Tuesday, 12 September 2017

"Watch the news!" When rogue players express interesting views

Reading interviews with active footballers is like beach-combing with a blindfold on. The chances of stumbling on something worthwhile among the miles of sand and seaweed are as high as a player saying something interesting under the watchful auspices of their agents and club press officers. Very occasionally, though, you might come across a pearl, or at least a nice colourful cowrie.

"If someone says football's the
 only thing in my life, I
think that's stupid."
It's especially pleasing to hear from players who can look beyond the game. In the latest issue of German monthly 11 Freunde, the Hoffenheim striker Sandro Wagner talks about football's place in society. Wagner, who made his German international debut this past summer at the age of 29, is a feisty, physical player who, to say the least, has made himself unpopular down the years with opposing fans thanks to his robust style. He fouls a lot, and he gets fouled a lot.

I like him, though. Last season when he played for Hoffenheim at Eintracht Frankfurt he took a nasty, deliberate elbow to the face from Frankfurt's captain David Abraham, which went unseen and unpunished by the referees. Wagner got up, played on, and after the game made no fuss about it at all. In the 11 Freunde interview he says that Abraham apologised for the incident even as the game was still being played, and for him that was the end of the matter.

What I really like in the interview, though, is when he answers the question, "Do fans take football too seriously?" Wagner replies, "I see it like a lot of fans do - I love football, it's the greatest sport in the world. But many go over the top. If someone says to me, football's the only thing in my life, then I think that's stupid. To someone like that I
can only say, turn on the news. Then you can see what's really important."

It's rare to hear this kind of perspective in player interviews. Wagner talks about football's "unbelievable power" to effect good, citing the 2006 World Cup as an example. "But at the moment," he says, "the climate's too negative. Football reflects society. And I feel that social co-operation has to some extent become brutalised. The stadium offers a platform for a lot of people to let out their rage. To vent their frustration. Too many clubs have just stood and watched that for too long. Especially with the Ultras. I think the Ultras have too much power."

The forward is by no means opposed to the Ultras because "for fan culture and atmosphere they are crucial, and the majority of Ultras are fine. But we can't let it get like in Italy where a few violent fans mean that no more families come to watch the games. Or like in England, where you can only watch games sitting down."

Meanwhile, Bayern Munich's goal factory Robert Lewandowski has gone rogue in the latest issue of Der Spiegel in an unauthorised interview that criticises his club for not spending enough cash on big money transfers, and in which he admits that he held back in games on the club's summer Asian tour because it didn't fit in with his pre-season preparation. Plus, from a marketing point of view, he reckons the tours are a waste of time. The Bundesliga would be much better off focusing on big name signings and having four or five teams compete for the title, instead of the current one (Bayern Munich).

"If you have more top games," he tells the weekly magazine, "you have more show, more razzmatazz, and you can increase TV coverage to the world beyond. Fans want to see the big showdowns, the stars of the league, the battles for the championship. That would make the Bundesliga more interesting outside of Germany." Those lines could have been taken from the business template for the 1970s North American Soccer League, not to mention the economic blueprint that drives modern sport.

Indeed, although Lewandowski believes that the game itself will always remain the most important thing, "the time around the 90 minutes will in future probably be more like a Hollywood film. That's something we can no longer prevent." In an honest assessment that caused some discomfort to Bayern's CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, the player states that "football is pure capitalism, everyone involved wants to make money. That's not to condemn it, that's just the way that our whole western society functions. Still, the FAs have to find rules to stop the market completely over-flowing. When it's only ever the same top four or five teams winning all the titles because they have all the top players, then maybe the interest among average fans will ebb."

When the agents, clubs and media talk about football players as role models, they have in mind the following. They should never say or do anything interesting off the field. They should represent, market and sell the image of their clubs and the image of themselves. They should pose for photo-opps giving to politically neutral charities. When they express opinions, they threaten the brand, like American football's quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who's been effectively side-lined at the peak of his career by the NFL merely for exercising his democratic right not to stand up for the US national anthem. 

Müller: unaffected
So you get a player like Lewandowski's Bayern colleague Thomas Müller telling kicker magazine this week that the world outside of his privileged personal environment has "clearly become more crazy. At the moment there are extreme things going on, but I try not to let myself get too affected by that."

Müller's no fool - "If I fall down dead tomorrow then there will be a funeral, and then on Friday there will still be eleven players on the field," he says - but he, his fellow players, and all of us fans too need to take Sandro Wagner's advice to turn on the news. When hurricanes, plague and missiles come, the games stop. You can't say, "I only live for football" when there's no football left to live for.'

The Quiet Fan was published by Unbound in autumn 2018 and is available here.

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