Book Review: Footballers are Menschen Too

Language is a simple, yet large barrier for English language followers of the Bundesliga. I would know. This barrier is so large that I’ve been slowly teaching myself German for years in order to follow the news on kicker.de or the cultural writing at 11Freunde.de, or the tabloidesque sports page of Bild.de (yes, dear readers, me too). While I still plug many words and some sentences into Google translate (then parse out the often semantically garbed results), I can now largely follow kicker‘s live-feed, as well as most of its simple news pieces with relative reading speed. But, damnit, has the linguistic road been long and hard. And all for the Bundesliga.

I say all this about language barriers to help you appreciate the gift that Jonathan Harding‘s book Mensch: Beyond the Cones (June 3rd, Ockley Books, Huddersfield, 256 pages) is for English language lovers of the Bundesliga. If you listen to the Tribune podcast or follow Deutsche Welle‘s English language Bundesliga coverage, you’ll know who Harding is; he’s one of the key English language voices covering German football, and with Mensch‘s publication, I’m sure you’ll be hearing a lot more from him.

Harding poses one central question in Mensch: what sets German coaching apart? He answers this question in 14 chapters, each focusing on one main (usually interviewed) character related to the German coaching system. Each chapter is named after a key coaching term, like Leidenschaft (passion), Lehrer (teacher), Vorsprung (edge), Erfinder (innovator), Reife (maturity), or Malocher (grafter). Some of the usual big names in German coaching are in Harding’s narrative—e.g. Jürgen Klopp, Julian Nagelsmann, and Matthias Sammer; as are names who English readers need to know more about, like Christian Streich, Hannes Wolf, and David Wagner; but also many unknown names, like Lily Agg, Frank Wormuth, Eckhard Krautzun, Ismail Atalan, Lars Kornetka, Daniel Nieddzkowski, or Helmut Groß. In this aspect, Harding’s list of sources takes the pulse on the minds and ideas currently driving German football. Like today, right now. (For example, I learned that Horst Wein’s training concept of FUNiño is all the rage in Germany, which gives kids more ball touches, exposure to 1v1 and 2v1 situations, as well as constant decision-making; even here in the U.S. my nine year old has a couple weekly FUNiño exercises at training). Harding takes us to the cutting edge both on the pitch, but especially off it in terms of the technology, psychology, and pedagogy at play in the German football system.

To underscore the book’s central question, Harding opens each chapter with a key quote from that chapter’s protagonist (“We’ve arrived in an unrealistic realm, but it’s the current reality” – Christian Streich; “I’ve taken the stairs, not the lift” – Hannes Wolf) and wraps up each chapter with a key lesson (“Challenge everything” or “How you explain [things] changes for everyone” or “Victory comes in many forms”). This chapter-by-chapter frame moves Mensch beyond being an investigative narrative about German coaching and into the realm of a quasi-coaching manual, broadening the book’s potential audience.

If you knew Harding’s name prior, you probably knew that he’s a centerback at the amateur level. In fact, “Defending with Harding” was the name for mini-rants about defensive technique he used to make on early seasons of the Talking Fußball podcast. Harding taps into his personal experience playing amateur football (at Bonner SC II) in Germany to open his investigation to what makes German coaching different. The experience is a revelation for Harding when recounting his own playing struggles: “I was overrun. My first touch under pressure remained wobbly and I was desperate not to lose the ball rather than use it sensibly.” Then new coach Sascha Ochsendorf arrives. And suddenly, Harding comes to learn the power of effective coaching: “Once I had woken up from childish dreams of how good I would have been had I sought out this level of coaching when I was much younger, I began to enjoy the basic human process of improving.” Ochsendorf’s obsession and passion sparks Harding’s investigation. The coach, who works at the local airport at nights, brings big league intensity to the chaos of Germany’s Kreisliga. His coaching is a gift. But Ochsendorf’s Leidenschaft also contains a fundamental lesson about football and life, as Harding explains: “Half of the German word for passion—Leidenschaft—means to suffer (leiden), Half of doing what you love is suffering, hurting for it. Sascha did that for us in the hope we’d do the same for him. At the amateur level or not, a good feeling isn’t enough at some point, especially when you aren’t winning. Growth becomes paramount.”

In this opening chapter, Harding crystallizes his book’s thematic focus, which I’ll steal from one of quotes in the paragraph above: “basic human.” This is a book about people—who happen to be involved in football—and being human. Philosophically, Harding’s anthropology is captured in Ochsendorf’s Leidenschaft: that what humans pursue and value the most will cause suffering, but that growth itself is a sort of balm and catalyst through the suffering. Or even that growth is contingent on suffering. This human lesson underpins everything Harding discusses about football coaching in Germany.

With this central philosophy, I’ll risk saying all the big stuff first, and claim that Mensch is a refreshing corrective to the dominant topics in football media and discourse. Increasingly with football, it’s become easier to talk about tactics, statistics, the economic business of football, the coaching carousel, the transfer market, and the mostly corrupt organization running our sport, like UEFA or FIFA. And while outlets like the Player’s Tribune and Instagram give athletes their own platforms for self-expression, it seems that our relationship with football and its people grows even more alienated and instrumentalized than ever before. Unpacking the causes here is outside the scope of this review, but suffice it to say that Harding’s Mensch opens a space for humanizing football.

Harding does this both by focusing on the personal narratives of player and coaches, but also by explicitly reflecting on the values driving them and drawing explicit lessons about what he’s learned. This reflective turn is crucial, meaning that Harding is able to get beyond what I’ll call the quasi-humanization I tend to see in football biographies, which devolve into personal narrative without much reflection on values, decision-making, and larger societal trends influencing football.

That said, there is much crowd-pleasering content in Mensch about tactics, technology, and teaching. For instance, my favorite chapter was chapter 2 (“Kompetenz“), which is built around Harding’s interview with Frank Wormuth, the renowned former head of Germany’s fabled coaching academy in Henref where future German football coaches earn their elite Fußball-Lehrer licence. Readers might recognize Wormuth’s name from Aljoscha Pause’s 2013 documentary Trainer!. Arguably, Wormuth is the star of Harding’s narrative, given his hand in profoundly influencing a staggering number of German coaches. Harding’s chapter focuses both on Wormuth’s philosophy and work, but also on the fascinating nuts and bolts of the Fußball-Lehrer program; for example, Harding provides a sample student’s weekly schedule (e.g. Monday has “Psychology [5 classes], FL [6 classes, 2 practical evenings with a demo group] – 11 exercises [8am-8pm]”), describes course subject matter, as well as emphasizes the program’s selectivity and demands. Currently, the envy of the football world, the German academy will probably get even better when a state-of-the-art center opens in Frankfurt in 2021, which will become the think tank of German football headed by Dr. Thomas Hauser.

Another crowd-pleaser is the chapter (“Initiative”) on the popular “Packing” rate metric, which measures how many opponents one’s passing bypasses, the idea being that the more opponents passed, the greater the attacking threat: “Players ‘taken out of the game’ by a pass are those no longer between the ball and the goal … It’s called ‘Packing’ because those players taken out of the game are ‘packed’ and out of play.” In this chapter, Harding interviewed former player Stefan Reinartz, who co-created the metric with another former pro, Jens Hegeler. Reinartz explains how the concept can be adapted to any type of club and playing philosophy and that the “Packing” rate is a good example of a metric with immediately meaning, beyond mere count stats for things like ball possessions, ball touches, etc. We also learn that the likes of Thomas Tuchel are mad about the metric and that many Bundesliga players look at their own “Packing” stats immediately after matches. (Tip: this chapter will make you love Mesut Özil.)

Aside from the fun crowd-pleasing content, there was much new content in Mensch—at least new to most English language Bundesliga followers. My favorite example was chapter 3 (“Lehrer”), which documented the annual ITK meeting, “a three-day annual event where top-level coaches met and exchanged ideas.” This meeting, which has happened since 1957 in Germany, is a three-day gathering of German football coaches from all levels (about 1,000 coaches attend). During three days, Germany’s footballing brain trust is renewed.

Harding attended the 2018 ITK session, which was focused on the 2018 Russia World Cup debacle, in which the defending World Champs were eliminated in the group stage in humiliating and historic fashion. However, we learn that this seemingly promising summit devolved into drama (you’ll have to read the book to learn more). Matthias Sammer starred in Harding’s narrative of the ITK—Sammer has a thing against “flat hierarchies.” Surprisingly, we also learn there are cries for wholesale change to youth football training in Germany. Anyhow, this chapter is a cornucopia of politics, history, pedagogy, and football nuts and bolts. Perhaps Harding’s strongest chapter in the book.

However, chapter 12 (“Philosoph”) is a sort of biography-within-a-book, starring Christian Streich. Even casual Bundesliga followers will know that Streich is something of a revered name in the Bundesliga world. The Freiburg coach is understood as one of football’s original thinkers—in both sporting and political senses. Harding’s treatment of the bicycle-riding coach does not disappoint. Streich is surely the most highly educated and cultured coach in Germany, so it’s no wonder that he’s “someone who values the right choice of words.” Precise and striking language are such a part of the Streich mystique that newspapers like Bild and the Badische Zeitung include regular pieces about the coach’s latest saying, as Harding explains. However, while documenting the quirks that make Streich special, Harding dives into what he sees as the coach’s real significance: his philosophical perspective on German society and the professionalization of football. Here, Streich is insightful and dialectical, acknowledging the gross excesses and commercial bloat of the modern game, while also recognizing its philosophical power. This perspective highlights Streich the supreme humanizer of football in Mensch. More than any character is Harding’s narrative, Streich recognizes, values, and trains up people, not mere footballers, in his job: “With an emphasis put on respect, growth, empathy, and understanding the importance of social issues, Streich has created one of the great learning environments in football.” From now on, I’ll be thinking about SC Freiburg as a realm of virtue ethics training—through football, and back out into life. Streich himself gives a startling motto for his existential project: “We don’t have to win. What we have to do is die.”

Harding shows us that German football is so many things, such as youth development, cutting edge technology, psychology, statistical analysis, elite coaching training, and a never-ending desire for marginal improvements. However, these elements already grab all the media headlines. What Harding does is correct this conventional understanding that German football is successful because it’s a system. Yes, the whole thing is very systematic, but Harding reminds us that it’s really more about people, die Menschen, and that the very success of German football is only as good as how its people are treated.

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. 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 Howler magazine, 11Freunde, America Magazine, The Short Pass, Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

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