do not mention the war

Book Review pt. 1: Raphael Honigstein: Englischer Fussball

In England, Football, Germany, Literature, Sport, Stereotypes, World Cup on July 31, 2010 at 17:25

Raphael Honigstein: Englischer Fussball. A German’s View of our Beautiful Game. London: Yellow Jersey Press, 2009, 228p

The last twenty years saw a dramatic increase in literature focussing on football and everything surrounding the game; so much so that one might come to think there have alreadey been enough books published on the matter. Almost, if not every, aspect of the game has been highlighted to a different extent that it is fait to speak the market has reached a point of saturation. At some point most of these works will mention the importance of sport and football in particular for English identity and self regard and somewhere there will be a chapter on the fiercest rivals. This is where Germany comes into the frame. Honigstein’s account however looks at the English game form an outsider, that is, a German perspective, which makes it an interesting read as the comparisons go much further than the usual rivalries on the pitch.

The book tries to explain to German readers how English football developed from the mid-nineteenth century to more recent changes involving foreign investment and ownership in English clubs. Honigstein explores the beginnings of the Football Association (FA) at the Freemason’s Tavern in London’s Great Queen Street in 1863. By mentionig that it all had to start in a pub, the author highlights the importance of the Public House (pub) for English culture. As a result England today is known as the craddle of modern football, which has turned ou to be the most successful single sport in the world.

Chapter after chapter Honigstein examines heart and soul of the game and gives a comparison the state of the game in Germany. The first two chapters highlight the physical nature of the British style of play which often frightened foreign players in Englandas well as international opponents. No wonder that British teams were superior until the second half of the twentieth century, as the scorelines proved. The physical side of English football, according to Honigstein was rooted in the Public Schools where sport was considered to make men out of weaklings. (p.10) According to Honigstein, it appears that football only really developed after the Second World War, with the increasing professionalisation of players, the commercialisation of the game, the introduction of continental championships, the increasing popularity of the World Cup, which England took part in for the first time in 1950 and the emergence of hooliganism as well as rising revenue from sources such as media and merchandising. It needs to be added here that football was already a professional game before the First World War in England as well as other parts of Europe suchas Austria, Hungary and the Soviet Union. Further, it was only after 1945 that the English media and the public became aware of the development of the game elsewhere. Most notably on November 25, 1953 when England were hammered 6-3 by Hungary at Wembley. The day after the match The Times noted the dawn of the soccer gods, The Times! A cricket paper! It seems the perspective given here is that of the English public which woke up cruelly one November evening in 1953.

Chapters three and four continue to explain the particularity of the English style of trying to highlight why there are no technically highly skilled players amongst the English teams. This, according to Honigstein, is down to the protestant work ehtic of ‘work hard – play hard’. Whnever there is something wrong in the game, foreigners are the first to be blamed for it as they do not seem to share the same hard-working values. The notion of fair play is also mentioned and explained and Honigstein argues that it is all a myth, which certainly no longer exists in English football. Yet, he concedes that the idea of fair play is still very much alive becuase ‘a myth that is actually no longer in good health can still exude enormous symbolic power.’ (p.88)

Chapter five presents an interview with Jimmy Hill whom Honigstein calls ‘Mr. Football’. Hill has held every possible position in football: from player, manager, agent to sporting director and TV presenter. He was the first to broadcast a football programme on British TV and he claims to have invented the three point rule.

While the first half of the book has little to offer that is new, the second half does deliver some rare insights and comparisons with German football. It starts with a close look at the sense of fashion in English society and in football. It appears that England is way ahead of any other European country, most notably Germany where football until a few years ago was till considered as a sport only and not as a part of popular culture as it has been treated in England since the 1950s. The relationship between football and the media is described as a love/hate relationship and is compared to Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor: They’re either head over heels in love or they’re at each other’s throats. (p.142)

Where there is so much glamour there has to be a dark side and Honigstein duly mentions ‘bungs’ and ‘backhanders’. The recent allegations made by Mike Newell, then of Luton Town, are highlighted as to having kick-started an ‘in-depth’ by the FA, though to date has brought no conclusive results, cost Newell his job and possibly ruined his reputation as a manager. Sections of fan involvement and new marketing strategies are followed in the last chapter by a thorough German response as to whether Germans do care about English football or not. The answer: While the Premier League is highly regarded, Germans do not consider England as their fiercest rival. The Germans see their rivals rather in their close neighbourhood: Holland. This rivalry is mutual.

In summary it can be said that Englischer Fussball provides a social history of the English gqme for German readers. Whether or not it merited a translation remains an open question.

Raphael Honigstein is a German journalist and author writing about English football in the German  daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung and a reporter on German football in the English daily The Guardian. The German edition of Englicher Fussball was published by Kiepenheuer and Witsch in 2006 and is titled Harder, Better, Faster,  Stronger. Die geheime Geschichte des englischen Fussballs.

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