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Pitch Invasion, by Barbara Smit
Foul! The secret world of Fifa, by Andrew Jennings
On the Corinthian Spirit, by D J Taylor
Kickbacks but no penalties
Friday 09 June 2006
As if you didn't know, the 18th World Cup starts today. When it reaches its conclusion on 9 July, around three billion people are expected to watch the final. What else do three billion people do together? At a historical moment in which humanity's economic, ecological and cultural interconnectedness is of unprecedented scale and intensity, the World Cup brings the world face to face with itself. These three books speak to different facets of what is unlikely to be an entirely edifying experience.
Barbara Smit's Pitch Invasion is an immensely readable romp through the history of Adidas, and thus also the story of international sport's politics and the commercial colonisation of events. DJ Taylor's delightful musings in On the Corinthian Spirit attempt to locate the values and residues of English sporting amateurism, which continue to resist that process. And Andrew Jennings's Foul! tells us about how the circus is run between performances.
Pitch Invasion is a three-act tragedy. In the first, Smit charts the rise of the Dassler Brothers - Adi and Rudi - whose shoemaking business in the German town of Herzogenaurach prospered under both Weimar and the Nazis, serving the growing market for sports shoes. Even in the later years of the war, the army was still commissioning thousands of running pumps. In the aftermath, the brothers survived American denazification efforts, returned to their business and after a tumultuous family row split the company into Adidas and Puma, located on either side of the River Aurach.
The second act describes the rise of Adidas to become the world's premier sporting brand and a corporate success emblematic of the German economic miracle. That success sprang from both the traditional virtues of the German social economy and the brilliance of Horst Dassler, Adi's son and the real power in the 1960s and 1970s. Horst and the sports politics unit he created within Adidas were the pioneers of the commercialisation of football and the Olympics, the inventors of contemporary forms of sponsorship, brand-building and sports marketing.
The final act charts Adidas' decline, as Nike and Reebok proved more nimble and streetwise competitors. After buyouts and restructurings, the company has become an outsourced corporation whose German qualities have been eroded in a more homogeneous world market.
One of the most compelling aspects of Taylor's book is his account of the importance of nonchalance in Edwardian amateurism: of not being seen to try too hard, of taking the most interesting rather than most obvious path. Taylor's own path is not dissimilar, opening with a seemingly eclectic tour of his own history as a schoolboy footballer, social-mobility statistic and avid reader of footballing epics. However, beyond the whiff of whimsy there is a more serious narrative and intent - a pungent and sharply observed social and literary history of the origins and decline of amateurism. This narrative provides a subtle barometer of the state of class relations and identities.
Taylor is at his best looking at language, wondering when exactly the shift occurred from the "amateur" as the player for pleasure and glory to the hopeless novice. When did "professional" cease to mean a cynical money-taker and become the adjective of choice for seriousness and rigour? He is rightly appalled by the denigration of amateurism under the rule of a soulless meritocracy.
Although amateurism was an ideology and way of life only sustainable through privilege, it has left a legacy of values that are a powerful antidote to the corrosive intrusion of money and power into modern sport. The insistence of British football crowds on playing to the final whistle, and their widespread distaste for diving, are indices of this.
This historical quirk has had its costs, greatly underestimated by Taylor. English football and society remains plagued by the same structures of elite closure and administrative incompetence that characterised the FA in the first half of the 20th century.
Matters of administrative malpractice bring us inexorably to the subject of FIFA. In his book The New Lords of the Rings, Andrew Jennings exposed systematic corruption within the International Olympic Committee. In Foul!, he has turned his unerring attention to the bun fight that masquerades as the global governance of football.
The early part of the book covers well-known ground: the reign of Joaõ Havelange, the Brazilian patriarch who with his friends at Adidas transformed Fifa from a penurious cottage industry into the owner of the world's greatest commercial and sporting spectacular. Where Foul! really takes off is in Jennings's account of the election and rule of his successor, the incumbent president Sepp Blatter. Jennings strongly suggests that the election was supported by vote rigging, vote buying, finance from the Gulf and undue use of Fifa resources. Since then, Blatter has attempted to create new circuits of bureaucratic power among his hand-picked staff; he has undermined and eventually purged his opponents.
Official Fifa business, always an opulent inter-continental affair, has spiralled to grotesque levels. The massively enlarged carbuncle of football bureaucrats, created by Blatter as a phalanx of kept support, have lived the high life. In addition to the five-star, business-class, black-Mercedes arrangements, all have been allowed a daily expenses rate of 500 euros, for which no receipts or accounts are required. Members of the executive committee were handed $50,000 honorariums. President Blatter's salary and accounts remain, despite repeated requests, a matter of complete secrecy.
The global pandemic of corruption and match-fixing in football has forced Blatter to adopt the language of his opponents: promising probity and transparency, decrying the commercialisation of football. Blatter did what he does best and formed a committee of investigation. To this committee he appointed, among others, Jack Warner, president of the Trinidad and Tobago FA.
Jennings's account of Warner's football and business careers is one of innumerable tales of flagrant and disgraceful gravy-training. In Warner's case, this peaked in spring 2006 when it was revealed that his family travel agency was selling World Cup ticket packages out of the football association's allocation. Asked to explain, Warner announced that he had resigned from the board of the travel agency, as had his wife. Thus a conflict of interest, if there had every been one, no longer pertained.
This is conduct so laughable that it would not survive a moment's scrutiny in the most modestly democratic public sphere. That it can continue is testament to the brazen indifference of an elite that faces no opposition and little scrutiny. The sooner they do, the sooner they can be swept away.
David Goldblatt's global history of football, 'The Ball is Round', is published by Viking in September
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