Wanja talks to his children, today about…
Wanja sat with his children again, after dinner. They were sufficiently exhausted today, as they had spent the whole afternoon on the football field. So he didn’t necessarily have their attention, but neither did they have any “bumblebees in their butts” today that would make them fear an early termination of the conversation. Vanya opened the round with the question: “To what do we owe this beautiful planet of ours and its foundation? To what does it go back?”
“Well, that you were not satisfied with the football in the world!” he received the answer, as if from the same mouth. “Yes, that is quite true. And what specifically was bothering me, what was rotten about football, what wasn’t working, why did you have to get angry, what was missing?”
“We do have conversations about it almost every day. It wasn’t necessarily the rules themselves, it was their interpretation. Whereas you definitely had some ideas for improvement – as you can testify here, because they are implemented and it works well.”
“All right too, of course. It was the rules. But there was another massive part which stank to high heaven. Do you know?”
“So you often said something about pressure of expectation, about coach dismissals, about interviews that went against the grain.”
“That’s right. Yes. There’s a heading for that. It was the rules and it was….” “…the media, Now I know,” added the middle one.
“Exactly. And today, for once, I want to talk in detail about the problem with the media. You must never forget that things are always interrelated. There were rules that were not well applied, there were few goals, there was attention to wrong decisions that were also anti-goal in effect, there were changes that did not bear fruit because the problem was not recognised. And there was the media. What would be their role?”
“Well,” the elder began to philosophise, “the main task of the media should first be to present news that a) corresponds to the truth, b) is interesting and c) to convey this to the viewer in such a way that he enjoys it, that he wants to know, that he tunes in again, that he thinks along with it, that he feels enriched afterwards. But it’s essential that he stays with it, that is, that he feels well entertained.”
“Well to the point. Great, I like that. Surely you talked about it at school once?”
“Yes, of course. The role of the media. We wrote reports ourselves where it was important that it was exciting, a news story that would interest people, to do that the facts have to be right and the news has to be well prepared.”
“Ok, you hear that. It’s still a bit special in sport, even more special is football itself. What has given football its special role?”
“Probably that it was the biggest sport?”
“That’s pretty much right. Whereas, as I’ve probably told you before, that the US sport stood out, that it was very special, that everything was pretty well done there, that it developed in such a way, always in line with the audience that you had identified as the financier and whose needs and concerns were taken into account and above all this: football never really became big in the US. Because this is where the rest of the world had its unfortunate influence and this ensured that the spectators did NOT accept this sport in the USA, precisely because everything was so inconclusively and short-sightedly laid out. So it’s true, football was the biggest sport in the world without the USA. That earned it a special role.”
“So what did this special role do, what were the consequences?” the youngest wanted to know, thus naturally raising the logical question that anyone else could have asked.
“It triggered a consistently wrong approach. Three direct implications were these: a) football is so big that we don’t have to worry about it. b) football is so big that everyone watches it anyway. c) football is so big, we can’t change anything. If we did, maybe it wouldn’t be so big any more? Is that logical and understandable at first?”
“Yes, in a way it is. Which I’m surprised that you didn’t seem to realise that it wasn’t actually any fun, was it?”
“Yes, I thought so too. We can directly take an example of what I kept thinking of when I watched the second division conference on Saturday afternoon, for example. The media, the reporters, already play a central role in this.
It was like this: Saturday after Saturday, you heard the same comments over and over again, even from the same speakers. These went something like this: ‘the game here is not good’ or ‘the game here is boring, the goal scenes are missing’. Every time I heard that, I just wondered if they had amnesia or if they thought it was particularly fun for the spectators to hear every few minutes that there was absolutely nothing going on here, but just as little on the other playground? Often they outdid themselves. So one would pass it on to the other by saying ‘sure it’s more exciting in Darmstadt, Günter?’, to which the other countered ‘no, it’s even more boring here, at least you’ve already scored a goal’ or something like that. So the question one had to ask oneself as a spectator was whether they wouldn’t notice that although it seems to be boring today, the same speaker had already said exactly the same sentences last week? Has he forgotten or does he hope that the viewer has forgotten? But if the viewer has forgotten: does he now believe that the viewer is sitting in front of the television again today biting his nails and is once more enthusiastic about the game and the report? If he, the announcer, would realise that this game goes the same way as practically every other game in this league, maybe even every other game at all, namely that there are few scoring scenes, that it is mostly close, outstandingly often 0:0, but that when a goal is scored, the drama does not increase at all but instead the longing for the final whistle sets in? It was not because of THIS SPECIAL GAME but because of THE GAME OF FOOTBALL, which in this form was simply no longer entertaining, not exciting, not beautiful, not dramatic.”
“Yes, we did watch a game now and then, a few scenes that you played for us. That’s when it was really mostly like you had to fight your eyes shut. Partly because of a lack of tension in the game, partly because of a soporific commentator. And what do you think they could or should have done about that?”
“That’s a good question and sounds like one I would have asked myself. It was, as I’ve told you before, a bit like the Emperor’s new clothes. The Emperor was wearing nothing at all but everyone marvelled at how beautiful his clothes were. No one who realised that he had nothing on – and every single person realised that he had nothing on – dared to whisper to his neighbour, ‘Do you also notice that he has nothing on?`, because in the end he feared that he was the only one who was mentally ill, who could no longer trust his own eyes, who saw things that were not there. So everyone in the club was amazed, although each individual saw what his eyes were telling him: there is nothing to be amazed about.
Football was exactly like that: everyone who was watching noticed that it was actually no fun at all. But he didn’t dare say anything for fear of being the only one who noticed.”
The youngest had a justified objection: “That’s illogical what you’re saying. After all, the speakers apparently noticed it and even said it out loud for everyone to hear. They said week after week ‘the game is boring’, you said so yourself. So you’re wrong. And I figured it out! Ouch!”
Even if the father had all-round admiration for his children and, again, could really only agree with his son, it was obvious that he had not yet fully presented the problem. It was a little more complicated. However, he had not yet lost his attentive listeners. That was a good sign at the same time.
“You are a clever boy. You actually got me on that one.”
“You see? Now you either have to revise your views or explain it better or even just differently – to yourself and to us.”
“Okay. I’ll go for the second option: explain it better. You have to go a little further to do that. Whereby it is also possible that the first explanation is already sufficient. It refers to the number of spectators who followed such a conference. You may guess how many there were?”
“Yes, that is an exciting question. If you say that the speakers couldn’t or wouldn’t conceal the fact that they were bored themselves, how should the audience have felt?”
“Right. Because that’s what put me on the right track. These speakers, who excelled at long boring, had absolute fool’s liberty.”
“How do you mean?”
“Quite simply: they could tell whatever they wanted. The only possible reason they didn’t scare away a single audience member in this way was namely what?”
“I’ve got it,” the middle one spoke up, “they could never lose a single one because they didn’t have a single one!”
This shock news was something everyone had to think about and then digest. But in fact there seemed to be something to it. In terms of logic, anyway.
Vanya picked up the thread again after a while to spin it further.
“I actually thought it through to the end. The reports were so bad that you couldn’t expect an audience for them either way. Even if the football continued to be what it was: second division football. All teams on a par, soon indistinguishable from one another through the many jersey changes – dictated by the marketing department in order to boost sales a little, through sales of these jerseys to fans – let alone through a ‘style of play’, through the fifteen or so changes of coach at eighteen clubs every year, At the same time, all coaches and teams were characterised by a result-oriented mentality, which forced them to do everything but not concede a goal, with the main emphasis on tackling and, in general, on fighting against games, but that was just the way he was. Week after week, game after game.
If they still wanted to sell this product, they should have at least tried to do so with exciting reporting, or they should have pointed out that football is no fun like this and that something urgently needs to be done about it. If you don’t do this or that, you’ll get the bill for it, because no one will want to have the shopkeeper, or no one will watch, let alone listen.
These words also had to be processed first. Football was a rotten egg, one realised, and thought about it. For somehow it was still a kind of dinosaur egg? It continued to exist and the turnover and spectator numbers didn’t really go down the drain either?
“Well, first of all, I relate this observation to the second division games. Only this is already quite a powerful indication. It was also noticeable at some point that they always announced a few highlight matches for weeks. This raised the question in my mind whether they didn’t realise at some point that it can’t work like that if they want to sell an annual subscription, preferably to everyone, but already draw attention to the fact that it should only be worth it for THIS ONE GAME. Because: if a single game is announced weeks in advance, while in the meantime forty other games are taking place in the league: what do you expect the hoped-for subscriber to think of those forty other games? Pure boredom? No, the concept was not sound and a mis-planning all round.
But back to the listeners and viewers of a second division conference: one person should have listened – and even they didn’t. Do you know who?”
“No, wait a minute, I’m thinking. Who are you talking about? I can’t figure it out.” General shaking of heads in the room.
“All he really had to do was watch and, more importantly, listen once – and then fire all the commentators. But now you know who I mean?”
“Yes, of course, the programme director. The man in charge of broadcasting, of assigning the commentators.”
“But I’m sure you’ve understood by now: even he didn’t do it. You just realise that after a while. If he had watched it without falling asleep, he should simply have noticed that almost every single commentary you hear only follows one single direction consistently: how can I convince the listener to just not stay on the channel here? How do I get rid of them all? Like an insecticide or something, which has done its job optimally when all the pests have been removed. Curious only that the commentator’s task should actually have been the other way round.”
Again, a pause in speech was in order.
“You know, I always looked for interlocutors who could have helped to judge this. The problem was this: there were none, none could be found. This confirmed the initial suspicion more and more: there really is no one watching and this is not a polemic on my part.”
“That would be plausible as far as it goes, but still it would fundamentally not explain why the commentators commented as they did. I mean: firstly, they became journalists, surely, because they had the good intention of selling the very big story to a potential viewer, of having found that story, of having prepared it in such a way that everyone would like to hear and see it, but secondly, surely they must have realised themselves that they were falling asleep themselves with so much boredom as they were spreading? So why did they start like this and keep it up?”
“Exactly. An important point and well observed. One also has to go back a bit further here and also call in psychology. One part of the reason is to be found in the history of German football. Because first of all you have to state in general that this problem was a purely German problem.”
“So you mean we wouldn’t even be here if you hadn’t been born and raised in Germany? The coverage was better or even good elsewhere?”
“Well, there was still the problem with the rules. Here, too, I followed very closely how other countries reacted and commented. For example, on the video evidence or the penalties. But more about that elsewhere. In terms of reporting, Germany had a special status, which you have to understand first.”
“Ok, then please explain, we are listening to you.”
“Historically, then, there were two lost wars and a world title soon after. This title was widely over-interpreted and was fortunate, but came just at the right time for the Germans to polish up their badly battered international reputation, but thus also ushered in the coverage I observed and criticised. Because from then on, they were somebody again and had to let this hang out at every opportunity.”
“But please tell me, how was the final back then, in 1954, how was it commented on?”
“It was an inspiring report, no question about it. The man – Herbert Zimmermann, a legend – put his whole heart into it. He prayed so fervently and pleaded and cheered along with every single action, just as you could inspire and carry people away to this day, but it was just palpable that Germany had not only achieved a miracle by then, but also that they were the clearly inferior team in this match, but no one had doubted that beforehand. Hungary was the best team in the world, there was little doubt about it, they were always better than Germany. In this respect, Zimmermann was able to comment from the position of the underdog, which explains his sympathy and enthusiasm even better. You might like to listen in with me?”
Indeed, the children found it exciting and Wanja played parts of the report for them. One thing became clear to everyone: there was true enthusiasm here, this speaker was not ashamed to give free rein to his feelings, this man empathised and you felt with him. He spoke all the time, but when the time was right, he held his breath because he couldn’t speak, because the situation demanded it, because one was forced to do it by the game scene, only it burst out of him afterwards: “Toni, you’re a hell of a guy” because the goalkeeper had foiled another great chance. There was always something in his voice that made one suspect great things, it sounded pregnant with meaning and whoever started to listen in could not stop. That was the way to win the audience, that was the way to watch the game, that was the way to have fun. Wanja got goose bumps himself when he heard it again, but also because he felt that his children shared his enthusiasm.
“But you’re now more or less saying that this World Cup title didn’t really do football or reporting any good at all? So anyone could take a cue from this coverage and, to be honest, I almost feel the urge to become a sports reporter and spread the word about football in this way.” said the eldest. Yes, you could kind of understand that.
“Well, at that moment the title was considered a stroke of luck and Sepp Herberger, the coach, became a hero and with him all his players. But the happy circumstances were gradually forgotten. This was also due to the scratched self-confidence of the Germans, who had a guilty conscience because of their own history of starting and losing wars. So they took this as an opportunity to polish up their self-esteem. “We are world champions in football”, even if otherwise down, economically and morally and in reputation even more so.”
Yes, the children could follow.
“More international success followed. It was almost as if the whole of Germany based its entire sensibilities only on its successes in football. In 1966, an unfortunate defeat in the final against the host nation England, but a final and what felt like world champions again? In 1970, the game of the century was lost unhappily to Italy in the semi-final, but in the end Germany came third and was almost once again something like the ‘world champion of hearts’, at least in its own country. 1982 final, 1986 final, both lost, but where were all the others who thought so much of themselves? In 1990, the title again. And so on. Abroad, all they knew was that it practically didn’t matter how a game went, Germany always won in the end. They were not better, but they won. All this has gone to people’s heads here more and more. If you get lucky too often, it clouds your vision. You get run over by luck, but you simply can’t perceive it as luck any more. But even if it hadn’t been luck, the consequences would probably have been the same.”
“So what were the further consequences? How did it affect the way you comment?” the middle one wanted to know, though the others would not have asked otherwise.
“Well, first of all, confidence has been restored, at least in the football area. There’s a German-speaking commentator, from the country of the world champion. Do you now think he doesn’t identify with his country and isn’t also a bit of a world champion?”
“No,” it was agreed, “he feels like a world champion even though he didn’t contribute, but that’s how people are.”
“Yes, that’s how it is. He feels like a world champion and when someone is a world champion, he knows things just a little bit better than someone who is only second, let alone didn’t even make the qualification or was eliminated in the group phase or in the quarter- or semi-finals. That’s just how they are, these world champions. After a while, however, it’s no longer the case that they know things just a little bit better, but they ALWAYS and EVERYWHERE know better. And above all, they think they know good from bad.”
“Yes, that makes sense so far. But why this boredom they spread, much later? That’s not explained yet.”
“No, the story is not over yet either. The one problem that arises is this: if you win far too often and have to claim certain proportions of luck in each case to do so – even the better man needs that little bit, as we’ve discussed elsewhere, to get from his, say, 70% to 100% — not only is your view of it transfigured, you think purely intuitively that basically every victory is justified. That’s a little trick of our human brain — unless you’re conscious of it. You have been lucky, but you only feel it intuitively, you accept it as such, but you don’t declare it to be luck at all. From then on, we are increasingly forced to try to explain actual and recognisable events of luck logically. If one did not do this, but instead let this recognisable luck stand as luck and described it as such, then one would also have admitted this as an explanation for one’s own successes – and possibly another, a foreign commentator, would make use of it. You see, you said yourself that this victory was lucky. That’s exactly how we now explain your victory back then in the semi-finals as lucky.’ “
Again, you simply had to give pause for thought. If you allow luck as an explanation, it could be used against you. A bit like in court. “You can testify or refuse to testify. But should you say something, then this can be used against them in court.” So every German sports reporter bites his tongue before declaring a result ‘lucky’. It makes sense.
“The two phenomena go together perfectly. On the one hand, as a person from the country of the world champion, you know everything, so to speak, but at the same time there is no such thing as luck. Thus, one begins to declare any result as ‘deserved’. Because one profits from it and one’s own victories were thus all deserved, even if far too many and still basically lucky, but that is faded out with this artifice, but at the same time, because one is so clever and so much a world champion that one looks just a little deeper than the one who invokes the pure coincidence of the outcome or even, in the extreme case, only certifies the winner afterwards: ‘But you had a lot of luck. The opponent was the better team.
No, a German commentator would expose such a statement as an untruth. He could explain the defeat better, he could look deeper, he would uncover elements that escaped the man from the country of the eliminated group stage member. He knows football better, he understands it better, he finds the reasons that can ultimately explain this victory. Whoever explains a victory or the outcome of an event with luck is a hopeless layman either way.”
So gradually the story became round and the children could hardly object. It all fitted together.
Herbert Zimmermann made the lasting impression of the evening with his reportage. Everyone felt motivated to do the same and maybe one of the children was actually on the way to becoming a sports reporter? The foundation stone was laid.