Sometimes I don’t think this blog through well enough. I read this book months ago and reviewing it would have obviously sat perfectly with the world cup final that helped to mark the current dominance of German football, but alas – here it is, a few months later, just as attentions are focused on the new Premier League season.
Anyway … this sporting history written by the German journalist Ulrich Hesse-Lichtenberger is aimed at a non-German audience. People who won’t necessarily know the ins and outs of football in that country. It does not however act as a cultural, social or political history of Germany and would be next to useless as a tourist guide. There are many other books which do this for other countries, Morbo by Phil Ball, Brilliant Orange by David Winner – and it generally works rather well; but Ulrich H-L sets his stall out bluntly and immediately, he’s here to talk about football and you should look elsewhere for a tour guide.
Once that’s out of the way, the fascinating story of German football begins. It has sometimes had the image of an efficient and professional machine that lumbers along steamrolling the opposition in a dour way (largely because of the 80’s, which we’ll come to later). The truth couldn’t be further from that for the early days of German football; it was very much a regional and amateur sport. The Bundesliga didn’t come about until 1963 and even the 1954 World Cup winning team was made up of amateurs. Other nations had also been resistant to professionalism at the start of the twentieth century, but it is pretty shocking to find Germany still in that state fifty years later. Of course, that wasn’t the only problem – it’s hard to ignore the wars and dramatic political changes that Germany took part in during the first half of the twentieth century.
After the slow start and miraculous win in Bern, the national team would pick up and become the powerhouse they are now. It wasn’t all easy going – the unpopular but successful team of the eighties even managed to turn off their own fans, and the Michael Ballack led team of the turn of the early twenty-first century was scraping by on luck at times; but there are many interesting personalities and stories that the author fills out here – Rudi Voeller coming across particularly well, and Franz Beckenbauer not. On the domestic side, clubs are not ignored – we get explanations of how the (sometimes odd) club naming system works in Germany and a history of the various clubs that have risen and fallen away over the last century of football. It all ends up centering on Bayern Munich, as they use their huge fanbase and more than a bit of business acumen to turn themselves in the giant of German football – the likes of Dortmund, Hamburg and Monchadgladbach may come and go, but Bayern are never far away.
Despite his claims to be focusing on the football, there is plenty here about the german culture surrounding the sport. It is more direct than some similar books but one cannot separate the growth and popularity of this sport from the people and times that made it. It’s a fascinating book with some great anecdotes and a lot of useful information for non-Germans trying to catch up with the region. It may not give the minute details of their youth system that has caused their revival or describe the financial system that allows such a fan-friendly club culture, but it does show the progression of the mentality and environment that created those and the other factors that make Germany the leader in world football today. I’d definitely recommend it to any football fans out there who are wondering where the rest of the world has got it so wrong.