It’s official: Mats Hummels will leave Borussia Dortmund this summer. Like Mario Götze and Robert Lewandowski before him, he’s headed to all-time rival Bayern München, which makes matters worse. To criticise their skipper’s decision, BVB fans put up a banner sporting the less-than-tender message: “The captain leaves the ship – best go immediately!” Why hang around and wear BVB’s black-and-yellow if your thoughts are already with Bayern’s red-and-white?
Dortmund director Hans-Joachim Watzke reacted more aggressively than Hummels himself. “These people aren’t fans, they don’t belong to BVB.”
Why are the fans so upset by a player leaving the club – leaving with the agreement of the board, even – especially a player who has done great things for the club and has himself nothing but praise for BVB? And why is Director Watzke so upset with the fans?
Players’ transfers have not always been a ritualistic part of football. Until the 1970s, even star players tended to stay with one club. 1954 World Cup Champion and German icon, Fritz Walter, played 21 years for 1.FC Kaiserslautern and finished his career there. Pelé played 18 years for Santos FC; Franz Beckenbauer left Bayern München after 13 years. Both went to New York Cosmos, clearly for financial motives. Fans were still disappointed in their heroes, but it was considered understandable.
French superstar – a superstar for various reasons, mind – Eric Cantona allegedly conned the credo: “You can change your wife, your politics, your religion, but never, never can you change your favorite football team.” He himself played for eight different clubs.
The difference strikes the eye. The Favorite Football Team. Cantona, whether he himself or his movie character, is speaking from a fan’s perspective, not from that of an employee. He said of his last club, Manchester United, “until the last minute of my life I will have this club in my heart.” Hummels used similar words in response to the fans after he announced his decision to go to Munich on May 10. Most players offer up some sort of emotions, praising the club they are leaving, as this is what the fans expect.
It is not as if emotions were entirely the fans’ resort and the players remain stony-faced, cold-hearted professionals. More than one tear has been shed over the leaving of a club. When legendary Paris Saint-Germain captain Raì made his last appearance for the Parisians in 1998, he broke down sobbing. More recently Steven Gerrard, long-time Liverpool captain and living legend, announced his transfer to Los Angeles Galaxy in 2015 in a very emotional interview. There are players who share the fans’ and Cantona’s perspective, even if they ultimately don’t follow it.
From the players’ point of view, most transfers are sober affairs: Talk to the representatives, sign the contract, tell your new club what kind of house and car you’d like. Even a last good-bye to the teammates can be said casually after a training session. “Bye, guys, I’m off to some greener pasture!”
While players nowadays rarely seem agitated by this process, even greeting former teammates cordially when the teams clash in the league, fans often express a different view. Former team members are booed or even subjected to scathing messages. Hummels hadn’t even left BVB before the abuse began. Former Kaiserlautern player Willi Orban was greeted by banners depicting him caught in crosshairs, and was called “shit” when his new club Leipzig came to town. Who are these fans and what may be their motives?
When Dortmund Director Watzke said the supporters who openly slandered Hummels for his decision were “not fans”, he used the word as a synonym for “customers”. In modern, commercialised football, fans are consumers who cheer for the club and take gratefully what it offers them, namely victories and “beautiful games”. It’s an unspoken contract between the club and these “fans”. We give you football, trophies and club-coloured merchandising; you give us your money and your cheers.
But fans are not just the product of a club’s management. The word “fan” originates from the English “fanatic”, meaning, “A person with an extreme and uncritical enthusiasm or zeal”. “Fanatic” derives from the Latin fanaticus: “to be subject to a divine spirit, possessed by a deity to the point of seemingly irrational behaviour”. From there we arrive at fanum, a sacred place or temple. Transcendence in football, the dedication of fans to their team and to their stadium, is mirrored in the simple and much-used word “fan”.
This irritates in a secular world, all the more in a commercialised one. Those fans who put into their teams more of their love, faith, and trust, of their passion and irrationality, than can be equalled in sums contradict the expectations of a society that views prices as a means of control. In transfer rumours obscenely high sums are used to insinuate a maximum amount of control. Over the players, the clubs, success and trophies. And over the fans. The long and short of it is: everything is for sale and money controls everything. A player’s worth is spelled in money. But that which is priceless can’t be controlled.
The fans who put up the Dortmund banner weren’t talking worths, but values. They felt their values violated, their ideals sold out. They are the “fanatics”, obsessed by a conviction that extends beyond financial control, regarded as supernatural in a world based on an exchange of sums. Their spirit in its core is alien to the secular position, appearing at best divine, at worst demonic. Nothing could be further from the cultivated customer purchasing a ticket, amiably watching the entertaining game, and enjoying the catering service, than a passionate fan screaming pain and fury in the face of a beloved player who is about to leave.
These are the fans saving money – from a salary less than a tenth of what their idols earn – to follow their team across the country or across the continent. Fans who want their club’s logo on their tombstone. In declaring the so-perceived fanatics “non-fans”, the higher-ups try to solve the problem by denying its existence. If those people are not part of the club, they are none of their responsibility.
Often it is these “non-fans”, however, who create the unique atmosphere in a stadium, who provide the amazingly colourful and imaginative tifos to celebrate their club’s past, present and future. And it’s they who represent the club during away games, whose voices are heard and whose flags are raised. It is they who provide the emotion.
Football is one of the last preserves in western society where emotions can run relatively free. In football men are allowed to cry. In football people are allowed to shout and scream and jump around. In football men and women are allowed to hug complete strangers. In football men are allowed to kiss one another without their sexuality being questioned.
But emotions are also dangerous. Love can turn to hate; waving arms can start throwing things. Modern clubs are hard-pressed to keep a balance. They want emotions, for emotions sell, but they want them within the perimeters of the unspoken contract: so much money given, so many emotions returned.
Fandom is not about preference for a certain team over others. That’s customers. For a fan there are no other teams. Football is the last preserve of love, faith and loyalty to more people than should be the case in a healthy society. In some European countries it replaces nationalism, in others it fuses with it. In Germany, football is about the only widely accepted reason for citizens to proudly wear their country’s colours. To love your country is nationalistic, to love your football team is still okay.
Faith is no longer the privilege of religions. Not wanting to appear fundamentalistic, people in secular states – which means, at least theoretically, the whole of Europe – have started to apply transcendental values like infinite love, obedience, and even martyrdom to football clubs. Banners which promise to follow a club “to the death” appear in stadia. In 2012 the Catholic Church was engulfed in a shitstorm when it denied a nine-year-old boy dying from cancer his last wish to have Borussia Dortmund’s logo and motto “Echte Liebe” (true love) on his gravestone. The Church relented.
In analogy to what Eric Cantona said: your country may change, your religion may change, your social relationships may change, but your devotion to your football club will not change. As long as you keep faith to them, they are – or seem to be – under an obligation to keep faith to you.
But if players like Mats Hummels leave the club, this faith is – at least momentarily – broken.
Fans can accept the motives, the better wages or even, as in Hummels’ case, a return to a boyhood club, but it’s still a breaking of faith.
The aspect of the supernatural that is preserved in the word “fan” stubbornly refuses to be exorcised by money. The supporters and their team are not just bound by contract, ticket purchase or entertainment. Love, faith and trust are still to be reckoned with. They make themselves known in the spontaneous reaction of a group of fans telling a player to get the heck out of here now if he wants to leave at all.
Despite what journalists and club representatives want us to believe, many fans do not see football as “just a job.” After all, there is room for sentiment in football – and clubs play on those sentiments like a sitar when matchday comes around. They love managers cuddling sobbing players, love a squad piling on top of a last-minute scorer. Those running clubs love emotion. But they also love to wag fingers and raise voices when fans’ sentiments differ from theirs.
Like a poltergeist upsetting a well-organized system, old-fashioned values and unfiltered emotions pop up in fans’ actions. When club directors are troubled by things like the banner criticising Hummels, that’s actually good. Even a player like Mats Hummels may be for sale, after all, and we as fans have to respect his decision. But we do not have to accept it as the only sane and reasonable decision. We have a right to our perspective, the feeling that this is a violation of values. Some things are not for sale.