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SPORTS: A Lot Goes Round With the Football

Clive Freeman

BERLIN, Jun 9 2006 (IPS) - In a marked departure from previous World Cup football events, host nation Germany has conjured up a hugely ambitious cultural programme for the tens of thousands of football tourists who will soon be flooding into the country, many of them without stadium tickets.

The month-long tournament begins Friday.

With experts already predicting visitors will wish to take a break from a continuous round of watching matches in “public-viewing” places, the German government has thoughtfully arranged for hundreds of exhibitions, concerts and plays to be staged throughout the month-long tournament.

It is an unusual combination – football and culture – but the German government rates it a splendid mix. Otto Schily, Germany’s former interior minister, himself a passionate football fan and hobby piano player, insists that never before has such a comprehensive art and culture programme been organised ahead of a World Cup tournament.

It was when he was minister that Schily asked the Austrian multi-media artist Andre Heller to preside over a 38 million dollar programme of cultural events aimed at “intellectualising” soccer’s mass emotional appeal.

Silver-haired and quiet-spoken Heller seemed initially out of place in the raucous world of football, and at times all at sea in his dealings with FIFA officials.

He was clearly shocked in January when a World Cup gala he had been planning at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium Jun. 7, involving hundreds of young dancers, was suddenly cancelled by FIFA officials who claimed there was a risk of damage to the stadium’s turf.

“The circumstances surrounding the decision are and remain curious,” claims Heller in the arts and culture magazine Anstoss (Kick-Off), which acts as a voice-piece for his World Cup ‘cultural’ efforts.

Interviewed in Berlin recently, he told IPS his World Cup projects demonstrate the “dynamic interrelation of art, football and culture.” After turning his attention seriously to football, he said he discovered it was something that “spurred countless artists and intellectuals, in particular, to the most absurd passions.”

Heller said: “I could talk for hours about the astonishing changes that come over important writers, artists, film directors, philosophers, musicians and theatre luminaries when they are gripped by football fever.

“Supposedly cool-headed rationalists become unexpectedly effusive enthusiasts, while peaceful and serene global citizens suddenly turn into aggressive chauvinists. It’s quite intriguing.”

Heller says back in 2003 when he was first asked if he would be the artistic director of the World Cup culture project he had been sceptical about everything to do with sport in general. “However, I also believe that life means changing by learning. It’s not everyday that one is given the responsibility for such a creatively challenging task.”

One of the 48 official contributions in the ‘Artistic and Cultural Programme’ involves pitting a “dancing Germany against a dancing Brazil,” with a stage being turned into a stadium and the auditorium into a fan terrace. Be it fouls or overhead kicks, here Brazilian and German dancers interpret the movement patterns typical of a football match.

‘Maracana’, a work by famous Brazilian choreographer Deborah Colker, and named after the legendary soccer stadium in Rio de Janeiro, was premiered at the Hamburg ‘Kampnagelfabrik’ event earlier this year, and has since been performed in Cologne, Berlin and Frankfurt, as well as on stages abroad.

Heller’s most famous project is probably his ‘Football Globe’, which takes the form of exhibition space in the form of a futuristic giant football. Over the past three years this has toured all 12 cities where World Cup matches are due to be played. Since departing Berlin’s Pariser Platz three years ago it has been seen by more than 750,000 football and multi-media fans.

The striking architecture of the Globe links the image of the world with the form of the football, symbolising the all-embracing and integrative fascination of the game.

During the day the Globe functions as an interactive exhibition space where cult objects related to football are displayed, including Oliver Kahn’s goalkeeper’s gloves, Zidane’s signed boots and the ball used in the legendary 1954 World Cup final when Germany beat Hungary in what has long been hailed by home fans as “The Wonder of Berne.”

Otto Schily tells IPS that the Globe is also used as an indoor stage several times a week, where the football stars, fans, politicians, poets, musicians and intellectuals discuss sport topics with audiences. “It’s been an amazing success,” he says.

From now until July 9 – when the World Cup final will be played at the Olympic Stadium – visitors can daily ascend a narrow iron staircase and enter the Globe, set against the dramatic backcloth of the Brandenburg Gate.

Since last October, a smaller modified form of the Globe has been travelling the world – as a kind of international ambassador “of the excitement to come” – presenting Germany by informative, humorous and artistic means.

The Goethe Institute, Germany’s cultural flag-waver, has also been busy of late, dispatching football around the world. The 144 Goethe Institutes in 80 countries have been showing a large photography exhibition entitled Weltsprache Fussball (World Language Football) in cooperation with the famous Magnum photo agency.

The exhibition illustrates how the “global language of football” links and fascinates cultures and peoples across national borders.

Heller claims that more than 2.5 million people have visited pre-Cup events like the Football Globe. This weekend the Museum for Visual Art in Leipzig will open an exhibition featuring 12 international artists and 12 German artists offering their ideas about “the beautiful game.”

Museum director Hans Werner Schmidt says all the cultural events surrounding the World Cup are linked to the sport. “There’s great interest in it,” he says. “Football has become the sport where different levels of society all manage to come together.”

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