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Brought to book

All right, then. You ready? Okay, here we go.

'The following analysis is guided by reflections indigenous to a hermeneutics-orientated cultural sociology and philiosophy (see in particular Andreas Reckwitz's brilliant studies of 1999 and 2000). According to this, culture is about collective forms of meaningful adoptions of the world. Culture results from hermeneutic processes during which subjects start a process of understanding and provide the world with a meaning. But this cognitive adopting cannot be achieved by an autonomous individual who, in doing so, creates to a certain extent the world of ideas out of his subjectivity.'

This quote is from the book I meant to tell you about two weeks ago - German Football: History, Culture, Society. Those lines may give you an idea why it took me longer than expected to read it, and even longer to form an opinion about it.

See, when I asked for a review copy I didn't know it was an academic work, collecting contributions from people who represent faculties such as Leisure Studies, Sociology of Sport, Cultural Studies or Historical Studies. (If you allow me an aside: Grammatical Studies would probably teach us that the latter two fields of endeavour could be vastly improved if they were called Studies on Culture and Studies on History.)

I have not chosen this quote, an admittedly extreme example, to scare you off. The book does have its rewards, but in order to reap them you should be prepared for this kind of language and willing to put up with what in the world of non-academics is called very bad writing.

You should accept that even the most mundane observations have to be backed up by somebody else's findings (see in particular anyone's brilliant studies from anytime). You should grin and bear it when processes start a process, when individuals are autonomous, when many things only happen to a certain extent and when trying to find meaning in something is called 'hermeneutics'. And you should be prepared for the over-extensive use of the word 'discursive', often in a sense unknown to Webster and Collins.

It didn't take too many pages for me to accept this style, but that's probably because my own university years are not that far behind me. In fact, my M.A. thesis was entitled Baseball and American Myths, so I can relate to writing about sports in an academic manner, even though there's not a single 'hermeneutics' or 'discursive' on the 122 pages of my thesis.

But if you are not in any way familiar with such stuff, then steer clear, especially since this book, like all academic publications, is pretty expensive. The UK branch of Amazon may suggest you order this together with the Robbie Fowler autobiography as its 'perfect partner', but that's either a subtle joke or what happens when you leave databases unmonitored.

But let's presume you are so interested in German football, its history, its culture and the society that spawned and sustains it that you're ready and willing to try something off-off-Broadway. What do you get? Thirteen essays - and one 'philosophical epilgoue' - on subjects that range from the role of Turkish immigrants in German grassroots football or our women's game to German fan subcultures on the internet or FIFA's shenanigans behind the scenes during the build-up to the 1974 World Cup.

About half of the pieces come from German-speaking authors, the rest is of English origin. Some of them are quite intriguing. The pages dealing with hooliganism in the GDR were probably my personal highlight, as this is a topic I know next to nothing about.

And Alan Tomlinson's contribution, Germany 1974: On the eve of the goldrush, is quite well-written, considering the competition, and full of inside information I found gripping: Tomlinson not only had access to private papers from Sir Stanley Rous, the former FIFA president, he also spoke to four high-ranking officials and culled some great quotes from them. Keith Cooper, FIFA's former director of communications, is fantastically frank in his assessment of England's bid for the 2006 World Cup.

But by and large, what I found at times missing from the 258 pages was what the title promises, namely a deeper understanding of or a clearer focus on German football, German history, German culture and German society. Oh, it does surface in some pieces, but very often the connection seems strained or downright constructed.

Such as when Paul Cooke and Christopher Young argue that the darker parts of German history were the reason why Schalke fan and book author Bodo Berg cheered Manchester United's victory over Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final. Berg's own, much simpler explanation, namely that an English friend of his supported United, is dismissed because 'for an avid supporter of a football club, it is counter-intuitive to celebrate the victory of any other club, not least that of a friend. (...) Normal football discourse is bent to accommodate the overriding dictate of the historical.'

Translation: Berg cheered for United on account of a historical German guilt towards the English.

Now, I'm not going to deny we're still a guilt-ridden nation, but that's taking things too far. What about the more than sizeable part of the English population who supported Bayern on that night? Did they simply hate United, or do we have to suspect there's a hitherto undiscussed historical counter-guilt at work here? And of course it is very, very intuitive for avid supporters to celebrate the victories of other clubs, as you can hear on any given Saturday at any given ground when the results of the other matches are announced.

I think the problem for many of the book's contributors was that their forte is generalisation, which is also why they almost completely ignore club football and concentrate on the national team. This invariably leads to misinterpretations, and those have nothing to do with whether the writer is English or German. It's simply that they are academics with next to no roots in football, thus they jump at the most obvious targets.

'West Germany's victory in the second World Cup in 1974 heralded an outright football craze,' says Gunter Gebauer in the epilogue. (Please ignore the wording. He means West Germany winning their second World Cup.) Well, it did not.

In fact, when you have a look at the evolution of Bundesliga attendance figures, you'll have to come to the conclusion that a craze must have set in during the year before the World Cup! This is a befuddling stat only when you take it for granted that the popularity of the game is closely linked with the performances of the national team. But for almost every fan, his or her club is much more important, thus the biggest blow of that era was the Bundesliga bribe scandal, which led to a dramatic decrease in attendances and TV ratings - at the very time when the best German national team in history won the European Championships in great style.

Which is also why I'd contest Gebauer's conclusion that 'the World Cup is the organization of sites for belief, for devotion and for cult worship'. That's what club football is for. The World Cup is primarily fun. Or so I hope.


  • Uli's seminal history of German football, Tor!, is available online.

    Also available: Uli's new book Flutlicht und Schatten for all you German scholars to gen up on the history of European club competitions.

  • Any thoughts on this article? Email us.