Incendiary interview Ulrich Hesse

 

Now there hangs a funny little tale behind this interview. A while back, we got an email asking if we had any print copies of the magazine, because the enquirer wanted to frame a quote from an interview we did with Mark E Smith some five years ago.  It turned out that the person asking was none other than Ulrich Hesse, who has written possibly the defining “pop-psychology” book on German football: Tor!. (A book, moreover, which Mr Smith recommended to this magazine). Things moved on, and we decided to ask Uli a few questions about football and it’s surprisingly common overlap with music fanzine culture.

IN: Uli: tell us about why you felt it important to write about German football in Tor!
UH:
There was a key moment, which I mention in the introduction to the book. In 1999, I was on "BBC Radio 5 live", talking about Bayern Munich, who were about to play Manchester United in the Champions League final. I don't remember exactly how we got there, but it turned out that the guy who was interviewing me - a sports journalist and presumably someone who knew his job - was stunned to hear that the players who won the 1954 World Cup for West Germany were at best semi-pros and that we didn't even have a nationwide league at that time. Now, I had encountered such ignorance before, because whenever I sent a piece to England that said something like "Schalke have won seven national championships", a sub editor would invariably change that into "Schalke have won seven league titles", whereupon I would have to explain to him that no, they haven't won a single one of those, as the Bundesliga was only introduced in 1963. But the BBC interviewer on that day sounded genuinely fascinated, as if I'd just let him in on a thrilling secret he would love to hear more about.
So my first idea was to supply people with some background against which they could then test their clichés. But there was another thing. I was fully aware that there were many leagues in Europe about which I knew as little as the guy talking to me knew about my league. And so the second idea was that I would do the kind of book about Germany I myself would like to read about Italy, Spain, France, Portugal, Holland, Russia, Brazil, and Argentina, and so on and on.

IN: German fan culture’s a great thing, and there seem to be moves by the fans to protect this culture at the moment. What’s seen to be the threat in your opinion?
UH:
It's no coincidence that we have a strange kind of football tourism these days, with many fans from England, but also from other neighbouring countries, coming to Germany to watch their football here. The grounds are good and safe, tickets are really cheap, you can take a beer or three to your place on the terraces and curse the referee without having a steward coming up to you and telling you to either watch your language or sit down or both. Oh, and you are watching teams that are not owned by rich businessmen. Then, when the final whistle has sounded, you can drive home and watch highlights from every single game just an hour later on a public-service broadcasting station.
We still have these things because the fans fought all attempts to do away with them. There were demonstrations against all-seater grounds and the supporters even boycotted a television station when the powers that be tried to force pay TV on them. But of course this comes at a price, as our clubs don't have the sort of revenue they could enjoy if they were less fan-friendly. And they can't count on billionaires investing in their club. And so the main threat to all this is not, as most fans would tell you, the commercialisation of the game: because the commercialisation of the game is an effect, not a cause. The cause is the pressure to compete. If our clubs and - this would be very ironic, their fans - feel the teams should be more competitive on the European stage, then they will be looking for new ways of raising cash ... and that's always bad news for what you call fan culture.

 

IN: Do you think German clubs are as regional / tribal in their outlook as British clubs are?
UH:
Oh yes, of course. You have to bear in mind that Germany didn't even exist, as a nation or as a country, until the middle of the 19th century. Someone like Goethe, whom we'd today call a famous German, never thought of himself as a German, he was a Hessian. Traces of that mind-set can still be found all over the country, because regionalism and parochialism are very strong and local rivalries are the stuff of legend, from the day when a German national team travelled to an away game in two separate train carriages because the Nuremberg players had to be kept apart from the Fürth players, to the day when coach Winfried Schäfer used the word "racism" to describe the hatred between Stuttgart (Swabia) and Karlsruhe (Baden). Which also explains why, when I grew up, the club-before-country stance was the norm. I saw my first Bundesliga game in 1977, when I was finally old enough to travel to Dortmund, and I got my first season ticket in 1982, when I was 16. During those decades, and also during the 90s, supporting Germany was considered uncool, even embarrassing. That's changed, though.

IN: So you’ve written a book that Mark E Smith likes… Quite a tie-in with your other interest: music. You wrote for an English-language music fanzine in Germany back in the 80s. Tell us about that?
UH:
The funny thing is that I owe it all to music, by which I mean my football writing. I co-edited a fanzine that covered what you could call underground stuff back when such a thing still existed, from beat bands of the 60s to the 80s garage revival, from US hardcore to Algerian raï to what Eric Davidson has christened Gunk Punk. Then, one fateful day in the mid-90s, I suddenly woke up one morning and realised I would have to find a way of actually earning money.
The only thing I'd ever done was writing, so I took an interview with Wayne Kramer, of MC5 fame, which I'd done for the fanzine, and rewrote it into a feature article. Then I sent it off to the German version of "Rolling Stone" magazine. They sent back a cheque for 800 Marks - no questions asked, not cuts made, not a word changed. Wow! I continued writing for them for half a year but then quickly ran out of subject material, because I hated the bands they liked and vice versa. In desperation and because "Rolling Stone" had a reputation for covering popular culture beyond music, I offered them an article about a strange phenomenon - my first love, football, was becoming hip and entering the mainstream. They sent me out to investigate ... and I never looked back.

 

IN: Any good stories from the stuff you saw?
UH:
Ah, this is just old stuff that happened ages ago. But what always amazes me is how many people you meet through football who turn out to be connected to that underground music scene. There's an English writer called Chris Hunt whom I know, as a football journalist, since the late 90s. Then, one day, we started talking music and I told him about a great mod band from England I had seen in Dortmund in the mid-80s but just couldn't remember the name of. I described the drummer for him, a bespectacled guy who would blow a whistle mid-tune, and Chris said: Oh, that must have been so-so, but he only played with us for a few years. Turns out Chris had managed this band, the Moment, and was right there at the club when I saw them! A similar thing happend just a few months ago, when I did a piece on St. Pauli for a Swedish magazine and went to talk to a guy who's very important in their fan scene. This being St. Pauli, he was a bit suspicious and not happy to see a journalist. I broke the ice by commenting on the band photos on the wall and it turned out he had travelled around with a German punk band called Noise Annoys twenty years ago, a group I knew quite well, and had also manned the merchandise stall for Bad Religion on the Suffer tour in 1989. (Which was when I urged guitarist Greg Hetson to not leave the Circle Jerks because it was the cooler band. He assured me he'd give my plea some serious thought - and has kept his promise.) Anyway, from that moment on, I was no longer The Journo Sniffing Around St. Pauli but A Cool Guy and I had access to everything.

IN: Why did you stop?
UH:
The fanzine, you mean? The bulk of the work of actually putting the thing together - people sent in stuff from all over the world - was done by a friend of mine and at one point, after many, many years of doing it, he just couldn't bring it in line with his day job anymore. At that time, I was not only getting  more and more assignments to write about football, I was also a young father - and I'd kind of gotten bored with a music scene that had become utterly confusing to me. It will sound bizarre to anyone under 35, but there was a time when you could have a working knowledge of every single genre and be familiar with by and large every band worth hearing. Yet by the late 90s, that was no longer the case and I felt lost. Also, I hate CDs. They make me physically sick.

IN: Any new books on the way?
UH:
I have written two German-language books since "Tor!" and a third might be in the works. As regards doing something in your language, we're looking for someone who will put out a collection of the columns I've done for ESPN Soccernet since 2002. Come on, people, take a chance! Those pieces deal with all kinds of things - from cyber hooligans attacking Wikipedia to David Hasselhoff (no kidding!), from the GDR's secret police murdering a football player to the meaning of the name "Schweinsteiger".