Denglischer Fussball is a comment blog on German and English football written and edited by Kit Holden. It was born in January 2011.
The importance of Gary Ablett’s death.
The death of Gary Ablett has brought to light once again the irrelevance of football’s tribalism when faced with a stark reality. It is a sentiment which will be repeated time and again over the coming days, but when a player achieves success on both sides of a fierce local derby and still remains loved, it says a lot about the fickle nature of fandom.
Ablett, the only player ever to have won the FA Cup with both Everton and Liverpool, died this week after a sixteen month battle with lymphoma, and the reaction to his death is as heartening as it is revealing. The messages of support and sympathy from individuals all over the football world bring to mind again the response to the sudden suicide of Gary Speed in November, as a man respected by all is honoured by all.
There have always been such anomalies in bitter rivalry. The Hillsborough disaster, with a few ugly exceptions, is another example, with Everton and Liverpool fans alike demonstrating the appropriate respect for its victims. The likes of those Manchester City fans who taunted the Munich air crash victims are, happily, in a minority, both within their club’s community and football itself when it comes to major tragedy The question is, why should it take death and suffering to ease tension?
Few would begrudge European football its tribal nature. Rivalries are woven into the fabric of the beautiful game, and without them, it would not have the same appeal. We can even excuse the hundreds of fans who swear mindless abuse at opposition players for no reason other than that they are being paid by the wrong employer. I have often been one of those hundreds myself. Football is escapism, and – without sounding like or endorsing Sepp Blatter – it is largely the case that mildly ugly behaviour within the football stadium is more excusable than it would be on the street. Racism and threats not inclusive, of course.
More than that, it is not a bad thing that people should be so apparently fickle as to revere the recently deceased to an exaggerated extent. When Gary Speed was roundly proclaimed to have been a footballing legend, the inaccuracy of the label was irrelevant; indeed, it was admirable. By overstating his footballing greatness, we demonstrated our sympathy and sadness at his death without having to profess to a personal closeness which did not exist. So while the unanimity between Liverpool and Everton fans over Ablett’s death is fickle, it is fickle in a positive way.
The real problem is that, while rivalry and tribalism are an integral part of our enjoyment of football, they are often used inappropriately to excuse what is, in fact, immoral or even illegal behaviour. Some of the Merseyside supporters who are currently united in sympathy for Ablett’s families may well in the future be involved in stadium violence or racism scandals. There is no logic to that.
It is not just tensions between fans that can see inexcusable behaviour excused by tribalism, though. The controversy over Spurs fans’ appropriation of the racist term “yid”, and Liverpool’s recent “support” of Luis Suárez show perfectly why the sense of community and solidarity that a football club cultivates can also be dangerous.
No one is saying that fan culture and rivalry is a bad thing in football. It is simply something which those who indulge in it should get a clearer perspective on. It is reasonable, for example, to liken, through song, an Arsenal fan to a financially privileged male genital, but it is not acceptable to send a letter bomb to a rival manager. Similarly, it is fine to profanely question the Mancunian roots of United fans, but it is not fine to taunt the victims of one of the greatest tragedies English football has ever endured. The message we can draw about rivalry from Ablett’s death is not unique, but it is still important.
The curious tale of Sami Khedira.
In an interview last Monday, Sami Khedira said of Germany: “We mustn’t forget that we still haven’t actually achieved anything.” There was, in those words, an eery relevance to his own individual career thus far.
At the age of 24, of course, it is not to be sneered at that Khedira is still yet to reach his peak in terms of success. Few professionals of his age, moreover, are in a better position to accumulate accolades than he is, playing for the second best team in Europe in both club and international football. The fragility of his claim to a solid place in both those teams, though, remains an unsolved issue in an otherwise promising career.
Since he was catapulted into the centre of the media eye in 2010, Khedira has learned the composure ropes with impressive maturity. In the same interview, he calmly bats away transfer rumours, and goes exquisitely through the motions with his perfectly organised soundbites. José Mourinho is the best coach he has ever worked under, Real are closer to Barca than ever before and he relishes the competition with Toni Kroos for a place in the national team. For someone who rose to prominence so quickly – and, in view of Michael Ballack’s sudden injury, so fortunately – his level headedness is as remarkable as it is useful. There is still something about his career, however, which seems unfulfilled – an opportunity which could prove to have been missed by one rash decision very early on.
Khedira’s quality cannot be doubted. Even with fortune of his golden opportunty in 2010, Khedira still had to prove himself. And prove himself he did; as a notable performer of Germany’s World Cup side, the young German of Tunisian heritage quickly earned the interest of Mourinho and the world’s biggest football club. Since then, however, his promise has not so much declined as stayed on a comfortable, monotonous level, while those around him progress at a threatening rate.
A transfer to Real Madrid should have been the chance to prove and establish himself on the fringes at least of world football’s elite. It should have been the opportunity to solidify his status as an untouchable member of the national team, even with Joachim Loew’s persistent dismissal of the idea of “Stammspieler”.
It has been, thus far, a missed opportunity. After eighteen months in Madrid, Khedira is still unable to boast of first team security, and it is little wonder. Moves to clubs such as Real are always gambles – Kaká, Michael Owen and others being cases in point – and with a player of as little experience as Khedira, it is even more the case. Though obviously admiring his talent, Mourinho still seems somewhat reluctant to trust him unequivocally, and it would not take the world’s largest pessimist to predict that his may be the next in a long line of promising careers that have rotted on the bench of the Santiago Bernabeú.
There are some who will point immediately to the premature nature of Khedira’s move from Stuttgart. Even if he had to move, they say, could he not have chosen a club with more opportunity and less pressure? Arsenal, for example, or Dortmund? The reality is, though, that football transfers don’t work in that way. Opportunities present themselves, and when one is asked to join Real Madrid, it takes a brave man to refuse on the basis of career development. Nuri Sahin’s departure from Dortmund and Mesut Oezil’s from Werder Bremen are easily comparable.
We cannot condemn Khedira for moving to Madrid, but, in all his apparent wisdom, he must acknowledge that he is now beyond the point of no return. A transfer or loan back to a smaller club would be counter productive and unnecessary. By his own admission, he relishes a challenge, and a challenge is what he has got. The next few years of Sami Khedira’s life may determine the course of his entire legacy as a professional footballer. With the appropriate application and the desired amount of luck, he is perfectly capable of becoming a fixed entity in the first eleven of both club and country. Xabi Alonso will not last forever, and although Toni Kroos’ development is remarkable, both he and Khedira are adaptable enough to carve out similarly impressive career paths simultaneously.
For Germany and Real, to have a player of Khedira’s quality fighting for a place in the team is a luxury which many of their rivals would envy. For the player, it means that the coming years will be a constant uphill struggle. Uphill, but not predetermined. Khedira is neither the star that some proclaim him to be, nor the flop that others dismiss him as. He is walking a tightrope between the two, and for the sake of his club and country, we must hope that he navigates it successfully.