I immediately thought about German football culture as I read my way through David Goldblatt and the Football Action Network’s (FAN) bombshell, “This is Our Game,” manifesto published in Sunday’s Guardian.
While Goldblatt diagnoses the domestic game’s ills in England, I couldn’t help but wonder to what extent the “This is Our Game” manifesto is applicable to German fußball culture as well. Although Germany’s vaunted footballing culture is frequently held up as Europe’s “grass is greener” country, I worry that the German game is already implicated in some of these modern ills.
When David Goldblatt writes, I listen. Period. In my estimation, the Bristol-based writer is the English-language’s most important voice on football. The acclaimed academic and author of The Ball is Round, How to Watch the Olympics (with Johnny Acton), Futebol Nation, and The Game of Our Lives combines sharp historical and sociological methods with compelling story-telling in his work. The Ball is Round is mandatory reading for those hoping to understand the rise of the beautiful game. So you can understand why his and the FAN‘s manifesto in the Guardian immediately grabbed my attention.
Goldblatt makes the case that the May 7th general election in England will decide footballing fates, rather than any event on the pitch. His reasoning is that the England’s footballing culture has been so gutted and disfigured by “commercial and private interests” that direct government intervention is required to save an indispensable cultural institution.
Here, Goldblatt’s argument is premised on ground he covered more comprehensively in his latest book, The Game of Our Lives, in which he argues that the Premier League is England’s most central and meaningful collective experience at the moment. Goldblatt describes the Premier League as a nationally-broadcast soap opera of high drama, playing out serious social issues (class, race, gender, politics, etc.).
In Goldblatt’s framework, this crucial cultural institution is increasingly cross-pressured by larger neo-liberal market forces, which imminently threaten football’s collective, cultural, and political roles. Ironically, this threat emerged through the rise of the Premier League itself, which Goldblatt attributes to the rise of private holding companies owning clubs, FA regulations being struck down (as well as a feckless FA in the first place), and rising ticket prices coupled with diminished matchday atmospheres (as fallout from the 1989 Hillsborough tragedy), especially the removal of terrace seating. The result is a battle for the soul of English football.
Enter the “This is Our Game” manifesto.
The manifesto recommends direct political intervention through 11 major actions, mostly steeming from political legislation. The actions focus on democratizing the game, for example, by balancing power between owners and supporters, revising current tax shelters, enhancing the supporter experience – e.g. a ticket price freeze and “safe standing” seating – and reforming governing bodies, like the FA or FIFA itself. These actions challenge the naturalized (and mistaken, I’d argue) assumption that “sport is business.” At its core, Goldblatt and FAN’s manifesto oppose the market-driven profit logic of modern football with grassroots activism and direct political intervention.
At this point, lovers of the German game might be feeling a bit smug, and for good reason. After all, the Bundesliga boasts Europe’s largest crowds, best atmospheres – even active terraces like the famed Yellow Wall in Dortmund – cheapest tickets, abundant food, and integration with public transit. It gets better. The historical record reveals that Germany’s vibrant football culture has its roots, among other things, in the deeply embedded sporting clubs and Turnen (gymnastics) clubs of the country’s towns and cities. Uli Hesse traces this phenomenon in an early chapter of his seminal work, Tor! The Story of German Football. As Hesse explains in an ESPN column, German clubs were originally recognized as non-profit organizations existing for the public good; private ownership was forbidden. Indeed, some clubs became so representative of their communities and so successful that a special category of Traditionsvereine (“Traditional Clubs”) is recognized by Germany supporters today.
However, as bigger German clubs clamored for financial backing from private investors to compete abroad in Europe, and as Hannover 96 was bailed out by hearing aid tycoon, Martin Kind, the DFB created the now-famed “50+1” rule in 1988, which stated that clubs could become corporate entities as long as 50+1 voting shares remained with the members of the original club. Thus, club members – i.e. the community and supporters – retain control of the club. Of course, Bayer Leverkusen and VfL Wolfsburg were famously granted exceptions to the rule (the “Lex Bayer” rule). Today, the 50+1 is hailed across Europe as a bastion resisting “modern football.”
So you can understand the conventional thinking about German football culture: cheaper tickets, cheaper food, better atmospheres, integrated public transit, and the 50+1 rule. Combined these elements and you have a certifiable football Arcadia. The grass is greener in Germany, indeed.
Or is it?
From a Bundesliga perspective, it’s too easy to juxtaposed our seemingly Arcadian football paradise with the alienating “modern football” culture of the Premier League and other big leagues. Why? Well, trouble is brewing in our Arcadian paradise.
Again, Uli Hesse outlines the recent developments in his 2014 review piece for ESPN. Hesse reports that Germans supporters can feel alienated, too, thank you very much. Indeed, some supporters of HSV and H96 have walked away from their club, forming a new club HFC Falke in the case of the former, or attending reserve side matches in the case of the latter, as demonstrated in an NDR documentary. Despite the cheap tickets, these Bundesliga supporters list concerns that sound depressingly familiar to the disaffected football supporters Goldblatt and FAN’s manifesto represent: increasing commercialization, corporatization, and ultimately alienation from the game they love.
In other words, the reactions of these disaffected German supporters reveal structural issues implicating all of Europe’s football. Germany is no exception.
But there’s more. Martin Kind, Hannover 96’s somewhat infamous president and long-time crusader opposed to the 50+1 rule, finally drew blood by getting the DFB to loosen the famed rule, particularly the “Lex Bayer” exception. The change is subtle: anyone who’s supported (meeting certain criteria) the club for 2o years can become the club’s private owner. Gulp. Or so say the traditionalists, as Hoffhenheim and Hannover could join Leverkusen and Wolfsburg as privately-owned clubs. Oh, and RB Leipzig‘s inevitable rise to the top flight will probably bring this number to five. For traditionalists, this possible is a big deal. The constant protests during RB Leipzig away matches illustrate the stakes involved.
Kind’s crusade has mostly been a lonely one, but the likes of Hoffenheim’s software tycoon president, Dietmar Hopp, seem to be on Kind’s side. Hopp’s dream of owning his village club is now a reality thanks to the loosening of the “Lex Bayer.”
Kind and especially Hopp directly challenge the sacred notion of die Traditionsvereine and rootedness these revered clubs have in their communities. For Hopp, tradition is simply a privileged status somewhat arbitrarily conferred upon a club:
“What is tradition? Take Cologne for example. That club is said to have a real history, but it was only founded sixty years ago. Hoffenheim have been around far longer and have been playing in the upper divisions for about, well 15 years, since they moved into the third. What’s the difference? Give us 10 more years on top, and then we’ll probably be able to call ourselves a club with tradition too, because there’ll be other clubs around that are younger. I put no stock in that argument, it’s a dead end”
In this passage, it’s not as if Hopp simply dismisses tradition; however, he reveals – quite rightly – the contingent and somewhat fickle nature of the concept. Certainly not a solid enough concept for maintaining a football culture.
However, more than somewhat abstracted values like tradition are at stake in these debates. Kind and Hopp’s stance happens to reveal fault lines of deep-seated tensions between, on one hand, the social structure and values Germany’s football clubs originated from and, on the other hand, the monied demands of “modern football.”
It’s complicated. Private investment money can trigger the alluring dream, or even reality, of European football. Plus, private money can equate to more Bundesliga success, as well as bigger and better everything. Who am I, or we, to begrudge any clubs these aspirations? Especially those of us, like myself, who support a “big” side, like Dortmund. After all, Bundesliga clubs do play in the Champions League and the Europa League, for crying out loud. And these clubs wants to play abroad – money and brand exposure is at stake. Football is a professional sport. The sepia-tinted days of amateurism (if they actually ever existed at all) are long gone. Hopp reminds us that
“What is pure as the driven snow anymore? Amateurs who play for a jar of liver sausage? They don’t exist any more. Football has developed over time and has turned out the way it has because a majority of people want it that way”
The majority of people want it that way. Yes and no, I think. On one hand, we want our Bundesliga clubs to sign good players, to nab a snappy coach, to maintain an atmospheric ground, or to test their mettle in Europe. On the other hand, we want German football culture to remain Europe’s best and resist changes that would transform it into a sanitized neo-liberal product. We are cross-purposed. Are we not?
Of course, German football culture already is the odious product I mentioned above by dint of global player markets, salaries, sponsorships (Gazprom!), European TV contracts, naming rights, and European tournaments. Yet of course German football culture also proudly displays the Arcadian features of its “soulful” supporter culture. Perhaps here I should distinguish between German football (i.e. on-the field play) and German football culture (i.e. the supporters). Can it be that the former is implicated in “modern football” while the latter remains pure? Or are the two inseparable?
The Goldblatt and FAN “This is Our Game” manifesto seems to imply that the football and the culture are interdependent. And that both are implicated in the neo-liberal world of markets and profit logic.
I’m not sure what to make of this situation. German football culture occupies a unique position as both implicit in and apart from the broader context of “modern football.” And I don’t believe that any sort of cultural purity – i.e. being separate from markets, power dynamics, or globalism – is possible. Martin Kind and Dietmar Hopp are helpful naysayers, reminding us of this fact. Yet there is something worth fighting for that I see not only in the Bundesliga, but also in the wider German football culture. Something that made me fall in love with sport again and something that makes me follow a league thousands of miles away, no matter the inconvenience.
The most recent events in the DFB also imply there is something worth fighting for, as “third party” transnationals or individuals will be limited in their holdings of club companies. However, this development, as positive as it is, operates merely on the procedural level, removed from the animating cultural values and structural in conflict with the realities of “modern football.”
The battle will rage on.
Do we need a manifesto? Perhaps not yet. Hopefully, German football culture can avoid traveling the same path as England and other leagues. Until, we’d better deepen our understanding of the foundations it rests on.