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Dec 23, 2008

Lest we forget

The festive season is sometimes referred to as a time of contemplation, so I got all thoughtful and pensive on Friday evening.

That was the day my club, Borussia Dortmund, turned 99 years of age and launched what will be twelve months of celebrations to mark our centenary. The main event on Friday was a service at the Trinity Church, as this parish in a roundabout way spawned the club. The highlight of the service was supposedly a suffragan bishop blessing the club's flag.

I say "supposedly" because while I hung around the church and took part in a guided tour, I didn't stay around for the service itself. In part because I felt the whole hullabaloo was quite cheeky of the church.

After all, the club that was celebrated with this service only exists because the church was vehemently opposed to football and for all practical purposes forced those who loved the game out of the parish and into the formation of their own, renegade association.

The local chaplain railed against football from the pulpit and ordered the members of the parish's sodality (some kind of low-scale YMCA) to stop playing. He even gate-crashed the club's foundation meeting to save all souls present, which led to fisticuffs and the interesting sight of a chaplain sporting a shiner. This in turn started a full-blown feud over the next years. Think sawn-off goalposts and services intentionally scheduled to coincide with games to force people into choosing between secular fun and salvation.

Well, maybe I'm too harsh on the church here. Perhaps what smacked of co-opting the club and re-writing its history was in fact just a gesture of atonement. Be that as it may, it got me thinking about how much we really know about our football history and how much we really care about it. And, to finally get to the point, where and how we present it.

Earlier in the day, Borussia Dortmund had proudly opened its museum, the "Borusseum". As much as I welcome this, isn't it a bit strange that it took us 99 years to get something like that off the ground? Oh, we've had a museum before, but that was a modest collection of display cases well-hidden at the rear of the main merchandise store. Not more than an afterthought, really.

Being so sluggish when it comes to portraying the past is not unusual. In fact, it appears to be the norm. After years and years of planning and debating, scheduling and more debating, spin-doctoring and further debating we still don't have a national football museum in Germany. Perhaps a decision will at very long last be made in January (Dortmund and Gelsenkirchen are now the final two candidates for the museum's site). But I wouldn't bet on it.

And it's not as if such negligence is a German phenomenon. When England's national football museum was opened in Preston, reports referred to it as "the world's first major football museum". And that was in 2001 - no less than 129 years after the first international was played. To put this into perspective: the World Rugby Museum in Twickenham dates from 1996, the British Golf Museum in St Andrews opened in 1990, the NFL's Hall of Fame was established in 1963, there is a national horse racing museum in Saratoga Springs since 1950 and baseball fans got their Cooperstown shrine as early as 1939.

Even if the reports that claimed the Preston museum was the first big one solely devoted to football were wrong (there is a Museo del Calcio in Tuscany since March of 2000), it indeed seems the game is strangely slow in documenting the past. After all, even proud Brazil got its Museu do Futebol, located in São Paulo, only three months ago.

Pelé, who opened the museum in September, was quoted as saying: "There are lots of great museums in the world - the Louvre, Madam Tussaud's - but no museum dedicated to football." While he was slightly mistaken about that, it's certainly not as if football museums exist in abundance.

When the Preston museum published its annual report in mid-2006, a chapter headed "Shared Vision" said: "The National Football Museum has also advised the projects to establish national football museums in Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, Brazil, Japan, Korea and Uruguay." Brazil seems to be checked off now, but that still leaves many tradition-laden footballing countries without a commemoration centrepiece.

You could be forgiven for thinking we don't really care about football's history. The Munich-based company that captured the 1954 World Cup on film destroyed the spools only a few years later because it needed storage space. The original Jules Rimet trophy vanished from the headquarters of the Brazilian FA in 1983. In 1996, three English companies bought the ball used in the 1966 World Cup final from Helmut Haller and put it on display at Waterloo station - a blunder, considering the ball bore the signatures of the men who played in the final and quite a few of their contemporaries.

According to Mark Bushell, spokesman of the museum in Preston: "The ball was left in direct sunlight and all the signatures faded."

Despite these and other mishaps, there are still tons of things left that are worth displaying and preserving, many of them stockpiled by private collectors. And the public is interested in seeing them.

Eight years ago, there was a spectatcular exhibition in Oberhausen to celebrate the German FA's centenary. It ran for five months and attracted more than 215,000 visitors, or roughly 1,250 per day.

On the day I went there, the place was absolutely packed. And even the kids were fascinated. They may not have known why there was a crossbar hovering over their heads (the very piece of wood Geoff Hurst's shot hit in the 101st minute of the 1966 World Cup final), but they sure liked the multimedia stuff.

I have no idea where all those wonderful exhibits are now, probably gathering dust in dark basements or back in the homes of the people who provided them. It's really about time we find a permanent place for them, so I hope 2009 will begin with the German FA's long-awaited decision about and commitment to a national museum.

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