Significantly lower prices. Far better atmospheres. Safe standing. Being able to have a (decent) pint while watching the game. When you start to list the ways in which watching German football trumps watching English football, it is no surprise that the Bundesliga has become a well-run stick with which to hit the gluttonous Premier League.
In addition, the regular argument that the commercialisation of our national sport has delivered the best club league in the world is looking as worn as the seats in the Upper Loft, given England has produced a grand total of two Champions League quarter-final appearances in the past three seasons (Spain boast nine; Germany five; even France’s much-maligned Ligue Un has four).
So what is Germany getting so right that we are getting so wrong? And, perhaps more importantly, is there anything we can do about it?
A quick background briefing for those unfamiliar with how the Bundesliga and its clubs operates.
Just as in 1992 the FA created a new body, the Premier League, to administer the top division in England, in 2001 Germany’s FA (the Deutscher Fu√üball-Bund – DFB) created the DFL (Deutsche Fu√üball-Liga), to take charge of the Bundesliga and the second division (Bundesliga 2). But instead of the Frankenstein-style Premier League monster that now wields power over a kowtowed Football Association, the DFL remains a subsidiary of – and most importantly subservient to – the DFB.
As a result, while the DFL’s remit was to expand marketing activities and increase commercial revenues, the raison d’√™tre of it and its members (all Bundesliga clubs) was still footballing, not monetary.
Which brings us to the 50+1 rule. Introduced with the inception of the DFL, quite simply the 50+1 rule means that the members of a club – i.e. its fans – must retain 50% plus one casting vote on all important issues affecting it.* No badge changes, stand renaming, and certainly no Russian oligarchs or Middle Eastern petro-dollars here, thank-you very much.
Bundesliga football clubs belong first and foremost to the fans and the local community. Even Bayern Munich – the most successful commercial club in the world – is still fan owned.
Of course, rules can change and in 2011, Hannover’s president Martin Kind challenged 50+1. 32 out of the Bundesliga’s 36 members voted against him. Why? Surely it would be in the interest of the likes of Hamburg – a historically ‘big’ club who have repeatedly flirted with relegation in recent years – to entertain the idea of Ch***ea-style external investment to improve their chances of challenging at the right end of the division again?
The short answer is that almost every club would face a complete revolt from its fan base. I’m not talking about the sort of half-baked stay aways we’ve seen at St. James’ Park recently. In the words of a German colleague, we’d be talking “100% protests of the highest degree”. Which sounds pretty scary, particularly if you say it in a German accent.
Quite simply, German fans do not put up with shit. They do not put up with mismanagement. They do not let new owners swan in with no connection to their club and purchase it wholesale with potentially (or even explicitly) nefarious intentions. They do not take price rises lying down. In 2013, when Schalke 04 signed a commercial deal with Viagogo which effectively legitimised extortionate black market ticket resales (sound familiar?), the fan-organised campaign ViaNOgo succeeded in pressurising the club into cancelling the contract after just six months. Power to the Volk.
What is to be done
Lest I be accused of being a total Teutophile, I ought to make clear that not everything is better in Germany. Broadly, the quality of football in the Premier League is better. They have a far smaller pyramid to support than our four professional leagues and largely professional fifth division. While German atmosphere is consistently louder than English, it does lack the spontaneous chants and upswell of noise at key moments synonymous with British grounds.
Fundamentally, though, German fans do have it better and do enjoy far more power than us. And I haven’t even mentioned the disparity in our national teams yet.
There are many factors that have got us to this point. The Premier League was the first division to pursue commercialisation as aggressively as it did and I’m sure the Bundesliga has been able to learn lessons from England’s first-hand experience. The post-Italia 90 shift in fan demographic; soaring ticket prices (partially prompted by the Taylor report); no powerful independent fan groups/ultras equivalents (unsurprising, given their inextricable link to the hooligan violence of the seventies and eighties) – these are factors largely unique to, or at least more prevalent in, England than Germany which arguably have limiting effects on fan passion and power.
Clearly if British fans are to get a better deal and better run clubs, something has to change. It’s not coming from the top, we know that all too well, so it must be from a groundswell of popular opinion. So here is my suggested three point plan to start regaining at least a smidgin of actual power and control over our beloved football clubs.
1) Join a unified fan group
I’m as guilty as anyone on this. Keyboard warrior, in-pub opinion spouter, but doer of little. I’ve never joined a supporters group, never actively petitioned the club on anything. It’s safe to assume that the vast majority of clubs are not going to hand any sort of stake to its members any time soon, so in order to effectively communicate the fan base’s opinions to the powers that be there needs to be one unified voice, backed up by numbers. That requires a significant number of people to sign up to a supporters group, and the various supporters groups to speak as one.
2) Recognise that criticism of how a club is run is not an attack on the club itself
There is a determined refusal among a worrying proportion of English fans to recognise that criticism of how a club is run is not an attack on the club or the team itself. Tactics such as refusing to lend your support to the team for a brief period (for example last season many Bundesliga ultra groups held silences for the first fifteen minutes of matches) is an effective, high-profile protest. OK, the team suffers fifteen minutes without support but in the grand scheme of things it’s hardly going to do long-term damage to the club. But the subject of these protests – things such as ticket price hikes, clubs being run for personal profit, questionable takeovers – these really could have a hugely detrimental effect in the long run.
When a small number of Newcastle fans stayed away from St. James Park last season, most of the media narrative concerned itself with how the fans had let the team down, not their very legitimate concerns that the proud old institution that is Newcastle Football Club is being reduced to a glorified advertising board and cash cow for Mike Ashley. This criticism was of course led by Sky Sports’ pundits – hardly unsurprising given Sky’s product leans heavily on atmosphere and passion as a selling point.
Fan protests – which inevitably have to take place at matches to garner sufficient numbers and attention – should not be viewed with contempt but recognised as last ditch attempts to retain some sort of say in how a football club – their football club – is run, in a system which has denied them any other sort of voice. And the football media, particularly that which is not News International-owned, has a responsibility to offer balanced reporting on such protests.
3) Understand it doesn’t have to be this way
As I alluded to right at the start of this article, the myth that the status quo in English football must be maintained in order to protect its world-class position has been pretty clearly debunked by recent Champions League performances. Even if you accept the argument that there is a cyclical nature to European success, that only leaves us on par with Germany, Spain etc.
Professional football without the fans is just twenty two blokes running around a field. Yet there is no effective fan voice in England, either at club or league level. The FA is in thrall to the Premier League, the Premier League is in thrall to the clubs, the clubs are run by a litany of international businessmen, oligarchs, shady consortiums and playboy millionaires. But can you seriously envisage the massive investment to which we have become accustomed continuing to flow into the sport if Premier League matches were played in front of empty stadia? Surely this is the stuff of nightmares for investors in a football ‘product’ built on tradition and ‘famous’ atmospheres?
I would argue that a handful of prominent, well-supported silences, walk outs or even stay aways would start causing nervousness among the purse-keepers. At the very least it is worth giving a go. You can’t say it won’t work until it has been tried properly. Fan groups have been asking for a place at the table – their table – for years and had little but lip service paid to them. High time we took that place for ourselves.
*The one exception to this is if an individual or institution has held a long-standing interest in the club – such as Bayer chemical company with Bayer Leverkusen or Volskwagen with Wolfsburg