Whose Game Is It Anyway?
Written by: Alan McDougall
The Global Culture of Football
With Germany on fire in the World Cup, Alan McDougall, the author of The People’s Game, explains the legacy of football in East Germany and the political power behind the sport.
A journalist asked me recently ‘what were you doing when the Berlin Wall fell?’ I was fourteen years old in 1989; I wasn’t thinking about the collapse of communism, but about scoring goals in my next football match. Football, not politics, was the centre of my world. And I wasn’t the only one. Andy Meyer, a teammate of the future German goalkeeper Robert Enke, recalled how their team in the East German town of Jena barely noticed the momentous events of 1989 and 1990. ‘There was nothing crucial about it for us kids. The football training just went on.’
Football can be appropriated by mighty organisations. It can also resist them.
The journalist’s question got me thinking again about the title of my new book on East German football, The People’s Game. At one level, it plays on the populist rhetoric of the East German state, which attached the appellation Volks- (‘people’s’) to everything from the national assembly to the police. The communists wanted to make football the ‘people’s game’, in that they wanted to exert control over it, just as – through doping and training programmes – they exerted control over sports, such as athletics and swimming, that made East Germany an Olympic superpower. But they never achieved the same results. The Nazis, who invoked das Volk in racial rather than class terms, fared little better. The only game that Hitler watched, at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, ended in an embarrassing German loss to Norway. Under both dictatorships, football was a slippery fish – too unpredictable to fit comfortably with either the communist or the Nazi worldview.
On one level, the people’s game tackles state power – and the limits of state power. Football can be appropriated by mighty organisations. It can also resist them. In East Germany, Berliner FC Dynamo, the team belonging to the Stasi (secret police), won ten straight league titles between 1979 and 1988. But the stench of corruption that surrounded this success triggered a public outcry that eroded communist authority. The chief beneficiary of the World Cup finals is world football’s governing body, FIFA, who will make vast tax-free profits from this year’s tournament in Brazil. The lead up saw widespread protests against FIFA and the Brazilian government for wasting money on football that should be spent on housing, hospitals, and schools. A common slogan on banners and graffiti was Copa pra quem? – ‘who is the Cup for?’
Football, then, can be a contested political space. But it is something else too. What interested me most about the East German story was how citizens embraced football on their own terms: the women’s teams that emerged despite state indifference; the factory tournaments that ended in punch-ups or refereeing controversies; or the unauthorised supporters’ clubs that took English names and followed West German teams. People played and watched the game almost regardless of who tried to take political advantage of it.
In East Germany, football was an integral part of the social fabric, a shared experience that traversed the public and private spheres. The same is true around the world today, particularly during the World Cup. As an exiled Brit, I see this first hand in the city where I live, Toronto. Within the space of a few hours last week, I had conversations about England’s early exit from the tournament at my local bank, takeaway restaurant, and grocery store. The post-mortems offered various prescriptions, from the predictable (dropping Wayne Rooney) to the left-field (the England players apparently didn’t smile enough). They all returned me, though, to the title of my book. Football is the most reliable means that I know of talking to strangers, of making connections – however transitory – that cross national, class, or political divides. This is the essence of The People’s Game.
Watch an interview with Alan McDougall here: