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The Beautiful Game

May 11th, 2012 by Graham Attwell

This week Dave Boyle looked at co-ops in the world of professional football in an article in the Guardian. Thought it might be interesting to republish an article I wrote together with my Werder fan buddy Lars Heinemann some eight or so years ago for the Welsh socialist newspaper, Seren (sadly not longer in print).

“What’s wrong with the beautiful game

I am a football fan. I started out at the age of six as a Swindon Town Fan in the old third division At first I have a foldings tool to stand on and when I got bigger my father nailed two paint cans onto a plank of wood so I could see from the terraces. When I was a bit bigger still I used to go down to the County Ground three hours before kick off to secure myself one of the precious places on the railings at the front.

I  followed Swindon until I went to university at the age of 18. I was there in Wembley when we beat Arsenal in the League Cup Final – now famous as the formative point in Nick Hornby’s life. After a couple of years – it takes that long – I switched by loyalties to Swansea City – and followed the heady rise from the fourth division to top of the first – and then back down again. After brief – and unsatisfactory flirtations with Nottingham Forest and Manchester City – I moved to Pontypridd. It took a few years before I could switch my loyalties to rugby at the House of Pain. And then on to Bremen. Once more I had a passing curiosity in the local team – Werder – but it took a couple of years before I called myself a fan.

Why so long? If I just wanted to  see good football I would never have followed Swindon or Swansea. And I would have been down to the Weser Stadium like a shot to watch the top Bundesliga clubs in action.

Being a football fan is more than an appreciation for the aesthetics of the game or a leisure time activity. Being a fan is about identification – with the club, with the team, with the stadium and above all with the community. The community of players, of supporters and of the place where you live. Football fans are the lifeblood of football.
But something’s gone wrong. It stared in the 1980s. Ground capacities were reduced to allow the introduction of corporate boxes and posh seating. Prices have gone up and up. Football tried to change its image. It wishes to be no longer a working class game but family entertainment. TV money has meant the richer get richer whist small clubs rely on the scraps. Players wages have gone through the roof. It is hard for fans to identify any longer with player lifestyles. Football has fallen prey to the marketing experts. The big clubs have become global marketing enterprises – and the community no longer matters.

There have been some very good sociological studies of what it going on. For those interested look at the work of Taylor and of Giulianotti . Taylor talks of the commodification of the game whilst Giulianotti  identifies a new more recent phase he call hypercommodification.

What the researchers mean by this is that football is no longer a game for the fans but is a commodity to be bought and sold on the global market. Giulianotti says:

The broad trend in sports identification is away from the supporter model (with its hot traditional identification with local clubs) and toward the more detached, cool, consumer-orientated identification of the flâneur.

My translation of flaneur is poser – you know the people who like the idea of going to the match – not the real footy fan for which the  game is a matter of happiness or despair. The problem is that the flaneur will be very happy at Chelsea but certainly will never turn out to see Swindon or Swansea – or Wrexham for that matter – on a wet Tuesday night.

But our game is being taken away form us in another – and more literal – sense. the ownership of the game is changing. In the UK we never really owned the clubs. Post war capitalism sold us a con – local business people made up the (private) boards of the clubs with perhaps one seat for the supporters clubs. But at least they were local and we liked to think that the local community was in control. the picture is very different now. Clubs like Man U are stock market ventures. Football is traded like any other commodity. Other clubs like Chelsea are the play things of rich Mafiosi seeking to spirit their ill gotten loot gained from raiding the Russian peoples’ property.  The Champion’s League is increasingly a franchise of the few wealthy clubs able to afford a squad of elite galacticos.

Is there any hope? Ever the optimist, I think there is. firstly commodification hasn’t been a complete success. Look – as we all do with glee – at the mess its got Leeds into.

And in Germany Dortmund and Shalke have followed the same route and with the same results -teetering on the verge of bankruptcy as their stock market price falls and their team under-performs for yet another season. Wolfsburg is in the pocket of VW and Hertha Berlin receive massive payments from Bertelsmaan. But small clubs still can buck the trend – Werder Bremen did the double in Germany last year and it certainly wasn’t the TV moguls plan for Porto top win the Champions League or, that matter, for Greece to win the European Championship.

There are alternative forms of club ownership. Whilst some clubs like Dortmund have gone down the separate road in Germany, others, such as Werder Bremen, still preserve the traditional structure of the club being owned by its members with elected officials. For that matter even super clubs such as barcelona are owned by the members, as is the traditional model in Spain and Latin America.

In Werder’s case the club is more than just the Bundesliga team. Werder support a wide range of different sports – from handball to chess and well as over 30 football teams. And while Werder has undoubtedly gained a fair few flaneurs since its rise to success the majority of supporters are true fans.

Another side of the German game I find fascinating is the alternative league. Local football pundit Lars Heinemann explains: “The wild leagues are a child of the seventies, when members of anti nuclear, ecological or whatever groups decided they didn’t want to play in clubs any more. There were some attempts to create alternative clubs with the interesting effect that one could witness the German football association trying everything they could to avoid teams with weird names, normally involving the typical eastern block words like Dynamo, Torpedo or Locomotive, to become official clubs.

But first of all these teams played each other, and as numbers increased, they founded their own leagues at a local level. And these are still alive and kicking, the different local champions even playing out a German championship on a more or less regular basis. To give you an idea about the name thing: the multiple German champions from Bremen are called Vibrator Moscovskaja. Organisation goes as far as necessary – there are agreed football rules (passive offside almost everywhere excluded), although the teams are generally allowed to agree upon almost every change they want before the matches. Referees may be there if there is somebody wanting to take over the job and nobody objects – in case of disagreements and absence of such a person, the rules of the Bielefeld league in the Westfalen region e.g. state that ‘the team which in case of an argument first leaves the pitch, is declared loser’ – severe disagreements may be settled by the plenum of all teams. And it works. It’s a lot of fun and the quality of football sometimes is surprisingly high – perhaps due to another rule (again from the Bielefeld league): §16 Technically bad players wearing white or red shoes may be laughed at. “
Football can be saved. How? By that old working class adage of getting organised. Fans have to build their own organisations, fight against corporate ownership, take over the running of the clubs. OK – it won’t be easy. Is it important? Isn’t it just taking effort away from the things that really matter like stopping the US war crimes in Iraq. I think it is important. Cultural identity is central to working class and socialist politics. Football is one of our major outlets for cultural identity. Don’t let them take it away from us.

Thanks to Lars Heinemann for help with this article. He asked that the following biographical note be added. “Lars Heinemann lives in Bremen. Highlights of his football career were the eternal fights between Torpedo Todtenhausen and Mulo Minden and the Windlicht drinking afterwards.”

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