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Feb 15, 2011

A beer and a bratwurst, please!

Fifteen of my friends like Felix Magath. More precisely, fifteen of my Facebook friends like Felix Magath. Still more precisely, fifteen of my Facebook friends like Felix Magath's Facebook page.

Of those 15, one has no affiliation to a German club because he's from England, one supports Bremen, one supports Bochum, one probably supports Cologne, one supports a club from Hamburg (I've never been entirely sure which one, though), a whopping seven support Dortmund and only three support Schalke.

I admit this is not a representative sample, because many of my Facebook friends come from the Dortmund area, yet it is not an unfairly biased sample either, because there are actually quite a lot of Schalke supporters among my friends (in both real life and on Facebook).

And a lot of them quite obviously do not like Felix Magath. On Facebook, I mean - not necessarily in real life. After all, they did not click 'Like'.

If you don't have the foggiest notion what this introduction is all about, let me tell you that Facebook has played a prominent role in the sports coverage in Germany this past week, all because of Felix Magath and unrest at his club, Schalke.

My last column, the one about the youth movement and how Magath seems to buck the trend, may have given you an idea that even many Schalke fans are not too happy about the direction their club appears to be taking and how Magath goes about his business.

One accusation regularly brought forth was that Magath isn't interested in how the fans feel and what they think. On February 6, the umbrella organisation of Schalke's fan clubs issued an open letter in which they said: "We will no longer uncritically support Schalke's sporting and economical policy in its current form. Do not sell the club's soul! Fans want to be taken seriously, not to the cleaners."

Arthur Saager, the club's supporter liaison officer, admitted the mood wasn't good when he said: "It would be so easy to get the fans behind you. Us Schalke fans are not at all demanding - we're happy with a beer and a bratwurst." Even the club's powerful chairman, Clemens Tonnies, agreed something had gone awry, complaining: "At Schalke, you have to take the fans with you. Magath hasn't done that."

And so the coach, figuratively speaking, grabbed a beer and bratwurst and went to talk to the fans. Sort of.

Three days after the open letter, Magath - or more likely a groovy tech whizz assistant - set up a Facebook account and created a page. He then uploaded a video called 'My first steps' in which Magath explained why he was so interested in what he calls "new media" such as Facebook and how he was looking forward to engaging in a dialogue with the fans.

It was, in a word, hilarious. Magath, normally convincing and commanding when talking with people face to face, appeared wooden, stiff and tense. His speech was halting and sounded hollow, even though the film had been cut to less than 50 seconds.

Of course the news spread quickly, the video was shared widely and people flocked to Magath's page, hitting the 'Like' button as if they got paid money for it.

Two days later, the renowned Süddeutsche Zeitung explained how "Magath discovers the internet for a charm offensive" and explained that Facebook is a place "where everyone who may not have spoken to his neighbours in months can tell the world he's just made himself a coffee". On the weekend, my local paper called Magath's move "a resounding public relations success". On Monday morning, it noted that the Schalke coach already had more than 90,000 "virtual friends".

Now, I don't profess to be an expert regarding Facebook - for instance, I don't know why Magath had a notification and a private message before his page had even been published, which you can spot when you watch his first video closely, but I strongly suspect that the whole thing was a resounding public relations success mainly for Facebook, not necessarily for Magath.

Because many of the more than 90,000 people who hit the 'Like' button (which, of course, is not the same as becoming a virtual friend) did so with gleeful sarcasm, as even my own modest survey indicates. Facebook, after all, is a place where people only rarely tell each other they have just made coffee. Usually they share strange YouTube videos, absurd photos or revealing rants and alert each other to whatever is funny or silly on the web. It is, almost by default, a place where the hardest currency is ironic repartee in whatever shape or form.

Which is why the Dortmund fans I know leaped at the video, while many of my Schalke-supporting friends were embarrassed rather than delighted. It's just too plain obvious that Magath is uncomfortable with both the situation and this whole 'new media' thing. And you can't blame him.

This is not his world and he knows it. He is good at monologues, not dialogues. No matter where he's worked, he's never been chummy with the fans, simply because he is way too professional for it. He doesn't consider that part of his job. And you know what? He's right.

The kissing-up-to-the-fans scam on Facebook is so thinly-veiled that it's a gas. Even the Süddeutsche Zeitung sensed this, saying: "Many Bundesliga clubs and players supply their fans with sometimes more, sometimes less important news [through Facebook]. But nowhere else does such virtual closeness so clearly serve the purpose of soothing the public."

Which is precisely why fans generally distrust their club's official channels. They know full well that clubs always follow their own agenda in the digital and any other world, that they will publish with the informality, nonchalance and humour you normally only associate with North Korean party leaflets. That's why official club homepages are dry and boring and the majority of supporters prefer the independent fans' websites.

But every once in a while, you are reminded that it doesn't necessarily have to be this way. On the weekend before Christmas, Hamburg's chief press officer, Jorn Wolf, covered the team's trip to Gladbach on Twitter.

Thanks to various mishaps and a snowstorm, the journey turned into a two-day adventure, a footballing version of Trains, Planes and Automobiles that was annoying for the players but highly enjoyable for Wolf's followers.

Wolf had the wit and the composure to entertain. He also had, crucially, the permission to tweet without supervision while around him nerves were fraying. At one point on day two, when the team got stuck in a traffic jam, he quipped: "The German Football League presents: Armin Veh in Falling Down".

Nineteen minutes later, he tweeted: "Water shortage on board. We may have to melt some snow." And then he dared to make fun of the fact that Hamburg's fans were critical of the club's board: "Has there been a survey about who's to blame for this journey? If yes, I guess 1% blame the weather, 99% the board."

That's the way to do it: an irreverent, ironic repartee. The digital equivalent of a beer and a bratwurst. However, Wolf is a quarter of a century younger than Magath, a digital native who knows what he is doing and how the internet works.

Magath, on the other hand, should stick to his guns. He's just not convincing when he's trying to do things somebody else's way. A football blog already termed his "charm offensive" a "shame offensive" and compared Magath's clumsiness in the videos to Berti Vogts' legendary cameo in the television series Tatort.

The 'old media', meanwhile, should try to understand what they are writing about before they translate cheap clicks for cheap laughs into a "resounding public relations success". It's quite the contrary, actually.

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