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World Cup 2014

“They must show some spirit!”

München, 06/11/2014

Great show, and no make-believe: LMU sociologist and self-confessed football fan Armin Nassehi dissects the fascination of big sports events.

Foto: Ingo Bartussek / Fotolia.com
Photo: Ingo Bartussek / Fotolia.com

Professor Nassehi, can you explain why we find football so fascinating? Why will so many of us go into town to watch World Cup matches on huge TV screens with thousands of others, and place bets on the results with our colleagues in the office?
For a long time, soccer was a game for the lower classes, but that has changed completely. Now, it is no exaggeration to call football an expensive cultural event. And a big tournament like the World Cup really does appeal to millions, because you don’t need to be an expert to work out who has won and who has lost.

So football fever is so contagious because the game itself is easy to understand? Is that all?
There is something paradoxical about the whole thing: Nowadays so much of professional football is show business, and is carefully planned “backstage”; but the game itself is real and out in the open. As soon as the referee blows the whistle for the kick-off, anything can happen, and a team with a budget that is hundreds of times larger than that of its opponent can end up losing the match. Of course, that doesn’t happen very often, but the very fact that the outcome is uncertain is what makes it real. And we are becoming less and less accustomed to such situations in modern societies.

We are also not used to flying the national flag in our front gardens. Why are we prepared to do so for weeks during the World Cup?
Some people would say that football is the only thing left that can remind us of the nation, as everything else has been internationalized. And a tournament like the World Cup seems to prove them right. People who normally wouldn’t touch a flagpole with a fire-tongs fly them from their cars. That indeed implies a degree of identification with others, but it hasn’t produced any more cohesive form of “communitarization”. It‘s actually more of a media-driven phenomenon. The reasoning goes like this: “Because there is so much about it in the media, it must be something really big; so if I wear the right badge, maybe I too can become a part of the great event.”

And when it’s the World Championship in soccer – the most popular sport in the world – nobody can ignore it, neither your average private individual nor anyone who plays a public role. Politicians use football-related expressions, marketing is full of references to football, and advertising campaigns feature star footballers. The event pervades society to such an extent that it has an informational value even if one doesn’t explicitly invoke it.

Do you see yourself as part of this big story?
I’m not going to attach a flag to my car. I had considered flying the Brazilian flag, but I decided against it. My son suggested the skull-and-crossbones, and that might be an option. But of course, I will watch the matches, there’s no question about that. I’m an ardent fan of Schalke [based in Gelsenkirchen, Schalke 04 is one of the oldest and best-known football clubs in Germany] but, as far as the World Cup is concerned, I have a problem. The Fates decreed that I should agree to give a lecture at precisely the time when the German team has its final match in the first round, against the USA. I can’t get out of it, and it is a real sacrifice. I need all the sympathy I can get!

Why is it that nobody seems to get worked up about the immense sums are paid to football stars?
The legitimacy of large pay-packets is always linked to how demanding the required level of performance is imagined to be. Spectators get very angry with players who are seen to be doing too little. They must show some spirit, they’ve got to get stuck in! They must show their mettle – or as football fans put it, “they must go where it hurts,” like the warriors of old. In football, it always hurts, as I know from my own experience; I used to play lots of football myself. But that’s what the people want to see. And fans accept that players who demonstrate that sort of commitment should be handsomely rewarded. Objectively speaking, they don’t deserve millions of euros per season, but we all know that the valuation of things that are in the public eye is ultimately determined by the economic climate and the business cycle.

One of the consequences is that players become trade-marks, and are always being dragged in front of microphones to deliver opinions to the world. Can footballers still serve as role models who are looked up to – and if so, should they not express themselves more forthrightly on a whole range of topics?
I’m happy that they are not asked even more about things they know nothing of! It’s crazy to ask people who are regarded as celebrities to comment on things they have nothing to do with. That holds for footballers, actors, pop stars – in other words, everyone who is instantly recognizable in public. We all know Franz Beckenbauer, who is asked to comment on all sorts of things, but is not always the best person to do so. It’s a curious feature of the celebrity phenomenon: The celebrity is the unofficial spokesperson on issues about which he has nothing to say.

All the same, the aura of the football giant seems to be very robust, if the reactions to the conviction of Uli Hoeneß for tax evasion are anything to go by.
Uli Hoeneß has been knocked from his pedestal, but the spell he exerts seems as powerful as ever. He is not regarded as a criminal. For many, he remains “our Uli”, who cannot be toppled from his eminence, because he is an idol. – He just happened to run into a bit of bad luck and things got out of control. But to a lot of football fans he’s still a hero, if only as a footballer.

The questions were put by Larissa Vassilian. Translation: Paul Hardy

Armin NassehiProf. Dr. Armin Nassehi is Professor of Sociology at LMU. Born in 1960, he studied Educational Sciences, Philosophy and Sociology. He earned his doctoral degree at the University of Münster, and completed his Habilitation in Sociology there in 1994. He subsequently taught in Münster and in Munich, before being appointed to his present position at LMU in 1998. Nassehi became the Editor-in-Chief of the magazine Kursbuch in 2012.