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March 10, 2014
Sepp Herberger, the father of the famous ‘miracle of Bern‘, was not only known for his remarkable tactical cleverness, but also for his aphorisms. Used at the time mainly to shut up critical journalists, some of them have entered the German dictionary as legendary words of wisdom. When the intellectual weekly Die Zeit published a list of the most famous quotes of the 20th century, it included Herberger’s ‘The ball is round’, usually understood as something close to ‘anything can happen any time’, and often cited together with ‘The match lasts 90 minutes’, which pretty much fits all occasions. Two other wonderful stock quotes are ‘After the match is before the match’ and ‘The next opponent is always the most hardest’, perfectly applicable to professional life, or life in general for that matter.
My personal favourite, however, remains his answer to the ultimate question of what makes so many people watch so many football matches: ‘Because they don’t know the outcome’ (‘weil sie nicht wissen, wie’s ausgeht’). It is true that hardly any other sport matches the capacity of football to respond to the ‘quest for excitement’ identified by Norbert Elias. Statistical research has shown that no other team game tends to create and maintain as much ‘instability’ in the evolution of scores as football; a fact that was once attributed by Gérard Ernault to its inherent fluidity, ‘which equalises chances between players and teams more than static and more repetitive sports’.
‘Because they don’t know the outcome’ - well, come to think of it, nowadays they do, don’t they? This week’s Champions League round of 16 return leg should pit up the best teams of Europe, the ones that made it through long and tough qualification stages to the knock-out phase. A certain density of performance levels should normally be expected. In reality, however, I am not going to watch any of the return matches, simply for lack of ‘excitement’. Six of the eight outstanding matches are devoid of any suspense, and the two matches with a minimum of uncertainty are played by teams that one might suspect of not being able to go beyond the quarter-final stage anyway.
More than ever the Champions League seems to be controlled by literally one handful of clubs. No need really to stage a total of almost 30 evenings a year if the competition starts to be interesting only from the semi-finals onward. And given the distribution schemes of the revenues generated by the event, the same handful will be even richer next year, widening further the already frightening gap to the others. At the same time, in a large number of major European championships, the winner 2014 can be reasonably predicted as early as in March (the English Premier League being the only one to maintain a suspense configuration of four potential champions). And the winner will invariably come from the small pool of usual suspects.
I am certainly not the first to raise such concerns. For several years now, the tendency described above has been deplored by many observers. For the time being, the decrease of suspense has not yet been sanctioned by a significant decline of public interest. Perhaps because the marketing machines of the Champions League and the major national leagues is rather efficient. But it may well be that the spring of 2014 will be remembered as a tipping-point.
One way or another, allowing such a concentration of market power is risky business. Even liberal market capitalism, with all its laissez-faire principles, has introduced safeguards against monopoly building and abuse of dominant positions. Football, for which fair competition is essential, does not really seem to see the necessity. Both UEFA and national leagues would be well advised to reconsider solidarity principles when it comes to formulating financial redistribution or perequation schemes. They would to well to remember Herberger’s words of wisdom. Once people will realise that they actually do know the outcome, that the ball is no longer round, and that the match is over long before the ninety minutes have been played, the game will no longer be the same.