A few thoughts after an excellent public event at the German Football Museum in Dortmund, which I had the pleasure to be invited to end of November and which was entirely dedicated to the memory of one single football match.
Most of the time, what is stored in collective memory is imposed in a top-down manner by official historiography, then consolidated over time through countless commemorative acts, artefacts and discourses. But there are also bottom-up movements: it was striking to see how the huge community of Johnny Hallyday fans drove the President of the Republic to celebrate the memory left by the French rocker in an official celebration. There is a new « horizontalisation of memory », a « wiki-memory » rather than the classical textbook memory, and football plays an important part in it.
Stephan Klemm’s book « Die Nacht von Sevilla 82 » is a particularly convincing illustration of a football event that forty years after it happened is still in many people’s minds and the perceived importance of which is handed on from generation to generation. Especially in France, where the famous World Cup semi-final between France and Germany has been the object of countless invocations over the last decades.
On 8 July 2012, the evening news on the major public TV channel France 2 opened on the pictures of François Hollande’s and Angela Merkel’s joint visit of Reims Cathedral, fifty years to the day after their illustrous predecessors Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer had attended a solemn « Te Deum », officialising reconciliation and preparing the Elysée Treaty signed a few months later.
But the real focus of the news programme was on another, way more important, commemoration: the thirtieth anniversary of the Sevilla semi-final. After a few seconds dedicated to the mandatory reporting on the political milestone, the show indulged in a long bout of football nostalgia.
It is true that the match, still breath-taking even if you watch it with today’s eyes, fully deserves the adjective « legendary ». There was something of an ancient Greek tragedy in the defeat of one of the greatest French teams of all times, to which the brutality of the non-sanctioned foul of Toni Schumacher against Patrick Battiston added a dimension of unbearable injustice. In a heart-breaking recollection, journalist Benoît Hopquin sadly stated in 2014 that « Sevilla is where we learnt what immorality means« .
In addition to a thorough archive research on this over-commented event, Stephan Klemm has interviewed each and every German actor of this match, and several French ones in addition. His book is a careful reconstruction of how the two teams evolved before meeting on a hot Andalusian summer night, of what happened on the pitch, almost minute-by-minute, until the bitter climax of the World Cup’s first ever penalty shootout, which possessed its own incredible cliffhangers.
For those who played it, winners or losers, it’s the greatest game of their life. French icon Michel Platini has repeated over and over again that this was the most important moment of his career, despite his many victories. And German winger Pierre Littbarski, who went on to win the World Cup eight years later, leaves no doubt that the semi-final of 82 is a stronger souvenir than the final won in 1990.
At the end of Stephan Klemm’s precisely formulated piece of work, two lessons stand out: the first one is about the surprising solidity of French-German reconciliation. Not even a match like this had a lasting impact on a relationship that goes far beyond state treaties and shows a rather unique degree of mutual trust between civil societies.
The second one is about football itself. Sevilla 82 is like The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars: the eternal fight of Good vs. Evil. Only that the evil guys win in the end, and they’re not even all evil, and if you’re honest, you can’t help but admire their incredible resilience. Never would Hollywood dare provide such a scenario. But football, this great producer of undeserved destinies, couldn’t care less for plausability and happy endings.
Incredible match, intense memories, wonderful book.