Fußball Scholarship: In-Depth Interview with Dr. Udo Merkel

This article is begins a series devoted to sharing academic Udo Merkel‘s English-language scholarship on German fußball. Merkel situates German fußball development within the context of Germany’s modern history, as well as cultural and social transformations. From what I gather, Merkel is one a handful a few academics studying sports and culture who have researched and written extensively on German football.

Merkel’s scholarship is invaluable for contextualizing the founding and the rise of football itself in German, identifying the catalysts leading to the Bundesliga’s founding, exploring the relationship between football and German identity, and diagnosing the impact of “modern football” on the German game.

I accidentally stumbled on Merkel’s name when looking for work on the old PBS TV series in America, Soccer Made in Germany, in GoogleScholar. What a lucky find. Dr. Merkel currently is a lecturer at the University of Brighton in the UK where he teaches from the college’s School of Sport and Service Management.

Merkel’s faculty profile list degrees from Cologne, Leicester, and a Ph.D from Oldenburg. His geographical interests are Germany, Latin-America, and far East Asia. In particular, Merkel’s main focus is on the sociology and politics of international sport events and spectacles. In this realm, one of his chief inquiries is the role of sport events as foreign policy/diplomacy tools. He’s written about major global sportings events, sport cultures, and sport history as a window into a place or group’s social and political commitments.

From England, Dr. Merkel joined me on Skype for this interview.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Hello, Udo! Greetings from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Let’s start with some basics. Tell us who you are and what you do in the academy.

Udo:  Who am I? Well, that’s a big question.

I’m a German national who hasn’t lived in the country for over twenty-five years, but I still hold a German passport. I’ve traveled quite a lot, living in different parts of the world, which I think very much defines me; for example, I’ve lived Brazil for an extended period of time, afterwards in Argentina, later I helped the Chinese to prepare a little bit for the Beijing Olympics. In 2008, I lived in South Korea and helped them write their application documents for the next Winter Olympics, which they would actually host.

In terms of my academic background, I have several degrees from different universities, mostly European, British, and German. I’ve always had an interest in the more social, political, and cultural aspects of sport. My first degree is actually in sport and social sciences. At the end of that degree program, we had to write an undergraduate dissertation and I decided to link the two, social sciences and sport. That was in the late 1980s when Germany had a bit of a problem with football hooliganism.

I had done an A-level at school in English and my English was okay, so I started to read English literature on hooliganism. English publications were far more advanced than the hardly existing scholarship in Germany. So I combined English academia with German academia, and I combined sport and social sciences, so that’s really the starting point. I got really hooked. I have really focused on that link between the social sciences and sport for the last twenty years or so. That’s my background.

In terms of personal stuff, I was born in Dortmund and brought up in a traditional, partly-respectable working class area where people were proud of being a member of the working class, having a job, and being independent. This upbringing very much shaped my life. Although I’m very middle class these days with a decent income, reputation, and prestige attached to my job, I still feel my working class roots in terms background, education, and lifestyle.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Growing up in Dortmund, how typical was your childhood in terms of being interested in football?

Udo: Well, I was brought up in Dortmund in the 1960s. When I was born in 1961, Dortmund was obviously not a big club. They were playing in the first division, but they got relegated and promoted. They had an ugly little stadium. The whole Dortmund phenomenon as we know it nowadays simply did not exist in the 1960s.

In the 1970s, Dortmund got a new stadium because Germany hosted the World Cup in 1974, which meant that the whole atmosphere and dynamics around BVB changed. They moved the bigger ground, but got relegated again. Although the ground had a capacity of 45,000, at that point only 20,000 people went regularly. It was very much good fun and not as serious as nowadays, because obviously today’s hyper-commericialization hadn’t kicked in yet in the 70s, but it was bubbling a little bit in the aftermath of the 1974 World Cup.

My life was not dominated by football. When I was a teenager, I went to the matches quite frequently, but I wouldn’t call myself a fanatic. It was just something I really enjoyed doing. I clearly remember the first time I went to a BVB match; when was about six or seven years old, my father took me. He was a police officer, which meant they we had free access – we didn’t have to pay. The club invited all officers to come, as a sort of security force. And the sheer presence of police officers in the stadium was appreciated. In this first match, I hardly saw anything, because I was tiny. The match was against Munich, the archrival. I remember it clearly, because the stadium was loud, it was full, and it was messy there – a bit rough. But it was good! A good experience. Maybe this experience planted the seeds for becoming a fan later on.

Bundesliga Fanatic: In Germany, what kind of path does one take to enter academics? Did this pursuit mark your childhood, or come as a surprise later?

Udo: It was very much a surprise. First, I wanted to become a teacher. In German universities, if you want to become a teacher at the secondary level (for 16-19 year olds), then you must study two subjects. As I mentioned earlier, I studied both social sciences and sports.

I did actually work as a teacher for five years, and acquired another subject – German as a Foreign Language – because I worked at a school with many kids who had migrated to Germany. But to be honest with you, I was working in a rough and tough school environment with problems related to drugs, prostitution, violence, and other things.  After five years, I decided that I didn’t want to do this for the rest of my life because it would just kill me.

At that point, I decided to do a Masters.  This was in 1988 when, for the first time ever, the University of Leicester in the UK offered a Masters in the Sociology of Sport led by Eric Dunning. So I decided to move to Leicester for a year – going abroad was always a dream of mine – I thought, “My English is alright and I’ve got this sport and social science background.” I started the program with a group of six. We studied for a whole year. Very intensively.

At the end of the year, I put together a few job applications, just to get some feedback and interview experience, and I immediately got job offers! Why? Probably because I was one of the first who had formal qualifications in what became known as the “Sociology of Sport.”

Bundesliga Fanatic: Did your interest in studying German hooliganism lead you to apply for that particular program at that particular time?

Udo: Well, the University of Leicester was quite well-known for their research in the historical roots of hooliganism, and the university was the home of Norbert Elias, Eric Dunning and other people who had written about these kinds of things. However, the program was really broader than just football or just hooliganism. Really, it was about social theory, the role of the media, commercialization, and all these kind of things, which was good. I mean, doing a year on just hooliganism could get a little boring!

The Leicester program was extremely useful and enjoyable, especially compared with German universities, which are huge with large classes. At Leicester, I sat with five other students and sometimes two faculty members in a class. We did stuff every week and submitted papers every two week. I’ve never had something as intensive as that in my whole life! It was bloody hard work, but very valuable.

Bundesliga Fanatic: In America, marrying sport and politics – or even sport with other social/culture issues – is not very popular. And those who do this sometimes receive pushback. Naysayers want to keep their sports separate from politics. Do you face this mentality in Germany and England?

Udo: Well, there has been wishful thinking in the past. And if it continues, I’ll call it naïve thinking. Here, I think people, particularly politicians and those working in the world of sport, are clear that you cannot separate the world of politics and the world of sports; that they do go hand-in-hand.

You just have to mention a few big things, like the Nazi Olympics in 1936, or the Moscow boycott in 1980 led by Jimmy Carter, or loads of other examples, and they really haven’t got a leg to stand. Sport is political and has been highly politicized. And I know what you mean – I have American colleagues and I go over to America for the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport. And my feeling is that statement “Sport and politics should be kept apart” is a sort of normative statement that is gradually disappearing, since people are just so much more aware these days of the links between sport and politics.

I mean, even when countries apply to host big events, they usually send their presidents to the final meeting – a very physical between a group of people bidding to host an event and the political elite of a country. For example, Barack Obama visited a Scandinavian country to support an American bid for the Olympics, meeting up with Lula from Brazil and lots of other people. It’s just naïve to say that politics and sports are two different worlds. They’re clearly interlinked; they’ve got a symbiotic relationship these days. There is not a single sporting event or activity that is not somehow involved in politics, the pursuit of political agenda and so on.

Bundesliga Fanatic: As a follow up question, how do you justify sport as something worth studying, as opposed to other parts of our cultures? In other words, why study sport?

Udo: Sport is part of culture; sport and cultural should not be analytically separated. Sport is just a very, very popular part of popular culture, and therefore, part of modern societies – part of their social and cultural fabric.

Bundesliga Fanatic: I think what fascinates me is that sport isn’t more widely studied, especially how rich of a topic it is to mine. Do you have any thoughts about why it tends to be neglected as a cultural field?

Udo: Well, I think there’s this sort of vision that the world of sport is somehow not serious. Most of it happens in your leisure time, whether you participate in sport or consume and watch sport. For most people, sport happens outside their “real world” or work. So it’s looked at as a phenomenon that is not terribly important or significant.

I’d argue that because of these views, sport should be studied, because many things happen in the world of sport that tells us about the larger society. This is one way of looking at it: that sport forms a sort of microcosm of wider society. And sport is a kind of mirror image of wider society. For example, it reflects the notion of life becoming much more commercialized, human relationships becoming more commodified. Well, you find that in the world of sport, too; everything has a monetary value attached to it, and so on.

On the other hand, I’d argue (and it’s important to state this) that sport impacts wider society; it’s not just a passive reflection of society. No, quite the opposite. It’s such a big part of popular culture that it influences wider society and culture. Just look at the popularity of sportswear – wearing trainers, etc. – which shows at a superficial level how sport affects other parts of society. And if one wants to understand society, sometimes is useful to have a look at smaller units to better understanding of what the society is all about. It’s more manageable. But this is a methodological comment …

Bundesliga Fanatic: Let’s jump into your research. You present something like sport’s dual function as both a reflection and influencer of society in your piece on the history and politics of physical culture and German nationalism before World War I.

I think your average Bundesliga/German fußball fan has at least a glancing knowledge of the important role that the Turnen gymnastics movement played in pre-war Germany. In your piece, you push us beyond surface-level factoids about the movement and reveal the tensions between the Turnen movement, emerging English sporting values (like competition), and the emerging French Olympianism movement.

Udo: This piece is really about European history and the important fact that Germany is one of the youngest European countries – well, no longer because of all the changes in ex-Yugoslavia, etc. – but, I mean, Germany was only founded in 1871. And if you want to build a nation, you have to have a sense of belonging, a sense of identity.

And this is where the world of sport and the world of gymnastics got deeply involved in the formation process of the first German empire – it’s official name in 1871 – so it’s interesting to see how something as “irrelevant” as gymnastics and a newly arrived physical activity from England (football) got absorbed in the struggle to define “Germanness.” Again, a great example of how the world of politics (the politics of identity discourses) and politics of the nation state are all linked to something as banal as the world of sport.

Bundesliga Fanatic: I think one of the surprises for me was the nature of Turnen activities – certainly not gymnastics in our contemporary sense of the word! Very loose, “organic” war games seemed to typify what the participants did – baldly political stuff, tied explicitly to nation-building, according to Germans who conceived of and supported the Turnbewegung movement.

Udo: You’re absolutely right. A lot of gymnastics – not just in Germany, but in other countries too (except Sweden) – has always had paramilitary underpinnings, in terms of doing gymnastics to get ready for the next war. The Swedish were a bit different, because they were much more concerned about balanced lifestyles and health. But if you look, for instance, at gymnastics in the ex-Czechoslovakia, Poland, or other countries outside Germany, there were always these underpinings in terms of physical preparedness for the next war.

Even when you look at Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, who traveled to England quite a lot and looked at the public schools, and wanted to sell more physical education to the French people in the 1890s. He always had in mind the view that the French youth were not fit enough to face “the enemy” compared to Germany. So using sport to get ready for war is really an old-fashioned thing.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Let’s talk about the roots of football in Germany. I’ll set you up with a question. Given football’s English origins and status as an English import, to what extent did the sport retain its Englishness or did it become more “German” as it took root in Germany?

Udo: Well, that’s a difficult question! Of course, the game itself is English; the English wrote the rules for it, and others just copied them. And the notion of physical culture and performance being dominated by physical competition is a very English thing, which was quite untypical of Germans when football arrived.

However, and I’m jumping ahead here time-wise, the current set up of football in Germany is totally different than the setup and ownership structures of football in the UK. The reason why needs to be contextualized. After the Second World War, German society had to rebuild its underlying philosophies, such as having a strong voluntary or non-profit sector that should only engage in monetary activity in the local community, etc. This philosophy has led to the emergence and continued existence of many organizations.

The world of football in Germany is still largely part of this setup, which is about a club’s charitable status and so on. Of course, all the big clubs have their official branches and generate money, and yet the vast majority of clubs are still supported by the local communities, which means that many clubs don’t own their venues. Instead, the venue is owned by the local city and rented by the local club. The rest of the week, the venue is used for local purposes, other departments, youth facilities, etc.

In terms of the professional side of football in Germany, the 50+1 rule (local supporters own at least 51% of the club’s shares) has had a huge impact on delaying the commercialization and commodification of football in Germany. Even one of the rule’s exceptions, VfL Wolfsburg, who is owned by Volkswagen, had to demonstrate for an extended period of time that the company had the local community’s best interests at heart.

The 50+1 rule just doesn’t make German clubs all that attractive to foreign investors, because they will never have a majority of the shares nor the power to really do what they want to do. And this dynamic makes German football so different from its English roots and how football is set up in the UK right now. Just compare the prices of tickets, season tickets, and these kinds of things. Germany is just so much more modest and prices are just so much lower – the cheapest tickets are in the range of 10 €. Pensioners, older pensioners, people with disabilities can afford matches.

So in terms of what’s happening right now, Germany is not a copy of the English game. And the key to explaining this is the 50+1 rule. Most people in Germany seem quite happy with this old-fashioned set up, centered on the local community.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Let’s talk about the founding of the Bundesliga. In your research, on the one hand, you point out that Germany represents a sort of model for football community and involvement, but, on the other hand, you also trace the roots of what we all derisively call “modern football” through the German game.  In some ways, I wonder if you’re arguing that German football is really no better / different than its counterparts in England, Spain, and Italy in terms of the game’s commercialization and commodification. So how do you make sense of this puzzle? Is German football always already implicated in “modern football” or does it represent a stronger site of resistance against “modern football”?

Udo: I’m not saying that the Bundesliga is the Holy Grail or anything. The German Bundesliga has gone through the commercialization and commodification process. But the difference is that these processes have hit a glass ceiling pretty quickly. Other countries haven’t! I mean, when process has already kicked in and accelerated quickly in Germany, then people realized: “Actually, there are boundaries here.” And these boundaries don’t exist in a country like England – where you have total freedom and football is part of a market economy – and clubs sell to the highest bidder and these sorts of things. And these legal boundaries or parameters of the German voluntary or non-profits sector still hold thing back.

Bundesliga Fanatic: While the 50+1 rule is a concrete example of legal boundaries you speak of, it sounds like deeper social and cultural values animate the way clubs are tied to communities.

Udo: Yes. One argument is that it’s post-World War II political values, particularly political values intended to avoid a repeat of the Third Reich, etc. The second argument is that there has simply been more resistance in Germany than in other countries in the same kind of systematic way and magnitude. There are examples, like the ultras in Italy, who question the hyper-commercialization of Italian football. But my argument is that German’s resistance and struggles are much broader and have been going on for a longer time, though quite often not as spectacular as some of the ultra performances. In Germany, fans have been niggling those in power for quite a long time. Although there has been some resistance in England, I think part of the problem is that many of the traditional supporters have been priced out of the game.

Bundesliga Fanatic: From what I’ve read and observed, it seems like there’s more resignation in the UK about “modern football” and you also see some folks turning to alternatives, like AFC Wimbledon or FC United of Manchester of Manchester. You see examples of this in Hamburg, Germany with FC Falke, or with Hannover 96 supporters leaving the top flight club to support the reserve side. However, it seems like Germany culture has a stronger activist bent in terms of resisting and fighting against “modern football.”

Udo: Yes, exactly. And the whole process of football becoming more commercialized and becoming fully integrated in the market economy came relatively late to Germany, compared with England. And it was a slower process, so people could adjust to it or fight against it when they wanted to. Contrast this with the commercialization of English first division football and rise of the Premier League, which was quite rapid and the consequences were far-reaching and implemented from one minute to another.

Bundesliga Fanatic: What role has DFB played in preserving German football? I read your piece on the DFB’s historical political roots and tendencies, so I imagine there’s something interesting here.

Udo: Well, let’s make a distinction first between the DFL, which you could call a sort of partner organization to the DFB. The latter oversees all activities in German football, about 99% of German football, which is not commercialized, not commodified, or is semi-professional, etc. There’s the other 1%, the tip of the iceberg, which is obviously what most people are interested in – basically, the Bundesliga, the Bundesliga 2, etc. So everything football-related that is professional where money is changing hands is overseen by the DFL.

In the past, there have been – let’s call them – tensions between the DFB and DFL, simply because the DFB’s aim is to oversee the whole of football, not just professional football, not just the Bundesliga. But really football from the grassroots level up to the very top. I think it’s interesting to see that Germans have decided to have two organizations; other countries have done this too. At the end of the day, the DFB is the more powerful in terms of having a public mandate, while the DFL is much more powerful in terms of having money, obviously because of television deals, merchandizing, and all these sorts of things. Consequently, the DFB has always been a bit cautious, because it needs to keep the good of the whole of football in mind, not just looking out for the Bundesliga and the world of professional football.

Bundesliga Fanatic: To hit on a more current topic, you did a piece of scholarship on the emergence of a more diverse and multiethnic German men’s national team – and we’re starting to see this with the German women’s national team as well. What are your thoughts on the current relationship between both national teams, national identity, and nation building in Germany? As you describe it, there’s a more playful version of German nationalism emerging in the last couple World Cups …

Udo: This is a huge story, but it really begins in the 1990s when people in Germany realized that their version of “Germanness” was becoming more and more outdated, which was ultimately reflected in some legislation going through, for example: the notion of German citizenship had to be changed; German law could not just refer to “Germans” if they had German blood, but had to use much wider terms – because German has a large Turkish population, in which the second generation of Turks don’t even speak Turkish anymore and were born in Germany.

To cut this story short, the 90s where when people started to rethink the notion of “Germanness” and fundamental changes were made to the law. In 2006, when Germany hosted the World Cup, this new perspective became visible to the rest of the world. In the old fashion sense of “Germanness,” people didn’t celebrate in public. By contrast, the 2006 World Cup demonstrated that Germany had come to terms with new notions of “Germanness” and became more relaxed – I mean, this was the first time Germans were painting their faces in national colors and their cars had the national flag. In the past, this didn’t happen because everyone was a bit insecure.

So the 2006 World Cup was almost a bit of a liberation for Germany. This event was the backstory for when you now look at the national team play and you look at the names of the players (you can almost guess where their families are from, although the players were all born in Germany). I mean, Germany has become a more open-minded country – although some of the conservative politicians in power might disagree with me –  but I think people in Germany have chilled out a lot more. For example, I was back in Germany just last week when it was just a first few days into Ramadan. And know Germans know these things, because there are so many more Muslims around, sharing the same neighborhoods – and people know this. And this is the kind of Germany that I love. Even older people are open to talking about Muslim neighbors.

It’s a more open and relaxed society now, which is reflected in the world of German football. Football both mirrors the changes in German, as well as being quite influential in pointing people to paths of change much earlier than other parts of German society.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Casting into the future, do you see this process continuing in which sport/football mirrors and drives changes in German society?

Udo: Of course it does! Don’t forget that many football players are still role models for younger people. But I just wish that more of them would be outspoken, because I know that many of them are quite thoughtful and some of them are quite different – for example, gay, but don’t come out. And it would really help if these players were more open about their views and attitudes toward, for example, homosexuality. But I’m pretty convinced that, considering how much the world of football is integrated into German society, it will continue to have a great impact on German society.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Udo, it was a happy accident that I discovered your name! I was doing a Google Scholar search for any work on the Soccer Made in Germany PBS television program, and your name popped up in somebody’s bibliography!  I thought, “Who’s this guy?” and it opened up a whole world scholarship that I wish more people knew about. I wish more women and men like you could be in TV booths and in more popular publications around the world, since you add such richness to discourses around sport.

Thank you so much for sharing your time and knowledge.

Udo: You’re quite welcome. I really enjoyed talking to you, Travis.

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. He writes for Howler magazine's website, as well as The Short Pass where he covers the USL and other topics. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and sports are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, and his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!