Amateur Soccer: Pay to Play? ⋆ An Old International

Amateur Soccer: Pay to Play?

Does Amateur Sport demand our attention? A workshop in Cologne suggests that and offers insights into the research into amateur football.

White Spots and Dead Angles

The amount of money flowing into professional football has become topic of pub discussions in accross Europe as it has reached dimensions that are no longer comprehensible for the common football fan. Likewise, the research focussing on the professional game has reached unprecedented and unforeseen levels. This research covers every aspect of the game, from the history, sociology, politics and the physical aspects of playing as well as coaching. This is of course very important and should continue. Equally, research into football fans, supporters and hooligans is at a level, no one could have imagined when the discipline of sports research emerged as a serious subject of research and teaching. However, there are white spots and dead angles that have so far been ignored, overseen or neglected. It is the task of academics to highlight weaknesses and address areas where further research is required.
In September a group of international academics met in Cologne for a preliminary workshop to present different angles to look at amateur football. There probably is no better place to organize such a workshop at the German Sports University. Established almost 100 years ago, research into sports on various levels has a long history in Cologne and thus was the ideal venue. Professors Jürgen Mittag, Kristian Naglo and Dilwyn Porter chaired different sessions which included case studies, the experience of amateur football, the question of gender and sexuality was addressed as was race, xenophobia, identity and the history of the amateur game. The background of those present ranged from politics, sociology and history and offered a fascinating scope of the state of the research in this area.
Under the headline ‘Case Studies’ the problems of local amateur clubs were represented. These are no different from those the big clubs have to face: their place in the community, players as role modells and the creation of an identity that distinguishes amateur clubs from their nearest rivals. This was highlighted by examples from Leicester where Highfield Rangers were the focus of an extended study by Paul Campbell as well as Mannheim, where Dariuš Zifonun presented his research as a participating observer in a Turkish community club in Mannheim. That local derbys are just as important and as burdened with meaning was demonstrated too. As such local derbys strengthen the collective identity but are also invented tradition.

Is football a social movement? Does football have the capability to function as a social movement? No easy questions and the answers to these questions are not easily defined, if there are answers at all. Considering the Democracia Conrinthians and FCUM as examples, football has indeed the possibility to initiate a change of mindset. Jürgen Mittag offered a view to see football as a social movement in combining political theory with football. In his presentation he gave an overview of different organizations that offer a different way to govern football in contrast to FIFA. He applied various parameters to CONIFA (Confederation of Independent Football Associations) and DEFA (Democratic Football Association), two organizations with a focus on football outside FIFA. He applied political theories to define what constitutes a movement aiming at social change. The examples of FCUM, Ebbsfleet United and Fortuna Köln were also brought up. The latter two clearly are no social movements as their main aim was to earn money in order to keep the respective clubs afloat and in business. The matter is somewhat different with FCUM. The club, established in 2005 out of protest against the Glazers’ takeover of Manchester United, has since moved into its own stadium, which was financed to a large part by its fans. Yet, at the same time, FC United want to earn money and want to play professional football. Earning money is not a bad thing per se but doing so in a responsible and sustainable manner is what differentiates FC United from other projects. At least this is the message sent out by the club.

The Sunday was dominated by DeMontfort University, Leicester as three academics presented their studies to the audience. Dilwyn Porter, professor for Sport, History and Culture presented thoughts on the history of amateur football and concluded that although the literature on football is immense, research on grass roots is quasi non-existent. There is however, one exception: the Corinthians who were widely covered in the late 19th and early 20th century and possibly are the best researched amateur team in history in Europe. A different approach came from me. Before being a football writer with an academic degree I was also a player at local amateur level in Germany, England and France. My presentation was a brief autobiographical sketch of my humble playing ‘career’ in these three countries. There was a lively discussion that followed as everyone present had their own experiences of playing – not necessarily football – at this level. One result that came from this discussion was that a line needs to drawn at were amateurism begins. This was brought about by the idea of pay to play. Does everyone who receives money for playing constitue a professional even though the level of play is still amateur? Do all amateurs pay to play? What are the limits to amateurism? This is one of the questions to be explored further. Moreover, there was a broad consensus that more first hand evidence was needed to sketch a concise image of amateur sport, i.e. more players and coaches and referees need to be asked. Conor Curran spoke about the infrastructure of local grass roots football in Ireland from 1950 until 2010 and concluded that a lot has been achieved but a lot more work needs to be done in the future.

The final presentation by Kristian Naglo linked global and local football. He gave two examples of that connection. One was the building of a new pitch for an amateur team in Germany. The previous clay pitch was deemed not appealing enough for kids to pick up playing. Thus, a new pitch was needed. Once it was opened, the ground has become an Arena and was surrounded by a fence, clearly marking a separation between the club and the public. No longer is the pitch open to the public as was the clay pitch before. Which leads to the question, if the pitch was necessary at all in the first place. Other problems arising were the need for more coaches as the number of children increased due to the new pitch.
All presentations brought a different aspect, a different facete of amateur sport to light. Even though the focus was on amateur football, most ideas could be transferred to other sports. This was the essence of the concluding brainstorming session at Sunday lunch time. In effect, the workshop was a 24 hour brainstorming session offering different view points on amateur football. It is also clear that more field work and research need to be done to draw conclusions about certain aspects of the amateur game. This workshop was however, only the first step towards an established research agenda that will be discussed during later workshops of a similar nature. It is also planned to extend the scope beyond football onto other sports and to include far more scholars from other countries than those present: Germany, England and Ireland.

One thing is clear: amateur sport, the sports club is an integral part of everyday life and thus demands attention by scholars who want to understand how society has worked in the past and how it works in the present.

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