The spectacle of footballers taking time out from training for Euro 2012 to visit the Nazi death camps was, to say the least, unsettling.
Who, I wonder, first raised the possibility of the teams visiting Auschwitz during their pre-tournament sojourn in Eastern Europe? What was the thinking behind the proposal? Was it a good idea; a sensitive response to the location; an effort to show respect to the hundreds of thousands of people who were gassed in the camps and the further thousands who died of starvation and forced labour? Is it right and proper to attempt, somehow, to marry a football tournament with events of such magnitude? Or put, simply, was the decision a cynical attempt by the governing body to rebrand a game and its players.
Despite the introduction of such a serious element into this sporting occasion the reporting of these events essentially focuses on the trivial and banal. As expected, the pundits on BBC and ITV spend endless hours going over and over the same terrain – will the Spanish team, with their wonderfully fluid football, prevail, or will the strength and organizational skills of the Germans see off all competition? Can an underdog pull off the big one?
One thing everyone seems agreed upon is that England, with its depleted team due to injuries, and with a manager who has been at the helm for a matter of weeks, has little chance of winning. Expectations of the national team are at an all-time low. This state of affairs would normally give rise to deep national depression. But not on this occasion – no way Jose! The Brits have turned the lack of expectation on the football field into a positive. If we expect nothing we can’t be disappointed. We can just sit back and enjoy the spectacle of teams, better than ours, do their stuff.
The lowering of expectations within the competition moved the emphasis elsewhere. The players did not skulk in an isolated location with just each other, video games, swimming pools (and everything else that comes with five star accommodation) to distract them between training sessions. The team mingled with ‘ordinary folk’ and pretended that they are ordinary too. Humility is the name of the game. (As they have had little training in this discipline, I’m not sure we can expect a sterling performance here either). And this is where the Auschwitz phenomenon has proved so potent. It is important to show that our players are not merely over-paid, over-indulged young men, prone to immature and, at times, very questionable behaviour. They are also capable of being thoughtful, willing to learn about a world outside of football; willing to put things in perspective. So a clear message was sent: the outcome of a football tournament is insignificant when seen against the backdrop of the horror that was Auschwitz. And that came as a relief to the England camp because they haven’t a hope in hell of winning the competition.
But here’s the rub. The imperatives of the competition have led to some rather embarrassing reporting. The England camp felt it necessary to explain that the players were not being disrespectful in wearing casual clothes and shoes on their visit to Auschwitz. They were attired in this manner to ensure their physical well-being and to protect the players’ feet from injury. The inappropriateness of such a statement seemed to have escaped the P.R. people. A visit to Auschwitz, where inmates suffered unspeakable deprivation, was neither the time nor place to highlight just how pampered our footballers are. Sometimes silence really is golden. A print journalist unwittingly revealed another unsavoury aspect of the process when he wrote that ‘… such a shared experience provides a bond which translates into the work the players are here to carry out.’
And so we arrived at the crux of the matter. The trip to Auschwitz was not only a public relations exercise; it was also a motivational tool – an experience that could be used to good effect on the football pitch.
Which begs the question – is nothing sacred?
Bio: Mary Rochford was born and grew up in Dublin. She has spent most of her adult life in Birmingham, England, where she read English and History at the University of Birmingham. She obtained a Masters in Literary Studies at Birmingham City University and has worked as a lecturer in Further Education. Her collection of short stories, Gilded Shadows, was long-listed for the prestigious Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and won Birmingham City Library Readers’ Book for Birmingham Award