Modern Football in Germany (pt. 1)

“Modern football” is a buzzword. A buzzword with predominantly negative connotations in times of wobbling 50+1, increasing commercialisation, fragmented match days, etc.

But was football old before?


Of course not.

Etymologically, modern means nothing other than “fashionable/according to today’s fashion”. Synonyms are adjectives such as current, new, contemporary and also mean progressive and something that has just become popular (“modo”).

The question of modern football is about the phase in which football became popular with the mass of the population, not just a few nerds, and in which the original form was developed further.

From Empire to Commercialisation

In the Middle Ages and the early modern period, there was football in England, soule in France and calcio in Italy. In Germany, or more precisely the then German Empire, there was no football before the 19th century. It could not, therefore, fall back on forms that were already known and subsequently regulated. Football was unknown. And therefore it first had to gain a foothold in order to be modernised. For the word modern presupposes that there was already a previous form, an ancient form before that.

In the last quarter of the 19th century, sports that were popular in England, such as cricket, baseball and both football variants, rugby and (association) football, came to Germany. This was because the English living in Germany and English long-term tourists did not want to do without the much-loved sports, which also made it much easier to make contact with other English people in the area. During these decades, the regulated game of football developed from a sport for schoolchildren and students into a leisure and exercise activity that was firmly anchored in English society.

Germans who were in contact with English people – for example, doctors, language teachers, university professors or journalists – observed the sport of the English, sometimes took a liking to football and imitated it. This happened above all in the so-called English colonies in Germany. These were mainly in residential cities such as Hanover, Brunswick or Dresden, or in university towns such as Heidelberg or Göttingen. Englishmen were also frequently to be found in spa towns popular in the 19th century – Wiesbaden, Baden-Baden or Cannstatt are examples here – and in commercial cities such as Frankfurt, Berlin, Hamburg or Leipzig.

Modern football through English traders and tourists

It was the English living in Germany who made football popular in Germany.

This is important

One often reads that Konrad Koch brought “football” to Germany, and this fairy tale is so widespread that there was even a cinema movie made about Koch. In fact, however, he spread rugby football in Germany and only turned to association football in the 1890s.

In Germany, gymnastics was the number one physical exercise. Having become popular in the early 19th century, gymnastics was closely associated with student fraternities and the idea of unity and nationalism. The sports that came from England, such as rugby or association football, tennis or cricket, were watched with suspicion because they came from England and were not of German origin, i.e. not part of German culture. Added to this were the translation difficulties of the English term sports, which was ultimately simply adopted into German usage. Technical terms such as offside, hand, to centre or goal were also adopted at first.

Modern football through political parties and the military

In November 1882, the Prussian Minister of Culture, Gustav von Goßler, issued the “Spielerlass” (literally translated: “Play Decree”) named after him. He encouraged the Prussian municipalities to build playgrounds and to integrate gymnastics (later also sports) as a regular part of the curriculum. At the same time, school-free play afternoons were to be established.

Nine years later, on 21 May 1891, von Goßler and the Prussian MP Emil Freiherr von Schenckendorff founded the “Zentralausschuss zur Förderung von Jugend- und Volksspielen” (literally “Central Committee for the Promotion of Youth and Popular Games”, or ZA for short. In 1897, it was renamed in “Zentralausschuss zur Förderung von Volks- und Jugendspielen” (literally “Central Committee for the Promotion of Popular and Youth Games”.

The ZA was not an association of football lovers from different social backgrounds, but consisted primarily of members of the National Liberal Party and its All-German Association, thus mainly politicians, civil servants and members of the army. Their common goals: Strengthening German national consciousness, pro-imperialism.
Their primary goal, however, was not to politically appropriate sport, but rather to create a philanthropic, educational, military and social Darwinist mix, to raise a “healthy” elite of sporty Germans and thus potential soldiers. Therefore, the committed personalities tried to fill the rifts between gymnasts and sportsmen and to mediate between them.

Gymnastics and sport were to exist in parallel and complement each other. To achieve this intention, the ZA tried to combine the individually acting forces in Germany in order to quickly reach the common goal. These included the

  • “Zentralverein für Körperpflege in Volk und Schule, the Deutscher Bund für Sport, Spiel und Turnen”
    (literally “Central Association for Physical Training in People and Schools, the German Association for Sport, Games and Gymnastics”)
  • the “Komitee für die Teilnahme Deutschlands an den Olympischen Spielen zu Athen 1896”
    (literally “Committee for the Participation of Germany in the Olympic Games in Athens 1896”)
  • and later the “Jungdeutschlandbund” (literally “Youth German Federation”), founded in 1911, in whose federal leadership many members of the ZA were also represented and which, like the ZA, was involved in pre-military training.

How did they try to achieve their goals? Well, through intensive lobbying in military authorities and school and city administrations, trips to England, regular publications appealing to different target groups and an enormous amount of advertising. Funds came from the Prussian Ministry of Culture and other German state governments.

The ZA ultimately achieved its goals of spreading the sports and making them national in scope.

Modern football through Deutscher Fussball-Bund (German Football Association)

The 1890s saw the emergence of a number of new clubs and also the first regional football associations, for example in Berlin (Bund Deutscher Fußballspieler 1890, Deutscher Fußball- und Cricketbund 1891). But while clubs in England were established communities, in Germany there was a high turnover in the clubs and therefore little cohesion among the players. Identification with a club had therefore not grown – this was inconvenient for the ZA. Its attempts to found an all-German association initially failed due to disagreements between the associations.

After several years of mediation, there was a new attempt to found a German federation in Leipzig at the end of January 1900. Now 60 of the 86 associations voted in favour of founding the German Football Association. The founding members were regional associations (Verband südwestdeutscher Fußballvereine, both Berlin associations and the Hamburg-Altona Football Association) as well as individual clubs from Prague, Magdeburg, Dresden, Hanover, Leipzig, Braunschweig, Munich, Naumburg, Breslau, Chemnitz and Mittweida – in other words, from all over Germany at the time.

In the years to come, the DFB’s match committee drew up uniform statutes and rules of the game based on the English model (issued in 1906) and there was regular play for the German Championship (from the 1902/1903 season) and the Crown Prince’s Cup (from the 1908/1909 season).

The DFB decided in favour of the national and against the cosmopolitan orientation. This was because they were given preference over the gymnasts in order to be allowed to use the parade grounds as a playing field. As a military sport, the stereotype of a footballer was charged with soldierly ideals: Fighting and sacrifice until the last minute, devotion to duty and loyalty to one’s team, as well as strength of character and idealism. Little has changed in this ideal to this day and it is also the reason why in Germany the legalisation of paid football has been rejected and stigmatised even more vehemently than in England.

Compared to Great Britain

Much has happened in Germany as it did in England, only some 50 years later, but not in this respect: while football became modern in England when it became legal professional football and many people found gainful employment directly or indirectly through the game of football, football became modern in Germany through the military and the soldierly ideal, i.e. the German amateur ideal. This did not change when professional football was also legalised in Germany about 50 years after its legalisation in England. That is perhaps one reason why in Germany the term modern football now has strong negative connotations and why the 50+1 regulation was not thrown out long ago. But it is perhaps also the reason why players who change teams frequently and for the sake of money are called mercenaries(!) because they did not remain loyal to their team until their last breath – deliberately put in very pathetic terms.

Meanwhile, the DFB’s membership grew rapidly, increasing seventeenfold between 1904 and 1913.

As I said, Goßler’s idea worked, football became a military sport. Even before 1910, the navy played its own football championship, and from 1911 the national army did the same. Like the ZA, the DFB became a member of state-run, military youth organisations such as Jungdeutschland, which was founded in 1911.

As a military sport, however, football now had to finally free itself from the accusation of being an un-German sport and remove language barriers. Therefore, from the 1890s onwards, there were repeated articles in newspapers, pamphlets and also books that introduced the English terms.

The great war followed, which contributed decisively to the first football boom in Germany. Football finally came of age in Germany.

Read more in Part 2

More on the modern football here:

The European Super League: History does not repeat itself, it rhymes