Nobody’s writing off the Germans this time

For all the doom and gloom engulfing German football, the team itself has the look of champions.

Matthias Heitmann

Topics Politics

Spring 2006. Germany is preparing for an event that should help overcome the country’s depression. It isn’t just the German economy that is down in the dumps; the public is depressed, too. But the football World Cup is just around the corner. The whole nation is longing for something entertaining, for something of which to be proud. People are hoping for a miracle, like the ‘Miracle of Bern’ in 1954, when West Germany beat the favourites, Hungary, in the World Cup final and celebrated a kind of second birth as a nation.

However, expectations in the run-up to the 2006 World Cup were not very high. Since 1996, the German team hadn’t won anything; it hadn’t even won a single match against one of the big teams. But somehow, people were ready for a second miracle. Even German chancellor Angela Merkel, just elected into office in autumn 2005, used part of her first official address to the nation to talk about football and the importance of the tournament. In the following months, every ministry had started its own football-related publicity campaign. So much political capital was resting on the outcome of the tournament that when the German team lost 1-4 to Italy a couple of months before the tournament, some members of the German Bundestag wanted to haul team boss Jürgen Klinsmann before parliament for an interrogation.

In fact the tournament, still referred to as the sommermärchen (summer tale), did prompt a change of mood among the public. And it helped Germany to become more popular in the world due to the relaxed sporting patriotism, the hospitality and, in particular, the party mood of the people – something that we Germans are not particularly known for. The whole country was fascinated by the ‘young wilds’. Team Deutschland became a synonym for a young, athletic but also technically developed style of football symbolising the ‘new Germany’ that had lost any similarities with its dark past.

The German team reached the semi-finals and sustained this momentum into the next two major tournaments, reaching the final of Euro 2008 and the semi-finals of World Cup 2010 in South Africa, with the team comprehensively beating both Argentina and England in an unprecedented manner.

2012: a new gloom descends

Today, as Euro 2012 gets underway, the mood around football is completely different – even though the German team is now among the favourites to win the tournament. Enthusiasm around the new German football of 2006 has been replaced by a profound sense of disillusionment. Debates don’t focus on the potential of the team, but on other issues – issues that are considered to be the flipside of success.

Following public debates and media coverage of football recently, you might get the impression that football is a sport in terminal decline. It seems to be suddenly confronted with a wave of terrace violence not seen for decades, a perceived combination of right-wing extremists trying to hijack the game and the rise of the ‘ultras’ – fanatical fans who have a reputation for hooliganism.

Despondency deepened when, in November 2011, Bundesliga referee Babak Rafati tried to commit suicide. His act was blamed on the ever-rising pressure on players, referees and officials in professional football. Especially after the suicide of national-team goalkeeper Robert Enke in 2009, more and more players and officials admitted to suffering from ‘burnout’. What appeared to be unique and somehow strange back in 2003, when national player Sebastian Deisler admitted to be suffering from depression, is now seen to be much more common. Mental illness appears to be a normal consequence of being a public figure in professional sports.

The rise of violence, inhumane pressure on people, a murderous programme of games that sacrifices players to the greedy football business, corruption, rising salaries, a talent-scouting system that, at least to some, appears like a modern form of child trafficking… the litany of negative issues afflicting football now seems endless. All this under the aegis of FIFA, a governing body with a reputation for corruption on a par with the Mafia.

How could this happen? How, within a few months, has the idea of football as an engine of national renewal been transformed into football as a symbol of moral and social decline?

To answer this question, we first have to get the balance right: the overemphasising of the socio-political importance of football, both in a positive and in a negative sense, is not only problematic for football, but also for society. Football runs the risk of drowning under the enormous moral burden being placed on it. Already today, the deformations caused by this pressure are visible. Whereas in 2006, football was seen as a vehicle to save the nation from collective decline and depression, it now seems to have lost all strength and credibility to do any good at all. Football is now not an engine of progress; it is an area of experimentation for politicians trying to develop new ways of controlling and connecting with people.

German football: Oktoberfest is more dangerous

One example of this is the debate about the alleged rise of terrace violence. The public is all too prepared to accept the exaggerated presentation of the problem and, as a consequence, to support officials clamping down on people’s rights. The facts and figures, however, tell a different story. Over the past 10 years, the number of arrests due to terrace violence has gone down by 10.6 per cent, and the number of prosecutions by 3.6 per cent. Overall, only 0.005 per cent of football spectators have been injured. In an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung from November 2011, Michael Horeni emphasised the meaning of these figures: ‘Statistically, it is still more dangerous to visit the Munich Oktoberfest than to watch football in a stadium. And also in former times: for example in the 80s, the situation was much worse than it is today.’ The widely travelled German football manager and former player Ewald Lienen has criticised the exaggeration of the level of violence, emphasising that ‘nowhere else is football such a well-ordered and civilised event’.

Anyone who regularly visited Bundesliga matches over the past few months will agree with Lienen. Of course, there are problems with violence, some linked to local rivalry or to the current situation of certain football clubs. But these incidences cannot seriously be compared to the problems European football faced in the 80s. It could even be argued that the sanitisation of modern football has led to a situation where fireworks and celebratory pitch invasions are considered to be major outbreaks of violence. In fact, German football’s boom in recent years has been aided by the fact that football stadiums have become very family-friendly.

Violence on German terraces is simply not on the rise. However, the concern that it is, and the continued criminalisation of football fans, may one day lead to a deterioration of the situation.

Is the football business too tough for football players?

Then there are the claims that the football business has been brutalised. Again, the opposite is the case. Rule changes in the past few years have led to a situation in which the game has almost become a non-contact sport. FIFA rules now mean that referees have little discretion when making disciplinary decisions, too. Yet contrary to expectations, the number of yellow and red cards has not risen dramatically.

The myth of the growing brutality of football is a myth that derives not from the evidence, but from the belief that the rising pressure on players has led to more brutal fouls. Then again, footballers are hardly alone in being seen to be victims of excessive pressure. Stress, caused by the endless demand for success, is a universal explanation for all sorts of problems in society at large.

The idea that increased pressure characterises our world in general, leading people to feel overwhelmed, leads to a very strange view of the world and of human beings. It is our vulnerability which is seen as characteristic of our ‘humanity’, not our resilience. It is no surprise, then, that in Germany, the issue of ‘burnout’ is the hot new issue in football. Individual cases, like those of goalkeeper Robert Enke or referee Rabak Rafati, are not discussed as personal tragedies; they are transformed into general symptoms of an inhuman, insanity-inducing system.

Role models, but for what?

Of course, the public monitoring of professional football players has changed in recent years. The tendency to overemphasise the importance of football clearly affects its protagonists. They are pushed to be role models for the younger generation, advertising flagships for all kinds of industries and ambassadors for whole nations – duties that most players cannot possibly fulfil. From an early age, talented kids are now dragged into professional football-education systems where they are made aware of their responsibilities.

To cast young players as role models tells us a lot about modern society’s values and expectations. It may also help to explain why professional football currently lacks the crazy and inspired stars of the past. The great economic and moral importance attached to football players, combined with codes of conducts imposed by clubs and the German Football Association (DFB), has turned professional football into a very uniform, even boring enterprise which does not ‘produce’ eccentric characters.

In the past, Germany produced World Cup winners like Paul Breitner (a former Maoist) and rule-breaking geniuses like Günter Netzer, who decided – having been dropped to the substitutes’ bench for the German cup final – to bring himself on (against his manager’s wishes) and proceeded to score the winning goal. Goalkeeper Oliver Kahn once nearly bit off an opponent’s ear and sometimes physically attacked team mates, while his successor in between the goalposts, Jens Lehmann, was decidedly eccentric, too.

One could argue that concentrating on performance in sport is an integral part of the professionalisation of football. But it is exactly this focus on performance that discussions about burnout proceed to undermine. Professional footballers have been turned into potentially weak and depressive victims in need of therapy. From the point of view of the player, these discussions take a very contradictory form. On the one hand, they have been brought up and trained to perform to a very high standard; on the other hand, society more and more rejects this focus on pure performance. This rejection is often expressed by the general view of professional sportsmen as being intellectually or emotionally limited.

As a result, players are asked to do the splits: be a focused and successful performer and an emotional and vulnerable, ordinary individual. This is also why a lot of players’ agents advise their clients to publicly support or even found charities. In a society which is not sure about the direction it has to take and which values to uphold, these forms of individual altruistic social engagement fit well the positive image of sports celebrities.

The insecurity about the nature of modern football is especially apparent when it comes to gender questions in sport. During the Women’s World Cup in Germany last summer, the debates between male football traditionalists and fans of women’s football sometimes took the form of ideological conflicts. Whereas male traditionalists were criticised as socially backward, pro-violence, anti-women and anti-gay, fans of women’s football were portrayed as modern, open-minded, interested in quality and elegance and non-prejudiced. In reality, both camps remained stuck in their classic gender stereotypes, but with reversed signs. Suddenly, women’s football was not criticised for the lack of quality, but men’s football was criticised for its alleged brutality. Due to the early elimination of the German team in the Women’s World Cup, the debate calmed down very quickly. What remained was the feeling that somehow men’s football is ‘too much’, ‘too fast’ and ‘too hard’.

It’s just football!

Professional football relies on society, not just financially, but also in terms of emotions and expectations. Back in 2006, football appeared to be able to save Germany from doom; today, football is a symbol for the alleged exhaustion of man with modern life. Both impressions are wrong. Many of those who are surprised by the negative and destructive way football is currently discussed were carried away by football enthusiasm in 2006. Both sentiments belong together, two sides of the same social hysteria that not only undermines the autonomy of football, but also the specific character of football and fan culture.

Whenever someone attempts to use or control football for political or other reasons, fans should stand up against this interference and defend their sport.

Matthias Heitmann is a freelance journalist and an editor at Novo. Visit his website here.

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Topics Politics


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