"Football is a generator of artistic creativity".
German scholar Prof. Dr. Matías Martínez on the culture of soccer, the World Cup in Qatar, and the literary studies he is working on in the winter semester
Mr. Martínez, a few years ago you published the book "Why Football?" - Cultural Studies Descriptions of a Sport. What interests literary scholars about this team sport?
Martínez: Unlike other subjects of academic research, with this topic it is good form to show a private affinity. I could even do that - I played for a long time in youth teams of Werder Bremen and am still active in the old men's team of my village club - but it is of no interest to others. As a literary and cultural scholar, I am fascinated by the enormous stimulating power of soccer in contemporary culture. Soccer is a generator of artistic creativity.
22 players run after a ball for 90 minutes, then a goal is scored and the world freaks out. How does that happen? Why do victories and defeats mean so much to the public?
Martínez: This power of fascination is indeed amazing. After all, compared with political, economic or health events, soccer matches have no direct impact on the lives of individuals. Soccer is meaningless for the existentially important needs of its spectators. So where does the sympathy come from? There is probably a psychic transference taking place here: As fans, we expand and enrich our personal identity. We identify emotionally with a collective self, namely a particular soccer team. Their victories and defeats are then also our own. In addition, many fans identify with individual players whom they revere as sports heroes and with whom they maintain a parasocial relationship. Without knowing them personally, they empathically share in their achievements and glory, even beyond the turf. Finally, in a highly complex society, soccer offers an event-dense narrative that is vivid, clearly regulated, and self-contained.
Since when has literary studies been concerned with the phenomenon of soccer?
Martínez: To a greater extent only since the 1990s, when cultural studies came to Germany from the U.S. and Great Britain and popular culture was no longer perceived merely as an instrument of social indoctrination. When I held my first seminar on soccer as a junior researcher in 1995, some colleagues thought it was courageous (but it probably didn't hurt). In the meantime, I'm almost sick of the academic enthusiasm for the subject of soccer, a fad that has something ingratiating about it.
The American sociologist Thorstein Veblen called the sport of soccer "a unilateral return to barbarism, or rather a return to the natural beast." What did he mean by that?
Martínez: To Veblen, the action on the pitch seemed less than civilized, and people were reduced to raw physicality. But that is wrong in many respects. The players' movements are not uncontrolled outbursts of primitive impulses, but rather actions that are largely determined by rules and tactics. Moreover, as sociologist Norbert Elias has shown, historical predecessors of modern soccer were much more uncontrolled and violent. Today's soccer is a product of civilization not only in its marketing and media mediation, but also in its sporting core, because it engages in physical competition within the framework of rules. Of course, this also applies to other modern sports. The fact that soccer is particularly successful worldwide is probably also due to the fact that it uses a particularly small number of simple rules to produce complex and constantly surprising events.
Scientists are very critical of popular sports. Theodor W. Adorno, for example, speaks of the "element of vertigo," and for sociologist Gerhard Vinnai, soccer in the entertainment industry serves to "rehearse and cement the ruling principle of reality" in order to keep "the victims of the alienated industrial apparatus in line." That sounds like opium for the people, doesn't it?
Martínez: The main representatives of the Frankfurt School, which included Adorno and Vinnai, were suspicious of the pleasures of the body and entertainment. If they took any notice at all of sports as part of popular culture, it was as a political tool to better manipulate the masses. This approach overlooked the fact that spectators and fans are not simply passive objects of manipulation, but actively shape the culture of soccer itself. This was typically German, by the way; in other countries, intellectuals have always had a culinary relationship to these areas as well. But in Germany, too, this has changed since the 1990s.
Soccer, and professional soccer in particular, is now strongly interwoven with the economy. If you look at the amounts that individual players pocket on a transfer, it's hard to comprehend. The sums involved in television broadcasting rights are also utopian. Is the game becoming a minor matter at this point?
Martínez: I'm not an economist, but it seems to me that a professional player is worth as much as a club is willing to pay for him. I don't mind Lionel Messi earning 140 million euros a year. What bothers me, however, are the unequal financial conditions in national and international club soccer. Competitive sports create competition between formally equal applicants and measure success purely on the basis of athletic performance and not on the basis of origin, religion or other factors unrelated to sports. This is still the case on the pitch. But professional soccer is increasingly dominated by fewer and fewer clubs that, with the help of patrons, corporations and unevenly distributed television money, can buy the best players and thus monopolize sporting success. That's why it's becoming increasingly rare for a club like SC Freiburg, which is way down in the financial rankings, to finish the past Bundesliga season in 6th place and advance to the Cup final. The cup was won by a team that is sponsored by the Red Bull Group and pays its players four times as much as SC Freiburg.
In November, the World Cup begins in controversial Qatar. Bought votes tipped the scales at the time, otherwise the World Cup would have taken place in the USA. A whistleblower even says that all nations tried to buy votes. The British newspaper The Guardian cites a figure of 6,500 dead migrant workers for Qatar since the World Cup was awarded in 2010, and Amnesty International reports discriminatory laws against women and homosexuals, as well as alleged support for terrorist groups. Sport is always supposed to be apolitical, but it never has been. Does playing in such a country set new priorities for the sport of soccer?
Martínez: The fact that the World Cup is being held in Qatar is hardly something that anyone outside the region is looking forward to. The last World Cup was held in Russia, the last Winter Olympics in China. Should such outstanding events of international sport take place in politically objectionable countries? In Germany, where the National Socialists made massive propagandistic use of the 1936 Olympics, it is difficult to answer this question in the affirmative. After all, such events offer not only the organizers the opportunity for propaganda, but also the media the opportunity for critical reporting. Without the World Cup, the abuses in Qatar would not have come into such sharp focus. Whether the World Cup will ultimately have boosted Qatar's international standing remains to be seen.
Mr. Martínez, you are offering a lecture entitled "The Culture of Football" in the winter semester. What will be the focus of your lecture?
Martínez: I would like to analyze literary, journalistic, artistic and architectural designs of soccer. Ror Wolf mounted wonderful radio plays with original sounds from live Bundesliga reports on the radio. Such live reporters have the demanding task of telling a story whose end they do not yet know - narratologically highly interesting. Peter Handke's readymade "Die Elf des 1. FC Nürnberg," a text that reproduces nothing but a team lineup, is not to be missed. Soccer wisdom such as "After the game is before the game" or "Madrid or Milan, the main thing is Italy" are also grateful objects of analysis. It should be stimulating, but not a fun event. In any case, I won't be wearing a jersey to the lecture.
Uwe Blass (interview from June 9, 2022)
Matías Martínez studied German and philosophy at the Georg-August University in Göttingen and received his doctorate there. He habilitated at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich in 2001 and came to the Bergische Universität in 2004. Here he holds the chair of Modern German Literary History.