How the Bundesliga can make England cool again
Ã¢ÂÂTen Euros!Ã¢ÂÂ said Uli-Hesse Lichtenberger, after he had stopped coughing long enough to light another cigarette and resume our conversation.
We were standing in the corner of a smoky bar in Gelsenkirchen, two islands in a sea of blue and white Schalke fans. Uli, who could pass for Keith RichardsÃ¢ÂÂ fairer, younger brother, is the author of Tor!, a seminal, entertaining history of German football.
Uli is a Borussia Dortmund fan and Ã¢ÂÂ¬10 was, he said, how much it cost you to stand on the terraces at the Westfalenstadion (now renamed to raise money from a local insurance company). Ã¢ÂÂAnd for teenagers, paying ten Euros to stand and watch Dortmund is considered a cool thing to do,Ã¢ÂÂ he added.
Why were we talking about this? Not to complain about Premiership ticket prices Ã¢ÂÂ though they are absurd Ã¢ÂÂ but because Uli had recently been discussing, with a Norwegian writer who is writing write a book on the worldÃ¢ÂÂs great football derbies, the idea that the way we watch football, especially in England, had been revolutionised and nobody had noticed. And, as Uli told me, Ã¢ÂÂWe werenÃ¢ÂÂt even sure that it matteredÃ¢ÂÂ.
Watching a few Premiership games, the Norwegian writer noticed how old the crowds were and pondered whether England raising a whole generation of fans who would never Ã¢ÂÂ or very seldom Ã¢ÂÂ see their teams in action.
My son is an Arsenal fan. He even slept, disconsolately, in his Arsenal kit the night they lost the UEFA Champions League final to Barcelona. But he has seen the Gunners in the flesh just once Ã¢ÂÂ against PSG, in one of those sponsor-tastic pre-season tournaments last summer. (WeÃ¢ÂÂve actually seen Fulham Ã¢ÂÂ thanks to a friendly season ticket holder Ã¢ÂÂ more often.)
To watch that game, I had to join the Arsenal members club, which grades its members according to various metals. We werenÃ¢ÂÂt platinum or gold, but one of the minor metals. Something like nickel. Which gives us the right to buy tickets for next summerÃ¢ÂÂs sponsor-tastic friendlies and receive a weekly email from Arsene Wenger (sample entry: Ã¢ÂÂWe donÃ¢ÂÂt concede goals often but when we do we concede wellÃ¢ÂÂ).
ThereÃ¢ÂÂs nothing unusual about the way football has disenfranchised Jack. Cost and unavailability have made it nearly impossible for many kids across England to see their heroes in action. The bonding process Ã¢ÂÂ which started with me when, aged seven, I watched Nuneaton BoroughÃ¢ÂÂs adrenaline-fuelled local derby with Bedworth United; a contest that is not, alas, likely to feature in the Norwegian writerÃ¢ÂÂs book Ã¢ÂÂ isnÃ¢ÂÂt working for these kids.
In partial consequence, their allegiances are looser. ItÃ¢ÂÂs easy to sneer at kids who support successful teams, but who can blame them? English football is grooming a generation to be glory hunters, exacerbating the financial polarisation that may yet destroy the game.
Stripped of the social and emotional ritual of watching a match live, football becomes mere entertainment. Once that happens Ã¢ÂÂ in a world where our attention spans are shrinking in direct proportion to the time we spend on the internet Ã¢ÂÂ we are on the primrose path to games being divided into quarters and other grotesque contortions as football remakes itself to become whatever broadcasters want it to be.
In 1989, Michael Ignatieff coined the term Ã¢ÂÂthree minute cultureÃ¢ÂÂ, after discovering that the average household changes TV channels every three minutes. Thanks to the wonders of multi-channel television Ã¢ÂÂ and the interminable ad breaks which always feature that mum from the northeast who is thrilled to be told that her monthly loan repayments will be small yet lifelong Ã¢ÂÂ we have become even more frenzied in our channel hopping.
In such a context, the idea of an event like a football match which lasts 90 minutes seems a bizarre anachronism. Football Ã¢ÂÂ to people who have never had the chance to Ã¢ÂÂlearnÃ¢ÂÂ how to watch a match live Ã¢ÂÂ may increasingly be consumed as highlights packages or snippets of transcendent action posted online. How often have you heard a player described as the Ã¢ÂÂperfect YouTube footballerÃ¢ÂÂ recently?
Much of this Ã¢ÂÂ especially YouTubeÃ¢ÂÂs treasure trove of clips Ã¢ÂÂ is good. But the football industryÃ¢ÂÂs financial model is based on the idea that someone Ã¢ÂÂ usually Rupert Murdoch Ã¢ÂÂ will pay billions to screen these games. If these matches stop pulling in punters, the model collapses and armageddon beckons.
Silvio Berlusconi famously suggested that in the future, fans would watch matches for free. Everybody laughed. He may have been mistaken, but he wasnÃ¢ÂÂt wrong. Selling a match ticket for nothing Ã¢ÂÂ or ÃÂ£7 as they do in Dortmund Ã¢ÂÂ may make better long-term financial sense for the game than selling a one-off ticket for a Premiership match for ÃÂ£40-50.
In the bar at Gelsenkirchen, Uli managed to look only slightly pained as he said something nice about Bayern Munich. Ã¢ÂÂThey limit the number of season tickets to make sure fans across the country can buy seatsÃ¢ÂÂ. This approach isnÃ¢ÂÂt entirely altruistic: Ã¢ÂÂThey figure itÃ¢ÂÂs more valuable if they have a lot of fans who only come to two or three games a season because theyÃ¢ÂÂll spend more on merchandiseÃ¢ÂÂ.
Such acts of enlightened self-interest may explain why, since 2003, Bundesliga attendances have consistently topped the PremiershipÃ¢ÂÂs Ã¢ÂÂ so far this season, the average top flight game in Germany attracts 37,644 fans, compared to 34,400 for the Premiership. While alert to the reward of corporate money, German football has not excluded a generation of fans from its grounds. And that may be one reason why, as Uli said over his last glass of Velktsin beer as we departed for the match, football is cool in Germany again. And football hasnÃ¢ÂÂt been cool in England since 1996.