Author’s Note: Parts of this post were written as an assignment for a graduate seminar in Classical Sociological Theory.
On 14 September 2016 the Sporting Director of German side Borussia Monchengladbach, Max Eberl, did something football fans everywhere can be proud of. He—if only for a moment—stood up to the rat-race routine of modern life and all of its rationalizing influence that forces humans all over the world to make work the focal point of modern life, as if that I why we are on this earth. After the Manchester City-Borussia Monchengladbach Champions League tie got postponed and pushed forward one day later due to a deluge in Manchester, Mr. Eberl took action. Recognizing that many ‘Gladbach’ fans would stay to support their side through thick and thin, he left a note for the 1500 away fans on their seats excusing them for missing the work they may miss the next day due to attending the re-arranged match.
Borussia Monchengladbach’s Fans Are Passionate to Say the Least. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.dailystar.co.uk/sport/football/545608/Borussia-Monchengladbach-letter-sack-Man-City-game
Unfortunately, your employee (name) cannot appear at work on this Thursday as he is in Manchester to fulfil the important duty to support (Monchengladbach).
We thank you being his boss for accepting his apology to stay away for one day.
We regret whatever inconvenience this may have for your company, but, at the same time, hope for your understanding.
With kind regards from Manchester, Max Eberl.
Mr. Ebrl’s Note. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.101greatgoals.com/news/gladbach-leave-awesome-letter-seats-away-fans-man-city-tonight-picture/
Personally, I believe this is one of the warmest developments in world football I have seen in the last few years. The fact that it happened in the UEFA Champions League—the “rich man’s club” of world football, so to speak—makes it all the more interesting, especially seeing as how the competition has consistently worked to favor the rich clubs. Mr. Eberl’s human request to employers shows just how much of a hold the economic system we live in has on us; it also shows us how—even in the age of industrial football—there are still a few unique individuals left in world football.
We can relate the concepts of labor and industrial football to one another by using some of Karl Marx’s writing as a guide. Marx explains in “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844” that:
In estranging from man (1) nature, and (2) himself, his own active functions, his life activity, estranged labour estranges the species from man. It changes for him the life of the species into a means of individual life. First it estranges the life of the species and individual life, and secondly it makes individual life in its abstract form the purpose of the life of the species, likewise in its abstract and estranged form (Marx and Engels 1975, 90).
This focus on the individual (through the importance of labor as it becomes the sole purpose of the species) meant that workers are becoming alienated, or estranged, from themselves and one another. When the sport of football first became popular in England in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was mainly as a form of leisure for the working classes. Sport also gave the working classes a sense of community; the teams workers played for or supported offered a new kind of collective identity that was able to bring people together.
As sport has become commercialized, many fans have objected to a system where the fans are viewed not as individuals but as “consumers”; the fan has become “estranged”, to use Marx’s term, from the experience of being a spectator. Fans are expected to hand over increasing amounts of money to watch their teams’ games, spending more and more of what they have earned (through production) at their jobs in order to view what had once been relatively inexpensive. Since soccer is such a popular sport all over the world, pay-TV channels have sprung up in most of the industrial world that televise live games. This, of course, requires a subscription in addition to a normal cable (or similar product) subscription; the game itself is never free. Even if one wants to watch a televised match outside of the home, they would have to go to a restaurant or bar which will also charge money in exchange for offering the game.
This commodification of the game also reflects the “race to the bottom” aspects of capitalism that Marx touches on in “Wage-Labour and Capital”. As the mode of production and means of production continually are transformed and revolutionized, the relative value of the worker decreases and profits increase. In order to keep up, capitalists are engaged in a system of competition with one another. The system of “industrial football” is no different. As teams commodify the fan experience more and more, they are able to make more and more money which translates to higher rates of success on the field. The building of newer, more comfortable, and more modern stadia means that higher prices can be charged for tickets, which in turn pushes out the lower classes and brings in the middle and upper classes; changing the demographic of fans means attracting more affluent fans at the expense of less affluent fans. These more affluent fans, in turn, have more disposable income to spend on concessions and gear in the stadium and may be more likely to pay for the ability to watch games at home that they cannot see in person. And teams that increase their revenue in this manner can afford to buy better players, which makes them more successful on the field, retaining the current fans and attracting newer fans.
This is one reason why I believe that, over the last fifteen to twenty years of European soccer, the most successful teams have come from the main industrialized countries of Western Europe. Teams from regions like Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, and Scandinavia—which have retained a more amateur spirit and not “modernized” the economy of the game to the extent that those in Western Europe have—tend to not be as successful. Being located somewhat on the sidelines of the “game” of capitalist development in sport has put teams from these areas at a disadvantage compared to those from the centers of Western and Central Europe.
In light of this short discussion I believe that Borussia Monchengladbach—and Mr. Ebrl particularly—should be commended for offering spectators another side of Industrial football. The fan is not just a source of income, spending their hard earned money on their team. Rather, they are human beings who are trying to find some sort of an escape from their work in the stadium. They should not be punished for having interests outside of work, and we can only hope that other teams can start recognizing that their fans are individual people, not just pocketbooks to be exploited.