes around.

Always for the Reds, never for another club. I am not a statistics fetishist, but the sheer number of over 700 matches for one single club is incredible. Among all these matches, I remember the UEFA Cup final of May 2001 in Dortmund , when Liverpool beat CD Alaves with a Golden Goal. Gerrard had scored Liverpool’s second goal, and the game remains one of the most beautiful of the hundreds I have seen live in a stadium.

In 2005 Gerrard also won the Champions League, but he never was English champion. Just like his German counterpart, ‘faithful Charlie’ aka Karl-Heinz Körbel, who also played over 700 times for Eintracht Frankfurt (with an unbelievable 602 Bundesliga matches between 1972 and 1991), who also won the UEFA Cup (1980) and who lifted four times the German Cup, but never the champion’s trophy.

Germany has had its share of faithful heroes : Fritz Walter, Uwe Seeler, Berti Vogts, Wolfgang Overath, Hans Georg „Katsche“ Schwarzenbeck, Sepp Maier. There are even some left today: Bastian Schweinsteiger, for instance, or Philipp Lahm. And other examples can be found in other European leagues. But the trend towards mercenary behaviour is unbroken and stronger each year.

An observer who has followed professional football over decades does not even manage to laugh any more at the cliché of the ‘new sporting and human challenge’ proffered by players at the moment of signature. Quite the contrary: one almost feels ashamed to see it in print. Is there still a single fan who believes that players like Kevin-Prince Boateng or, who knows, Sami Khedira, sign at Schalke for the ‘sporting challenge’? Or to appraise a ‘new culture’? If these players were not buried under heaps of money they would probably laugh at themselves.

Professionalism has always induced mobility. And it is understandable that the best are lured by the richest. In Germany we have helplessly witnessed over decades how Bayern Munich implemented its strategy of weakening their best competitors by seducing their major players: del’Haye, Matthäus and Effenberg from Mönchengladbach; more recently Lewandowski and Götze from Dortmund. Thank God they got Heynckes – another eternal faithful – only as coach.

Some developed a counter-strategy, selling their top players abroad, in order not to feed the insatiable hunger of Bayern: Günter Netzer or Uli Stielicke are good examples.

But today football has become a travelling circus specialised in blackmailing: ‘more money now or else I wait until I leave on free transfer and you won’t get anything’ – this kind of shameless greed makes the professional football of the 1970s and 1980s look like a ‘golden age’ of stability and gentlemanly behaviour.

In the brave new world of 21st-century European football, ‘until death do us part’ may be valid for the fans, but no longer for players. It’s like in marriage: the number of divorces has also been on the rise for decades…

Post by : Albrecht Sonntag in the category : Memory - No Comment

April 14, 2015

A football poet

Eduardo Galeano (1940-2015)

Last summer I picked up his wonderful book again. I had read it for the first time just before the 1998 World Cup in France, intrigued by its title and inhabitual tone, shaking my head in disbelief over the ridiculous title it had been given in its German version, and enjoying every single one of the short chapters, 150 brief reflexions on the “lights and shadows” of football history. It was different from the usual football books: here was not a football writer trying to adopt a poetic approach, but a real poet declaring his love to football.

Reading Eduardo Galeano’s El fùtbol a sol y sombra was inspiring. It opened a whole series of unexpected possibilities:

For instance: you could be a militant leftist, but still refuse to let your love of the game be tarnished by the Marxist mantra according to which football keeps the masses from thinking about their condition. You could see all the unpleasant sides of contemporary football and still see in it ‘the celebration of the eyes that watch it, and the joy of the bodies that play it’.

Or: Anecdotic evidence was nothing evil! Quite the contrary: the numerous anecdotes on which Galeano hinged his thoughts taught me that the perception and narration of events, places and heroes was always more important than the pure historical fact.

More: Taking poetic and even lyrical liberties when writing about football was not prohibited and could even reveal the sociocultural meanings of football in a deeper manner than ‘serious’ research analysis. Metaphors, hyperboles, literary references need not be banned from ‘serious’ analysis: If they help to understand this strange game, let them in!

And most of all: I finally found a famous voice who confirmed my conviction that football memory WAS important! In his very personal afterword to El fùtbol a sol y sombra Galeano – who elsewhere declared himself ‘obsessed with remembering’ in a ‘land condemned to amnesia’ – deplored the elitist ignorance of football displayed by official history.

The chapter I was looking up last summer was the one about Maradona’s ‘hand of God’, which I wanted to quote in one of my columns for Le Monde after Suarez’ vampire episode against Italy. I remembered how Galeano had explained that Maradona’s act was ‘justified’ by all the ‘historical wrongs’ the Argentinian people (like all Latin American peoples) had suffered from the hand of Europeans, and consequently expressed in my column – which I entitled ‘The Teeth of God’ – the certitude that rather than being condemned, Suarez would be excused or even celebrated in Uruguay.

What a pity Eduardo Galeano will not add a chapter on Suarez to his fabulous collection. But browsing through his book again, it is actually easy to make it up in one’s head: a little letter of tenderness and forgiveness to one those underdog heroes that oscillate between sol y sombre and that make football so much bigger than the simple game it still is.

"I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead: 'A pretty move, for the love of God.' And when good football happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don't give a damn which team or country performs it."

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

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

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