In Search of El Dorado ⋆ An Old International

In Search of El Dorado

It’s almost Christmas and most of Europe’s leagues have completed the 1st half of the season. While at the top there are hardly any surprises, the bottom teams, often those promoted, have seen their hopes destroyed and the exuberance of promotion has given way to a thorough sobering.

El Dorado – Myth and History

The myth of El Dorado stems from an ancient initiation rite of the Muisca tribe where the chief of the tribe was said to cover himself in gold and dive into Guatavita Lake in what is today Colombia. The lake’s name originates from the goddess Guatavita and the chief sailed into the middle of the lake, covered in gold dust and offering sacrifices to said goddess. Just like Atlantis in European mythology, El Dorado has become a lost city in South America that intrigued the Spanish conquistadors in pursuit of gold.

As with all myths, there is historical evidence that such a ritual existed. It was later that rite was turned into a Lost City of Gold. The search for El Dorado is captured in words by Edgar Allan Poe:

Where can it be–This land of Eldorado?”
Over the Mountains
Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow,
Ride, boldly ride,”
The shade replied–
“If you seek for Eldorado!”

The Caribbean writer V.S. Naipaul added more historical detail in his novel Loss of El Dorado. According to him, ‘the tribe of the golden man’ was conquered long before Columbus had arrived. It was thus an Indian memory the Spaniards pursued; a memory that was confused with legend.

The modern game of football has several El Dorado: league titles, cups and promotion. Given the performance of promoted teams, it is questionable if this is indeed true. Is winning promotion indeed the golden ticket for the land of milk and honey? For some it might be, for most it is not.

In Germany Eintracht Braunschweig have made their return to the Bundesliga after 25 years of self-inflicted absence. In their history, the club have made 3 major contributions to German soccer history. They have won the league in 1967, their only major title so far. According to Uli Hesse, they have done so in rather defensive fashion. In the early 1970s, they have been involved in the bribery scandal. More than 50 players were banned, accompanied by coaches and club officials. As a result, Braunschweig had severe financial difficulties. These were solved with the help and smartness of local businessman Günter Mast who was the CEO of spirit firm Jägermeister. In 1972, the club replaced their crest with the deer head of Jägermeister, causing outrage at the DFB headquarters. However, the governing body gave in and the rest is history. Today, every club has several sponsor logos spread across their shirt.

This season though, it seems the squad are out of their depth. This is not surprising as the club experienced their 2nd promotion in 2 years and were in the middle of an adaptation period when they got promoted again. The Bundesliga, Germany’s top division might prove a step too early for Braunschweig. The consequences might be severe and long-lasting for club and personnel. The career of the coach, Torsten Lieberknecht could be dented; so much so that he won’t be able to find future employment with clubs from the 1st or 2nd division. Going up means more people are needed for match days for security and hospitality. Players will enjoy better contracts. Will this remain intact if the team does not perform?

It is therefore questionable, if going up at all costs is always the best as it is not always the El Dorado fans and clubs have been looking for. From a club’s point of view being promoted is of course desirable. It means more income through television and advertisement and through gate money as prices for tickets will automatically increase. Supposedly, for those running the club it is always money first.

But will that additional revenue continue to flow if the club promoted is at the receiving end of 30 or more drubbings?

Another factor in this equation are the fans.

The fans and supporters of 1.FC Magdeburg are longing for professional football. The club, currently 2nd in division 4 has seen better times. From the mid-1960s until 1991 Magdeburg played in East Germany’s top division, the Oberliga. Ever since ‘unification’ the club ply their trade in the nether regions of German football. Much to the annoyance of the fans. The club has been nick-named ‘The Greatest of the World’ by fans and expresses pretty exactly where in their eyes the club: at the very top of Germany’s league pyramid.

The attempts of Magdeburg to reach the professional leagues have always accompanied by mismanagement. To an extent that the club had to go into administration twice in the early 2000s and subsequently were relegated again. In autumn 2000 the club made headlines by beating Cologne, Bayern München and Karlsruhe in the DFB-Pokal. At the end of the season, they were promoted to the 3rd division. However, with their cup run the club made an additional €2,5m from television revenue and other income. But that money seems to have disappeared as quickly as it came. However, the fans adored the men behind the success, Hans-Dieter Schmidt in the role as coach and manager and Eckhard Meyer, the the club’s president. Their names were sung loudly and proudly after each home win. As soon as the dark side of their dealings became public they were condemned and quickly became personae non gratae.

It was this kind of maladministration that got the club relegated again in 2002.

The fans of Magdeburg however, have a sense of entitlement to mix it with the big boys; self-aggrandisement in its purest form one could think. Just like them, aren’t all fans and supporters entitled to their opinions and allowed to have wishes, even if these are unfounded?

The 3rd division in Germany though is dubbed ‘the break down league’ as the financial strains on the clubs are immense. TV money is scarce and the travel costs soar as the league is stretches acroos the whole of Germany. Without a strong sponsor this is almost impossible to manage. Herein lays another problem for Magdeburg. The region is not the strongest in economic terms with an unemployment rate of 10,1% for October and November 2013. Their fiercest rival, Hallescher FC have made the step up successfully; yet the city of Halle profits enormously from the geographical proximity to Leipzig, one of Germany’s economic hot spots and for many the boom town of the decade.

Besides the financial reasons and a sense of belonging, there appears to be not so much argument for a club to take a risk and get promoted. This is rather negative and too simple an answer; a conclusive answer to this conundrum does not exist and should not be attempted here.

Pleasure and Pain are twins; one can’t without the other. The pleasures of promotion are swiftly followed by the pain of the first defeat among many in the higher division. But football without promotion and relegation? Unthinkable! It is 1 factor among others that makes football interesting to watch and so popular.

It is therefore a phenomenon of a psychological nature that instills a longing for that goal of promotion which keeps us going on as fans, supporting our teams on whichever dimunitive glimmer of hope that we draw from the result of the last match, last season, last year.

The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig described the fate of Johann August Suter, a Swiss thief, in his historical miniature ‘The Discovery of El Dorado.’ Suter had to flee Europe and moved to the San Francisco bay area via New York and Vancouver. Once there, he settled and dreamed to establish New Helvetia in 1838. He considered himself the richest man on earth after his plantations prosper. Then the gold rush came in 1848 and his work was destroyed by marauding invaders in pursuit of gold. Within 2 years he has lost his fortunes. He sued the United States as he saw his property stolen and violated.

Every time Suter thought he was the richest man on earth, he learned the hard way that this was not the case. Towards the end of his life he was made belief by charlatans that he was still the richest man in the country and continued to sue. To no avail. He did not want any gold; in fact he hated it as it has made him poor, killed his 3 children and destroyed his life. He pursued his right, his moral right for his property. He died in 1880 a poor and mad man.

In similar fashion, newly promoted football teams will encounter comparable experiences.

To this day the existence of El Dorado has not been verified and remains elusive and mainly exists in mythology. The aim of clubs to get promoted and/or win silverware by any means and costs continues to be the main target, regardless of the consequences, either short or long term.

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