The media and its effects on International football

On the day before the 1974 World Cup final in Munich between Holland and West Germany, a story was published in the German tabloid, Bild Zeitung, that the Dutch players were involved in a ‘naked party’ in the Wald Hotel’s swimming pool prior to their match with Brazil (in the previous round). The claim involved four anonymous German girls and four unnamed Dutch players. Rinus Michels, Holland coach at the time, was forced to call a press conference to vehemently deny the story and claimed that the German media were employing a form of underhanded psychological warfare in a bid to unsettle his players. Had Holland not lost the final, the story would easily have been forgotten. But the Dutch did lose the final.

What remains of the infamous swimming pool story is founded on innuendo, whispers of supposed truths, and complete contradiction. Dutch footballers, journalists and even historians swear that the claims are nonsense, completely unfounded, yet also that they are true. It will always remain unresolved but the manner in which it was so vehemently denied by all involved (when questioned, the players’ wives state that it definitely did happen but, contradictorily, that their husband was nowhere near the incident) suggests there is no smoke without a little fire. The Legend of the Pool is offered as part justification for the tragedy of their 74’ final when the truth remains, concisely said by Dutch playwright (and ardent Cruyff follower) Johan Timmers, ‘we lost because of hubris, that Greek thing. Holland lost because of a tactical failure.’

It is a striking example of the media having a profound impact on the international game and, more than 30 years on, its resonance is not lost, it is still debated and intricately (if somewhat pointlessly) dissected. The truth of the matter – on the pitch – is simply that regardless of how good a team is, and they don’t come better than this particular group of Dutch players, a one goal lead means little by way of security. Uli Hoeness, a German, admitted the Dutch were better than them in 74’…but he has the winners’ medal in his cabinet at home and, unlike any nonsense about a swimming pool party, it is a veritable fact that will remain in the history books long after the Bild story is forgotten.

The media is an omnipresent force (and it will only continue to become more invasive as time passes) and harbours the potential to over hype, over pressure, and generally derail our efforts on an international stage. England has a reputation of coming up short in penalty shoot-outs and the inevitability of our demise when a contest reaches that stage is as much a cause of previous losses as it is the constant reminder, posited through the media, of those losses. It’s like a wall of mirrors situation: we lost a penalty shoot out once, then that was reflected onto the players the next time they reached a shoot out (not only in memory but in the narrative that a media presence incessantly embellishes) thus increasing the pressure that little bit more, then this cycle is repeated again, and again. What’s worse than the augmented pressure after each loss is the consuming expectation to fail the next time, which overrides the belief that the cycle can be broken. Jan Mulder, who played for Ajax and Holland, explains the 74’ loss in the context of the media and historical effects:

“Why didn’t Holland win? Because the players used to listen to the radio, like me, when the Dutch national team always lost. And then you are there in the final of the World Cup and you rather like to lose. You know, winning is frightening. When you are 1-0 after one minute, the future is suddenly frightening.”

This all makes me realise that football, on its own, really is a very simple thing: it is a game. But it becomes infinitely more complex, after the event, when interpretation, historical resonances, social expectations and media coverage enter the fold. Much like the recent political debates – which was really just three chaps chatting away on live TV about what they will try and do – it’s actually the ‘debate about the debate’ that ends up forming everyone’s opinions. Over analysis and focusing tirelessly on the minutiae of any given circumstance doesn’t yield the most reasoned opinion. Like Beckham kicking out in St. Etienne or Ronaldo winking to – as the press made it out – the Devil, one detail ends up being pounced upon and scapegoated, masking the actual footballing shortcomings of a team.

If England wins their first game emphatically in South Africa we’ll be dubbed world beaters, and if we lose our second we’ll be has-beens. Sensationalism is the currency of the press. But, like the Dutch found out in 74’, the fact (in their case, losing the World Cup final) is often second to the interpretation of the fact.

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