Soccer fans do not idolize mere team managers like Paterno.

Say what you like about European and Latin American idolatry of soccer, its fans accurately think of team managers (US: coaches) as nothing more than well-paid hired guns. Their part in the morality play of competitive team sport is not as role models, but scapegoats when the team lose. Mathematically this must average out at half the time, so the job tenure of managers tends to be short. Very rarely, a long-serving and successful soccer manager may earn not adulation but respectful affection, as with Matt Busby at Man U and Bill Shankly at Liverpool. Alf Ramsey didn´t, and he won the World Cup for England.

Not even the most unhinged soccer fans would ever describe the career of such a professional as ¨a lifetime of heroism¨ (Ross Douthat on Joe Paterno) with a straight face. That´s not even counting the bad stuff, in the case in point the pretty large offense of collusion in child rape. Douthat does not, I stress, minimise this.

Via Belle Waring at Crooked Timber.

Ah, but it´s college sports! Coaches are noble Socratic educators! Mike O´Hare has already nailed that one.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

15 thoughts on “Fandom”

  1. In explicitly professional sports, I don’t think that American attitudes are much different from European ones. Short stints for managers or head coaches are common, and even a highly successful one is outranked by the owner and can easily be dumped after a bad season or two. See Andy Reid of the Philadelphia Eagles playing out now; Tom Landry of the Dallas Cowboys as a dramatic past example. The situation is a little different in big-time college sports, a very strange hybrid that is substantively professional but theoretically amateur. Even there, head coaches, although often overpaid, are generally dismissible for much the same reasons. However, the absence of an true ownership structure sometimes allows a Paterno-like dynasty to entrench itself; see also Bobby Bowden at Florida State. The end when it comes is often bad.

    1. Thanks, I´d suspected as much.
      I´m still at a loss as to why coaches can become heroic figures even in Ameerican college sports. Could it have something to do with the structure of the sports played? A soccer team manager has no control over the actions of the players once the game has started, except through the three substitutions allowed and a (probably pointless) pep talk at half-time. There´s no playbook. I suppose ice hockey is similar – and that´s not a US college sport. Basketball has no playbooks SFIK but the frequent timeouts and unlimited substitutions give coaches plenty of opportunity to intervene, and a much higher profile in the game. Add that soccer is much more a theatre of individual skill than American football or (?) basketball, and it´s natural that fans worship players, principally strikers, and never managers.

      1. Remember that in US college sports the coach is the only person connected with the team who may be there for a lengthy period. The players are around for four years, at most, and often not that. The best basketball players frequently leave early, and the good but not great players in college sports may not become known until their third year or so. Besides, one of the college coach’s major responsibilities is recruiting. The team is his creation not only because he determines strategies and lineups, but because he selects and recruits the players. They are his, to the extent that when a coach leaves unexpectedly players he has recruited often feel they have been misled or abandoned.

      2. American football does indeed have the most extensive playbooks and the highest level of choreographed co-operation between teammates of any major sport. That may well affect the extent to which a head coach in that sport can become a czar with particularly sweeping power and control. Actually, my impression (going beyond my expertise) is that most successful professional teams in all the major sports have more extensive playbooks or equivalent than a casual fan might think, but it is true that American football is an outlier. (Some U.S. colleges and universities do indeed play high-level ice hockey. The similarities and differences compared to college football and basketball are intriguing, a tangent for another day.)

      3. Basketball teams do have set plays, generally for short-run situations like a throw-in, managing a full-court press and the like. They also have a handful of offensive patterns, generally called by the point guard. Defensive patterns are also called out.

        But the thickest basketball playbook is nothing by comparison with even a high school football team’s playbook.

        Basketball is a team sport, but individual player skills matter a great deal more in basketball than in American football.

      4. I suppose ice hockey is similar – and that´s not a US college sport.

        Incorrect. It may be a US college sport that you’ve never heard of, but I have season tickets for the University of Minnesota’s women’s ice hockey team in large part because the world of men’s ice hockey has developed more and more of the atmosphere of big time college basketball.

        I agree that it’s silly to call a sports coach a hero, but I think that that has far more to do with how we have debased the term “hero” than a particular expression of the pathology of sports.

  2. None of the interesting considerations identified in these comments explains how “heroism” comes into it.

    1. Douthat’s term; enough said. However, Joe Paterno certainly did achieve an “admired institution” status above and beyond what even successful managers/head coaches routinely attain, and with it sweeping powers in his institution.

  3. It might be worth pointing out that a coach at the “amateur” level has a much greater impact on the program than a coach in a more explicitly professionalized sport. Colleges do not draft high school students–at least yet. Nor can they compete on salary, at least over-the-table. In other words, high school stars can pick the school they want, and college programs can’t compete with ordinary inducements. This is quite unlike the pros, who run their teams on poorly-compensated draft picks (okay, relatively poorly compensated) and well-compensated free agents.

    This means that a coach can add tremendous value to the program if s/he can influence high school athletic stars to go to their school. Personal charisma is important. So is a winning record associated with the coach, or a record of good placements to the professional teams. A coach with a strong winning record and personal charisma will recruit good athletes, creating a virtuous cycle. After a while, a strong enough name can compensate for a few rough seasons.

    1. But of course, colleges recruit with professional-status prospects. If you’re a star high-school athlete, you want to join the team that’s won two national championships in the last three years, the one that will play at a bowl game on national TV, and has photographers from Sports Illustrated at the games. You don’t want to play at their cross-state rivals, let alone some other team in the league – unless of course you won’t start at the University Of Juggernaut, and will start at the other one.

      And even state school recruit players with promises of absurd classes, massive tutoring support to skate those classes, a cushy lifestyle, parties, a “summer job” with a wealthy alum, etcetera.

      And that, of course, is just the above-board stuff. Well, the “summer job” isn’t above-board – but it happens.

  4. James, not to be contrary, but you did you think of the Miracle of Bern? To quote the German Wikipedia page:

    “The victorious team of Bern has been idolized since July 4, 1954. Especially team captain Fritz Walter, forward Helmut Rahn, who scored the deciding goal, and coach Sepp Herberger attained the status of folk heroes.”

    The team to this day is referred to as the “Heroes of Bern”, as reputable sources tell me. There is a German soccer stadium named after Fritz Walter still. There was even a movie made.

    (As coincidence would have it, I’m in Germany this week, and brought up the topic during dinner — and then the above was pointed out to me.)

  5. Katja,

    Wunder gibt es immer wieder; doch selten, sehr selten. Herberger (and Walter and Rahn) are idolized precisely because they delivered a one-off miracle that no rational observer in the day would have expected. (Anybody with a little knowledge of the game would have rated 1954 W. Germany’s chances against Hungary as about the same as, well, 2011 Hungary’s against Germany.) Plus, in Herberger’s case, there are the frequent delphic pronouncements for which he is as legendary as for his World Cup success. Plus, that was all a long time ago. All the principals are dead and hence apotheosized; and to have actual memories of the match you’d need to be an old-age pensioner. The whole thing is wreathed in the golden fog of nostalgic sentiment.

    When it comes to contemporary football (sorry; “soccer”), fans are mercilessly unsentimental. A manager may be respected, revered, even loved; it doesn’t matter. Let him fail to deliver and the fans will bay for his blood. Long service might build up a bit of a cushion of tolerance; maybe an Alec Ferguson could withstand a reverse or two more than another man before being toppled. But in those cases it is not really the length but the repeated success of the service that matters, and even that won’t help for very long. Compare the managing career of Felix Magath; a capable man with an enviable record of success. He’ll have a job in top-level football for as long as he wants one; but he certainly has served with a lot of clubs, hasn’t he? He kept my own hapless Eintracht Frankfurt in the top flight (to the astonishment of all and sundry) during one of the seasons in which they managed that feat. He earned the deep and genuine gratitude of fans and club management alike. And he was unceremoniously binned the next season. A few years later he took over at Bayern Munich (for American readers, Bayern are the Yankees, translated into German) and won the double in two consecutive seasons — and was then fired for a fourth-place finish. (In Frankfurt we’d burn incense before images of a manager who could lead the Eintracht to fourth place.)

    Even Beckenbauer, revered by many as a sort of demigod (even as he is seen by many, often the same people, as a figure of fun), is untouchable precisely because his active years are long behind him. He has succeeded massively at every level of the game, but he is out of it now. (Yes, he still has a role of sorts, but it is the functional equivalent of Queen Elizabeth’s.) If he were still manager at Bayern and ended the season shy of Champions League qualification, then demigod or no, he’d need to think about where he’d be working next year.

    1. Let him fail to deliver and the fans will bay for his blood.

      This is true even for the coaches that reach “heroic” status in American college sports. Eight years ago, the fans at Penn State were starting to reach the point of baying for Paterno’s blood after a series of subpar seasons.

      1. It has been speculated that at the time of the infamous 2002 incident, Paterno may well have considered himself to be on relatively thin ice coming off 5-7 and 5-6 seasons, one of the worst runs of his career. A particularly strong desire to avoid a major scandal may affected his response or lack thereof.

  6. I think the “heroism” thing is part of the American doublethink about college sports. Coaches are supposed to be molding impressionable young men into dedicated athletes — invincible yet honorable, personally brilliant yet team players, blah blah blah. It’s the last refuge of the “student-athlete” idea. If you believe that, then you pretty much have to believe that a coach is a charismatic leader who can look into the eyes of a young man and remake his soul.

    (Any resemblance between the kinds of indoctrination and overwhelming team loyalty instilled by charismatic coaching and the “grooming” performed by pedophiles assuring themselves of a series of targets must be strictly coincidental, I’m sure.)

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