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August 24, 2013

Saturday, half past three

The title of Nils Havemann’s book on the half-century of professional football in Germany since its official launch in August 1963 is an allusion to the standard kick-off time of the Bundesliga. It is well chosen, as it suggests an anchor of continuity in a history of social and cultural change. The continuity is both real and imagined. Today, only five of the nine matches are still scheduled on ‘Saturday, half past three’, but with all the disruptures in the football calendar due to media pressure, it is actually almost miraculous that this kick-off time still means anything and is immediately understood by the book’s target public: readers in their forties, fifties and sixties who want to have a better understanding not only of how football became what it is in Germany today, but also how the Federal Republic itself became what it is.

And they will be well served: Nils Havemann delivers on his promise of demonstrating to what extent football, with its many dimensions, provides a particularly rich field of investigation that allows shedding new light on processes of economic, social and cultural change in a society. His patient and meticulous exploitation of over thirty different archives succeeds in presenting the Bundesliga as a representative microcosm of post-war Western Germany. Most of all it offers, beyond the lofty theoretical definitions, a wonderfully human illustration of the day-to-day functioning and the ordinary practices of what used to be called ‘Rhineland capitalism’ or ‘German social market economy’.

In doing so, he invariably debunks a serious of well-cherished myths and treasured beliefs. Three of them particularly deserve to be mentioned:

It is generally argued that the Bundesliga needed to be created because German football, due to its federal structuring and official amateurism was lagging behind other professional leagues in Europe. In reality, German football was already highly competitive in the 1950s. The ‘miracle of Bern’ of 1954 had been no miracle at all, but the victory of a team composed by players who were professionals in all but name, enjoyed excellent material conditions and financial support, were prepared by a staff that was far from amateurish and benefitted from state-of-the-art equipment. The real reason for the introduction of the Bundesliga was the opportunity to put an end to sham amateurism and substantially increase revenues without losing the fiscal advantages linked to the status of ‘public utility’ granted to football clubs.

The apparent heroes of another ‘miracle’ also appear under a different light by the findings of the book: the managers, entrepreneurs and industrialists of the German ‘Wirtschaftswunder’, the ‘economic miracle’ of the 1950s and 60s may actually not all deserve to be praised for their contribution to the recovery of German industry. The way in which the leaders of German professional football, almost all of them men of economic responsibility, mismanaged their clubs while permanently and unashamedly demanding substantial public subsidies for what they had promised would be a self-sufficient business, shows that the tendency to privatise revenues and benefits while socialising the risks and ensuing losses is not a characteristic of recent neo-liberal excesses, but a common feature of all sorts of capitalism, even the softest one. The fact that football is a money-destroying business is not exactly a scoop, but the extent to which the first decades of German professional football were marked by mismanagement, creative accountancy, and surprising incompetence, reveals that the practices that have given the Bundesliga the image of Europe’s most reasonably managed league have been implemented only very recently…

A third myth of the German football narrative concerns the DFB, the national football association. It is always understood that the DFB was and is notoriously inefficient, always reluctant to change and reform, conservative to the point of being reactionary, and led by a caste of more or less corrupt old men. In the light of Nils Havemann’s findings, the DFB must be recognised as ‘one of the most efficient organisations of recent and contemporary German history’, which ‘unlike most political parties, economic federations or religious associations, survived all historical disruptures without damage and managed to continuously increase its membership and its influence on society’ (p. 48). It was guided by a clear strategy of maintaining its unity and influence through clever networking and lobbying with decision-makers at the highest levels of politics, whatever the regime or political party in power. The metaphor of the ‘chameleon’ is used several times (p. 50, 151) and it is tempting to qualify such behaviour patterns as utterly opportunistic and cynical. As Pierre Bourdieu once pointed out, however, it is counter-productive to suspect institutional actors to be cynical. Most of them have interiorised the institution’s purposes and simply defend a ‘cause’: they believe in what they are doing, and their actions never entirely devoid of idealism. It is essential to never lose out of sight, despite all justified criticism, the ‘idealistic core’ in the strategy of an institution like a football association.

In this perspective the term ‘chameleon’ is no longer such a pejorative word. In order to perform efficiently as chameleon, you need a minimum of ‘credibility’. An organisation whose foremost objective was to have its public utility recognised by those who defined the contours of public utility in the first place, was condemned to adapt to the changing values that underpinned the definition at different times in different contexts. The fact that it was (and is) capable of appropriating new trends and new vocabulary in record time shows just how flexible and efficient the organisation has remained despite its huge size.

This is a very carefully written book, whose author shows a great deal of critical empathy for the key actors of this half-century of German football: even in passages of strong criticism there is a visible intention to remain fair, take the context into account and refrain from the cheap bashing of officials and players that is practised by less scrupulous historians. There is a little less empathy with the representatives of the German post-1968 left-wing intelligentsia, and between the lines one can sense some accumulated anger towards some historians whose interpretations of German football history was (and is) subordinated to an ideological agenda, however respectable their initial motives.

One of the main findings of this travel through time is the amazing continuity of professional football’s dominant discourse and behaviour patterns, despite all the social and cultural disruptures and evolutions German society has known between the early 1960s and today: the demand of public subsidies (mainly through fiscal advantages) for the sake of ‘competitiveness in Europe’; the gap between Northern and Southern European practices and the call for financial fair-play rules; the permanent nostalgic evocation of a golden age of idealist enthusiasm and ‘more authentic football’, the hypocritical indignation discourse in the media against the corruption of the game through the obscure force of money (without measurable impact on its popularity); the eternal spiral of increase of revenues that is immediately lost in the subsequent increase of players’ salaries; the above-mentioned tendency towards the privatisation of benefits and the socialisation of losses – it seems to be an eternal wheel, with the same discourse repeating itself endlessly.

Saturday half past three tells this history with the utmost seriousness, but nof without a good dose of dry humour (even if sometimes hidden between the lines). While the cold eye of the historian can only deplore the amount of hypocrisy and dilettantism and the lack of rational behaviour and decision-making all throughout these fifty Bundesliga years, there always remains a certain acceptance for the essential irrationality of the game and a deep respect for the fascination it is able to exert. Over the last five decades, professional football has tried really hard to destroy its image and appeal through match fixing, violence, misbehaviour and economic scandals of all sorts. How could one not be puzzled with its incredible, unbroken capacity of provoking so much excitement, emotions and loyalty?

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

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