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Friday, August 1, 2008
Seeking solace in - Germany!

Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger

The other day I received an e-mail from Amazon. Hoping they might happily inform me about the fact that one of my books has cracked the top 1000 in some category or other, I actually opened the message instead of deleting it immediately. Of course it was just another of those recommendations they pester you with. You know what I mean, right? Things like: Since you bought 'Give The Anarchist A Cigarette' by Mick Farren, you might also be interested in this here book by Allen Carr. Anyway, this time around the mail reminded me I had once ordered 'The Best American Sports Writing 2003' from Amazon, whereupon they now alerted me to the fact that someone called Chuck Culpepper (not a pseudonym, it seems) has published a book by the title of 'Bloody Confused!: A Clueless American Sportswriter Seeks Solace in English Soccer'. If you have too much free time on your hands, you sometimes click on links. That's what I did now, and it got me to the page with the product description. It began thus: 'Chuck Culpepper was a veteran sports journalist edging toward burnout... then he went to London and discovered the high-octane, fanatical (and bloody confusing!) world of English soccer.' According to this blurb, Mr. Culpepper was fairly disillusioned about US sports and 'fed up with [its] self-righteous proclamations, steroid scandals, and the deluge of in-your-face PR'. And so he went to England and immersed himself in the Premier League. Huh? Granted, I'm not aware of steroid scandals in England, but if you simply delete 'steroid' from the quote above, then a German football fan could be forgiven for thinking poor Mr Culpepper fell out of the frying-pan and right smack into the fire. Among the hardcore of German supporters, there is a growing aversion to English football, the model we once all aspired to in terms of fan culture and social significance. And it's precisely because of those things that drove Mr Culpepper out of the US: the rampant commercialism, the otherworldly wages, the relentless hype, the inflated egos, all that issuing of basically nothing but hot air. Then I got to the final paragraph of the product description, which includes this line: 'Culpepper brings penetrating insight to the vibrant landscape of English soccer-visiting such storied franchises as Manchester United, Chelsea, and Liverpool.' At first, I found 'storied franchises' pretty funny. It's such a dyed-in-the-wool American expression and seems so out of place anywhere else. The Red Sox and the Yankees are storied franchises, yes. The Braves are a storied franchise, having begun life in Boston before arriving in Atlanta via Milwaukee because, well, franchises do move with the market. But in European football, you surely don't have franchises. Or do you? Actually, on second thought, I didn't find the term that misplaced anymore. Because perhaps the biggest gripe of the German fans as regards the Premier League is that English clubs are now brands rather than, er, clubs. The fact that there are individuals who own English football clubs didn't really register with the majority of Germans until the last couple of years and the confusing deluge of takeover bids. Sure, it made headlines over here when Elton John took over Watford in the mid-70s, but I don't think any of us kids really understood that the jolly fellow had actually bought the club hook, line and sinker and might have, given a bit of wheeling and dealing, tied a knot around the whole shebang in order to schlep it to Milton Keynes. We didn't really get this, just as the average fan didn't get that Alan Sugar owned Spurs pretty much like he owned Amstrad back when Jürgen Klinsmann moved to London. And that's because, despite so many outward similarities, German football was, and still is, run very differently. I guess it's just that people presume their way of doing things is the norm everywhere. Thus the guy who wrote the blurb for the Culpepper book felt that United and Liverpool must be 'storied franchises'. Thus we kids and teenagers presumed that Elton John and Alan Sugar must be men like the patrons we knew from Germany, rich people who gifted their favourite clubs a lot of money out of benevolence, vanity or both. And thus I repeatedly have the same kinds of problems when writing for English publications - meaning that, depending on the topic, I often have to waste lines and lines of valuable copy simply to lay the groundwork for readers who erroneously presuppose German football is run like English football. Just last month I did something for an English Sunday paper about the rise of Hoffenheim. As you'll know from an earlier column, said rise is primarily due to the entrepreneur Dietmar Hopp sinking some 100million Euros into a club that was playing in an even lower division than Watford were when Elton John stepped in. The paper was keen on that story for two reasons. The first was that rich people taking over clubs is currently a hotly debated topic in England. And so I had to explain that Hopp taking over Hoffenheim was quite different from Abramovich taking over Chelsea or Gillett/Hicks taking over Liverpool. I had to explain that, when Hopp got involved, all our clubs, even Bayern Munich, were public, multi-sports, non-profit organisations run by members. I had to explain that this has changed in part, but only in part, pointing out that even though some clubs have turned their professional football divisions into limited companies, these companies are owned by the parent club. Which, in turn, is owned by no-one and cannot be bought. The second reason the paper wanted the Hoffenheim story is somewhat related to this aspect. There are many English fans, it seems, who have started a new trend: they boycott their own brands, sorry: clubs, and instead travel to Germany to watch Bundesliga football! In July, the 'Daily Express' even predicted a 'Great Football Exodus' and portrayed a bunch of fans who have taken up watching their football in Nuremberg. One was quoted as saying: 'I used to go to Premier League games but it has become so corporate. There is a backlash against that.' Apart from the ticket prices and the atmosphere, he also lauded the Bundesliga because 'the grounds in Germany have terracing so you can stand and watch the game, just like the old days in England.' Just like the old days, he said. I wonder if this guy, or one of his friends, will one day write a book about 'seeking solace in German soccer'. And send Chuck Culpepper a copy.
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