Achtung! Kick politics and morality out of football

A Frankfurt-based journalist and football fan tackles the German government for trying to reinvent the nation around the World Cup.

Matthias Heitmann

Topics Politics

When on a cold February morning this year I found the newsletter of the local power utility in my mailbox, I expected it to be filled with long and boring justifications for their recent price increases. Instead, the company’s communication unit had decided to transform its newsletter into a football magazine. I’m a football fan and a fervent supporter of the local Bundesliga team Eintracht Frankfurt, but I was terribly bored and appalled – not just by the actual content of the paper, but by the company’s decision to take the easy option of avoiding the debate about electricity prices in favour of talking about football.

It seems that football has become instrumentalised, and also a way of covering up any kind of open and honest discussion about real issues. Here in Germany, the whole public – politics as well as business – have jumped on the World-Cup bandwagon in the hope of latching on to whatever enthusiasm, dynamism and optimism that might arise. Chancellor Angela Merkel, not previously known as a follower of football, used football language in her first government policy statement and emphasised the ‘national importance’ of the World Cup tournament.

If you listen to German politicians, it seems the World Cup is expected to help us solve just about every problem facing the country: it will apparently create new jobs, provide companies with rising profits, increase gross domestic product by half a per cent, and – very important for many Germans – be environmentally friendly. In short, the World Cup is expected to be something of a clearance kick for Germany that will wipe away the gloom and generate a new form of optimism and national self-confidence.

Of course, the World Cup can do no such thing – and in investing so much hope in it, the German authorities risk fuelling public cynicism and ruining our beautiful game.

Even before the World Cup started, there were numerous ups and downs in the national mood about the national team. Under the aegis of the national coach Jürgen Klinsmann, who became manager in 2004, there seemed to be hope for some better football, and maybe even optimism – until the German team lost 4-1 to Italy on 1 March this year (not exactly a big surprise). Suddenly, the bandwagon that was to carry the nation forward stalled. Before, Germany had desperately tried to stylise the performance of its national team during the Confederations Cup 2005 into a successful trial for this year’s tournament. That was difficult enough, since the German team – as always during the past 10 years – proved unable to defeat any of the great football nations in a tournament match.

However, after the disastrous ‘Italian week’ in March (Bayern Munich got kicked out of the Champions League by Inter Milan just a couple of days after Germany lost to Italy), public opinion keeled over, and cautious optimism collapsed into frustration and cynicism. Popular coach Klinsmann came under fire, and started to be regarded as a liability. Suddenly, safety issues around the new football arenas, and debates about the deployment of armed forces and Awacs planes to prevent terrorist attacks during the World Cup tournament, dominated the headlines. Some members of the Bundestag even wanted Klinsmann to appear before the Bundestag Sports Committee to explain his strategy for the games. Meanwhile, Klinsmann’s colleague Oliver Bierhoff called on German club managers to fulfil their ‘patriotic duty’ by preferring German players in their club teams – what a pathetic appeal! And when FIFA boss Sepp Blatter felt the need to criticise the German public for its lack of World Cup euphoria, it became patently clear that public attitudes to the tournament and Germany’s chances of success had shifted.

Three weeks later, everything seemed fine again. The German team defeated the US team 4–1. Discussions of ‘German rehabilitation’ were everywhere in the news (often overlooking the fact that the Americans were missing many of their top players). Everyone who saw the match must have wondered how Germany’s poor performance could provide any basis for optimism. Yet many started arguing that all the previous talk about a crisis had been misguided, and the hard-won victory against ‘USA II’ appeared to put an end to much of the earlier public whingeing. But again, that upbeat mood lasted barely a week. New betting scandals shattered the fragile football nation 100 days before the first World Cup whistle.

What do these strong and irrational changes in mood indicate? Many critics blame media hype and the commercialisation of football. Others accuse politicians of hijacking the World Cup. Though these aspects are worth noting, they cannot explain the hysterical football trauma currently affecting Germany.

When we compare the current situation to the last World Cup in Germany in 1974, things become clearer. One of the most notable differences between 1974 and today is the political and social relevance attached to the event. Football historians describe World Cup ’74 as a very cool and emotionless tournament which people observed with restraint. There was little national enthusiasm around the German team. Although the commercialisation of football had by that time reached previously unknown levels – with World Cup mascots everywhere, even on underwear – popular sentiment only changed after the team improved.

Perhaps the attack on the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972 had a certain dampening effect on popular emotions around the World Cup tournament two years later. More important, however, were the general circumstances in which that tournament took place. The German economy wasn’t in very good shape in the mid-1970s. After the oil crisis of 1973, the world economy faced recession and Germany’s full-employment paradise was confronted with mounting joblessness (between 1973 and 1975 unemployment in West Germany quadrupled from 273,000 to more than one million).

At that time, though, football was not viewed as a catalyst for social change in the way it is today. The crisis in the Seventies was severe, but since politics, political programmes and social visions still played a role, public opinion was not as downbeat as it is currently. Trust in progress and growth and in society’s ability to solve its problems was still widespread. Whereas now the World Cup is looked upon as the prime engine for social development, the tournament in 1974 was seen as a welcome distraction from political and social problems and a nice thing to have in an otherwise rather cold and rainy summer.

Politics was considered to be about problem-solving, and politicians believed in their capacity to connect with people over political issues. They didn’t try to masquerade as football fans. Or, as football historians Ludger Schulze and Thomas Kistner have pointed out: ‘In those days, Germany didn’t require a football triumph to find itself – the nation was one of the most powerful engines of world economy.’

By contrast, World Cup 2006 is seen as an event that will help Germany redefine itself internationally. For example, Deutsche Bahn (German Railways) forced 10,000 employees into training programmes to improve their friendliness and customer service in the run-up to the event. This kind of obsession with how Germany will appear to the rest of the world during the tournament is an embarrassment; it seems to suggest that providing a better service has no real merit in and of itself, but rather is only beneficial in terms of how others might regard us.

Political campaigns such as ‘Land of Ideas’ and ‘YOU are Germany!’ have been launched to promote social coherence and optimism. Nearly all German ministries are now running their own campaigns around football and the World Cup, all seeking to foster a positive outlook and the kind of confidence everyday life is apparently unable to generate. The way the event is looked upon as a catalyst for social renewal speaks volumes about the intellectual, political and economic stagnation Germany currently suffers from. It seems almost as though the country has to solve all of its problems during this short tournament. Germany is behaving like a medieval village dressing up for the short flying visit of the king, desperately longing for attention. The question needs to be asked: what would have happened if FIFA had decided that World Cup 2006 should take place in South Africa? And more to the point: will there be any purpose to life in Germany after 10 July…?

Another myth must be tackled – the idea that the World Cup can fundamentally improve a nation’s political, social and economic condition. Consider some facts and figures. In South Korea, World Cup 2002 accounted for growth effects of more than 3.4 billion euros. Many expect Germany to benefit in a similar way. The difference, however, is that South Korea was a very dynamic country with growth rates between 3 and 4.5 per cent in the years before and after the World Cup – the kind of rates Germany stopped even dreaming about a long time ago. Whereas World Cup 2002 provided South Korea with an extra boost for its already fast-growing economy, German politicians hope World Cup 2006 will actually wipe out the barriers to recovery and pave the way for a fundamental upturn of the German economy. That is, I think you’ll agree, a rather futile wish.

Also, the World Cup cannot be charged with lightening the public mood. Certainly the German victory in 1974 had no big impact in that regard. Likewise, national enthusiasm in 1990 was not brought about by Germany’s defeat of Argentina in the World Cup final, but by the big political changes signalled by the collapse of the Berlin wall. Then, the World Cup victory fitted in to the broader general picture, with Franz Beckenbauer predicting German football invincibility for years to come. That was all due to the momentous sense of wider change at that time, not to football as such.

Even the ‘Wunder von Bern’ back in 1954 did not provide any material basis for social, political or economic improvements. The surprising victory against Hungary did indeed have a big impact – but again, the reasons did not lie on the pitch. Nine years after the Second World War, that World Cup victory provided Germany with the very first opportunity to make positive headlines worldwide. In addition, the sensation in Berne took place during the ’economic miracle’, when the German public slowly regained optimism and prosperity. In that situation, the team around Fritz Walter naturally became a symbol of progress, without politicians trying to use the event for artificial self-aggrandisement (in fact, no German politician went to watch the ‘Wunder von Bern’).

Just as Fritz Walter and his colleagues did not cause the positive mood in Germany in 1954, so Jürgen Klinsmann and co will not spread positivity today, irrespective of the football they will play. The unstable public spirit in the run-up to the event shows that many of us are even unable to cope with a pretty insignificant defeat against Italy.

In fact, overwhelming World Cup 2006 with expectations that have no relation to football can actually fuel popular cynicism. While most are enjoying the competition, even die-hard football fans are fed up with the current omnipresence of football in everyday life.

Blowing up the World Cup into an event of vital social importance is problematic, both for society, which is tying irrational expectations to this one single event, and for the beautiful game itself. These days, players are expected to act as role models and goodwill ambassadors, a trend which can very easily lead to conformism – both among the public as well as on the pitch. Back in 1974, Germany could at least countenance an ex-Maoist (Paul Breitner) holding the national flag. In comparison to Klinsmann’s squad, the team of ’74 appears like a bunch of non-adjusted, ingenious and crazy freaks that would be unacceptable in today’s conformist climate.

Unfortunately, German football today not only suffers from a lack of crazy freaks. Football bureaucrats are fuelling conformism by trying to live up to the expectations of the political and economic establishments. For those of us who believe in social progress and enjoy football, the situation looks unhealthy. To move forward, society should stop getting lost in irrational hopes about the force of football. And football fans should reclaim the game for themselves. My motto? Give politics and morality in football the red card – the ball is ours!

Matthias Heitmann is co-editor of the German magazine Novo.

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