The topic of football culture is an interesting one. I haven’t listened to the podcast yet, so all my possible references to this panel discussion are purely coincidental. However, this here seems to be as good a place and occasion as any to start a debate about the topics of traditions, a traditionalist football culture, the nature of change, and the role of money in modern football in general. With respect to most or all of these questions, the common football fan today has a view of which I am highly sceptical. Why? Let’s start with a brief assessment of the state of mind of the modern fan.
It has become commonplace for a lot of football fans to vigorously protest that they are becoming increasingly alienated with football and the way it’s developing. They say that they are growing bored with football because the game has become oh so predictable as it’s always the same teams who win. They see the influx of money and rise of commercialism as the root causes of this and most everything else that has gone wrong in modern football. Particularly, or so they claim, money and business thinking have been constantly eating away at their beloved traditions and the “football we know”. Among the things they loathe most are the VAR, the Monday night game, the growing spread of kick off times, football’s increasing commercialism and openness to investors, as well as the arrival of new clubs and concepts (e.g. RB Leipzig, TSG Hoffenheim). All of these changes, they believe, show that the game is only about money and profit anymore with no respect for the fans, their traditions and interests.
In this day and age, such beliefs and convictions are shared by even the most common of football fans. If you talk to the ‘thinking’ fan (e.g. here, on this very board, mitmachen.rasenfunk.de), you will be hard pressed to find anybody who doesn’t think that the increasing penetration of modern football with economic and business thinking is a very lamentable development that might even sound the death knell for modern football as we know it.
I am going to play devil’s advocate here and take issue with this kind of traditionalist view for a whole host of interrelated reasons. My main contention will be that this ‘traditionalist’ view (for lack of a better term) is blind to the nature of change in the game, disregards the benefits that economic thinking, a business orientation and the influx of money have brought to the sport, and denies the obvious cognitive dissonance between complaining about predictability and boredom on the one hand (“the same teams always win”) and new, highly funded clubs (RBL, TSG, PSG, MCity) arising as credible challengers to the old guard (Bayern, Real,…) on the other.
First, let’s recognize the fact that ever since it started as an offshoot of Rugby in the 1860s, the sport of football has always been subject to change, both on and off the pitch. On the pitch, football has seen the removal of tree stumps from its field of play, the definition of pitch and goal sizes, the limitation of concurrently active players to 11 per team, the introduction of official rules of play and the referee, the red and yellow cards, the introduction of the offside and back-pass rules, the evolution of tactics and dedicated player roles and skills, and so on.
Off the pitch, we have seen the introduction of professional leagues such as the Bundesliga in 1963, the advent of shirt advertising shortly thereafter, the breakthrough of modern commercialization with RAN and the increasing interest of private and pay TV stations in the 90s, the modernization of football grounds, the professionalization of the matchday experience for spectators, as well as the freedom of movement for players (Bosman), to name but a very few of the major milestones.
Change, in other words, has been a constant element of football in all of its 150+ years of existence. Of this kind of change, the VAR, the growing spread of game days and kick off times, the acceptance of investors, the increasing commercialisation, and a general business thinking capturing the world of football are just the latest manifestations.
Now enter the traditionalists. They rile against these changes and claim the right to define what’s ‘proper’ football for themselves. They don’t want business. They don’t want games on Monday. They don’t want investors. They With what right? Who are they to decide which change in football is welcome and which is not? What would they say to the even older traditionalist claiming that the ‘real’ football ended in the 1980s? Have you forgotten the football of the 80s?, they would say. Have you forgotten the windy grounds and the race tracks around the pitches? Have you forgotten the hooligan culture and the racism in the stands? Have you forgotten how it was not to be able too see anything of a game if you weren’t there, no TV, no internet? Have you forgotten, frankly, how terrible the level of football was, how slow, how ponderous?
This is the same question I now ask the 'new’ traditionalist fan, the one I’m concerned with in this posting: if we look at football as it is today, how is it that now we can enjoy modern stadia, protected from the elements, family friendly, safe, full of amenities and convenient to get to? How is it that now we can watch almost any game, any time, anywhere? How is it that now the sport itself has reached a level of perfection that we can watch highly trained athletes at the pinnacle of their abilities competing with each other while we sit at home and indulge in meaningful conversations about tactics because what happens on the pitch actually follows some kind of systematic logic?
Do you, dear traditionalist fan, believe that these changes are god’s latest gift to mankind? Or do you accept that, probably, some shrewd business thinking and the prospect for a lot of parties to make some decent money is the driving force behind all of these developments? If I were a most maliciously minded guy, I would say that all of the great improvements in professional football during the last 30 years - the new stadia, the ubiquitous TV and media coverage, the level of athletic perfection, the professionalization of training, medical care, youth development and so on - are all just by-products of business men wanting to make money. The influx of money into football, in short, has been a great boon, not a bane.
And yes, the Monday night game, the EPL-style spread of kick off times, the challenge to the 50+1 rule etc. are the latest incarnations of this business drive designed to make even more money, to reach even more people in even more regions of the world with the product of football.
But why not? What is so inherently bad about this? A great many people at least beg to differ.
As we all know, consumerism only works on the basis of a satisfied consumer (if your products don’t find happy customers, you can’t make any money). So no matter how economically self-interested and profit oriented the motives behind most modern changes in football might be, they need to find the pleasure of a great number of people to make economic sense. And the numbers bear me out. Year on year we have new attendance records of spectators visiting the grounds. Pay TV as well as online streaming and subscription services are flourishing. Football reporting in audio, video, text, both professional and fan made, enjoys unprecedented popularity. More and more regions of the world are making a foray into the market of professional football and vice versa. And I am certain that if you ask the families who are able to get to and back from a game safely nowadays, the couch potato fan who can enjoy his favourite pastime live on almost every evening of the week, the football nerd who has a great deal of resources and reports about his favourite sport at his fingertips, they all will agree that being a fan is a lot more convenient and enjoyable now than 30 years ago. And how did these improvements come about? Because someone invested MONEY into the game. The availability of money is at the root of everything that has made modern football the great product we all like. The level of athleticism and of tactics, the stadium experience, the media availability - everything.
Why now do these traditionalists believe that it is for them to decide which of these developments in football are 'good’ and which are 'bad’? Why is economic activity in football okay as long as it results in safer, more atmospheric grounds with seating almost down to the sidelines? Why is it okay as long as it allows easy and convenient travel across Europe to even the most obscure EPL away games? Why is it okay as long as it allows their clubs to build modern youth academies as well as training and medical facilities of the latest standard? Why is it okay as long as it enables us to watch games of some random South American league over the internet?
But why isn’t it okay when games take place on Monday night? Why should the interests of a few thousand travelling fans count more than those of hundreds of thousand sitting at home happy to be able to watch a live game of football on a Monday night? Why isn’t it okay when there are additional kick off times allowing people from all over the world to enjoy a live game of their favourite league? Do these traditionalist fans forget that the money for their next Luka Jovic, Jadon Sancho, and Lucas Hernandez comes in part from the overseas TV contracts? Why isn’t it okay for the DFL to explore new avenues of making money which, don’t forget, ultimately benefit the clubs in their domestic league? The population of Germany is 83m, the population of the world 7bn people. It is only rational for the DFL and DFB to tailor their services to cater to the demands of a worldwide audience if they want to make the money they need to compete with the other big world leagues. With a view to the clubs themselves, why isn’t it okay for them to establish their club’s footprint in remote parts of the world where football has hitherto lain dormant? What, in god’s name, is so bad or evil about establishing business relationships with clubs from China, the U.S. or Arabia? Do these people forget, in their cold criticism of evil business making with alleged total disregard for human rights, that more often than not, human improvement follows closely on the heels of economic change?
What irritates me most, however, is the arrogantly entitled attitude of the traditionalist fan towards the so-called ‘plastic’ clubs like RB Leipzig and TSG Hoffenheim, which doesn’t just betray a strange kind of cognitive dissonance but sometimes even truly borders on the evil. On the one hand, these fans complain about boredom, predictability and one-sidedness in football (as I’ve mentioned before), but then, like a saviour out of nowhere, along comes a serious challenger like Red Bull with not just money, but a sound concept, well thought out strategy and clear idea of what they want to achieve who actually manages to put up a football team that has become a serious contender for the Bundesliga title within a matter of years – and all these fans can think about is somebody stealing their property, stealing what they have 'earned’ through their 'tradition’. Who are these upstarts that they believe they can pray on our turf? Who are they just to appear out of nowhere and believe they own the house? It seems as if either Red Bull or Dietrich Mateschitz or Dietmar Hopp were evil incarnate who just stole them their place in football fairytale land. Why is Red Bull or SAP money morally worth less than money by “normal” sponsors like the Commerzbank, Gazprom, or Evonik?
Their objection and hatred even goes so far - and this is where the whole thing becomes truly evil - that they not just don’t refrain from threats and hate speech against individual human beings, but even take to physical violence against groups of fans of the clubs these investors support (remember BVB vs. RBL approx. two years ago?).
It is so stunningly mind-boggling that the same group of people who would rather jump into a pool of ice water in a cold January night than be caught dead in the same room with an AfD supporter would always pronounce with utter conviction that all they do is defend their football traditions (> their home country) against the evil foreigners (> RBL, TSG) who come and destroy everything they know and love and hence need to be removed (> “Auslaender raus”). And if they don’t listen to banners, hateful chants and other ‘good arguments’, well, then they need to feel the wrath of the true fan on their own living bodies (> burning refugee homes).
What more is there to say?
We can veritably debate the pros and cons of each my arguments and whether they are sound or not, but I do have issues with a certain group of people arrogating the right to define what’s good and what’s bad to themselves and act accordingly. I, for one, like RB Leipzig. I like the Monday night game and I like what Bayern is doing in Qatar. I like the professionalization of the game and the benefits it has brought to me as a customer. For my money, 50+1 could be abolished tomorrow. I am for freedom of investment in football. I appreciate the business activities by the clubs and the DFL and I find it captivating to watch how professional football as a whole tries to navigate the demands of a modern economic world while attempting not to lose its identity as one of the world’s most favourite pastimes attracting millions of people on and off the pitch.
I hope I haven’t too strenuously tested your patience with this essay and I greatly look forward to your replies! And, by all means, be confrontational where confrontation is due!
(Edited for style, readability and clarity.)