Recently German football found itself in a similar position to Dorothy and Toto; namely, should they set foot on the yellow brick road? Ok! It’s slightly hyperbolic; however, a decision was needed after a fork in the road presented itself to the Bundesliga. In a recent article for The London Times the esteemed football correspondent Oliver Kay highlighted the fact that the Bundesliga is still the people’s game. “In one direction was the Sunderweg, the special path it has followed for so many years, protecting clubs from the influence of external investors. In the other direction was the pathway paved with gold, or at least the promise of far greater riches if the clubs opened the door to outside investors.
To the surprise of some, they opted, just about, in favour of the Sonderweg. Eighteen of the 36 clubs from German football’s top two divisions voted to retain the so-called 50+1 rule, whereby the controlling stake of any club (50 per cent plus one share, at a minimum) is owned by its members, which means its supporters. ‘Those who love football can enjoy this result,’ Andreas Rettig, the chief executive of St.Pauli, who brought the motion to retain and improve the legal certainty of the rule. ‘It sends out an important message’.
It certainly does. It is not the end of the story-Martin Kind, the president of Hannover, will continue to fight 50+1, while the Bayern Munich chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge feels the rule is a ‘luxury,’ outdated in the modern world-but the message is that, in Germany at least, a football club is far more than just a business or a plaything.
In Germany, they look at English football with a sense of sadness; at stadiums that are full of people but bereft of the passion and fervor of old; at mediocre players signed on huge contracts; at low-risk football while much of the best homegrown talent is left to stagnate; at clubs owned by sheiks, oligarchs, individuals of consortium’s with little knowledge or interest in the game.” Sentiments that your humble Carairishpubs sports writer has expressed in The Local before about EPL players in particular and the league in general, and has been on the receiving end of a small amount of derision for his comments. Oliver Kay continued in the same vein. “This week offered Germany an opportunity to follow the Premier League model and, tellingly, after being presented with a 30-metre long petition signed by more than 3,000 supporters groups across the country, the clubs voted for it”. There’s a novel concept; supporters having a voice and the owners listening.
Oliver Kay continued to show how the clubs that make up the Bundesliga connect with the supporters. “It makes you think, doesn’t it? For all that the Premier League is a global success, the view in Germany remains that a football club’s function is to reflect, represent and bring joy to its community”. Once again, your humble correspondent agrees whole heartily with Oliver Kay’s comments. If anybody can find a reasonable argument against those sentiments we can sit and chat about it over a pint in The Local. Oliver also highlighted the view shared by many that the EPL made the decision many years ago to follow the road paved with gold.
“Germany is an outward-looking nation, at the heart of Europe in more ways than one, which believes football clubs should remain rooted within their communities. There is an obvious contrast with an island nation (U.K), in the midst of an identity crisis, where football, along with certain other industries, has come to lust after Russian, Chinese and Middle Eastern wealth- no questions asked.
There are broader questions about what this represents, but let us not digress too far. Some will argue that external investment has enriched English football. In some ways it has, but this is severely overstated. The impact on certain clubs- Chelsea, Manchester City, even Bournemouth– has been hugely positive, but far more numerous are the clubs who’s fans feel underwhelmed, disappointed, disillusioned, alienated or indeed outraged by the wealthy individuals and groups who have taken control, promising much but delivering precious little.
The Bundesliga is not perfect; Bayern have won the past five league titles by at least ten points, often plundering the best talents from rival clubs and are 17 points clear (at the time of writing) with six matches remaining, but at least, to a large extent, their pre-eminent financial position has been earned organically. Their annual income (587.8 million Euros) dwarfs that of Dortmund (332.6), which in turn dwarfs that of Schalke (230.2), which in turn dwarfs that of Borussia Monchengladbach (169.3), but that is just the way things are; a consequence of UEFA-sponsored stratification within European football, rather than a failure or the German system or, as in England, the luck of the ownership lottery.
There is, though, a charming authenticity to the Bundesliga. It is not just because they have a greater proportion of homegrown players (just over half, as opposed to around a third in the Premier League), or because fans are allowed to stand, have a beer and enjoy themselves, rather than being conditioned to sit as quietly as they would on a commuter train. It is because the Bundesliga reflects that desire to protect and enhance the link between club and community. Even the spectacular rise of a ‘franchise club’ has met with a reassuring backlash, with fans and other clubs feeling that RB Leipzig are a threat to values that must be preserved. (They were formed in 2009 and are largely unaffected by the 50+1 rule, since their handful of members are largely drawn from executives of Red Bull GmbH, the manufactures of the energy drink).
Some thought RB Leipzig’s rise would mark the end of 50+1, prompting clubs to put self-interest before the greater good, but, refreshingly, it appears to have strengthened the resolve behind the rule and the ideal-of a club at the heart of its community, playing for its fans-that it represents. German football should never lose sight of these principles. Once they are diluted, there is no going back”.