91 – ‘Gott ist Rund – Die Kultur des Fußballs’ by Dirk Schümer

This is the final review of 2009, and a slightly unexpected one at that. I’ve had a very good year with reading books in other languages, and this one brought the tally up to 14 out of 91 (12 in German and 2 in French). I was at a bit of a loose end as I finished the two books I thought would take me to the end of the year with a few days to spare, so, after a good half hour of gazing at my bookshelves, my eyes flicked across a German book I bought more than a decade ago and never quite got around to reading all the way through (it does happen, albeit very rarely). What better way to cap off a year of power reading than by making up for old lapses? Well, let’s see if it was a good decision or not…

‘Gott ist Rund – Die Kultur des Fußballs’ (‘God is Round – The Culture of Football’, and can I just say here how happy I am to have found the ALT-Code for ß? ALT + 225 if anyone’s interested) is a non-fiction book featuring the musings of a very serious German newspaper editor on the beautiful game and the effect it has on human culture and society. Over nine chapters, he muses on such things as business, society, people and poetry and tries to explain the pull the game of football has on large parts of the globe. In German.

Yes, that may seem a very redundant statement, but it is actually important. Being German, Schümer takes everything very seriously and never uses two words when one seventeen-syllable monstrosity will do. He also makes sure that every possible theoretical base is covered, leading yours truly to occasionally find himself staring at a page with absolutely no idea how he got there. While the first couple of chapters were mainly personal philosophical arguments of the type which anyone with a keen interest in football and more than a passing knowledge of the rules of written grammar could knock off, the later sections do seem to have been based on substantial amounts of reading. As I said, Germans take these things very seriously.

Some of the ideas Schümer toys with make for interesting reading. The concept that football is, in itself, utterly meaningless, only existing to promote products, pacify aggressive natives or further the ambitions of crafty politicians (depending on which chapter you happen to be reading) is fascinating and, unfortunately, very true. The story of Sylvio Berlusconi’s rise from sleazy businessman to Prime Minister, purely on the back of the symbiotic relationship between his companies, AC Milan and the media networks he happened to buy up is just one of many. Even today, even here in Australia, similar things happen. It was no coincidence that the winning side in the recent Queensland state election was the one which promised to chip in tens of millions of dollars for an AFL stadium…

Having been written in the mid-nineties, the book is a little dated now, and it is very interesting reading certain parts in view of subsequent world events. The idea of ever-increasing television revenue took a bit of a hit during last year’s financial meltdown, and Schümer’s presentation of Opel as a paragon of the advantages of Football and Business working together is a little unfortunate given the farcical umming and ahing over GM’s decision whether or not to sell off its European affiliate. To give him credit though, some things do still stand up: the prediction of the growing importance of Asia is spot on (but no mention of Australia).

Let’s be honest though; most of the things said in this book are self-evident, and if Herr Schümer’s intention was to reinforce the German stereotype of being efficient, thorough and ever so slightly dull, then he did a brilliant job. A native speaker might have a more charitable view of his writing, but I found that he was unable to really bring the magic of the game to life in a way I would have expected from someone daring to write a whole book on the subject. Still, I was ready to give him the benefit of the doubt, based mainly on the intriguing chapters on Business and Politics (again, home territory for the average German) when I got to the final 4-page coda – where he basically gave himself away as a bit of a fairweather fan with no real strong affiliation to any club side.

I can sense the lack of horror from my (mostly North-American female) readership, so let me explain. Your team is not really something you choose (as Herr Schümer weakly claims), it is a part of your birthright, it is thrust upon you. Nick Hornby puts it best in ‘Fever Pitch’ when he compares a football allegiance to a marriage, before taking it back: there’s no chance of divorce from your football team. Separation may be possible, but, sooner or later, you’ll go crawling back. This realisation of the cruel nature of football, which Schümer touches upon but obviously does not really understand, is what is needed to make this book into the work it should be.

Look, it’s not bad; just read ‘Fever Pitch’ instead though 😉

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