Germany’s Clubs Take on the DFB: What It All Means

For the big season kickoff earlier this month, there were a number of similar-looking banners on show at Bundesliga grounds. Big and bold, profane and pithy, these were directed at the DFB - the German football federation. While outsiders may not know too much about the story behind these banners, football followers in Germany are more than familiar with it.

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Viewed from the outside, these banners and slogans can be seen as just another stand by fan groups and Ultras against the suits. The concept is not new. But for many fans and football purists in Germany, there is a lot at stake.

Worrying Signs

Unlike the Premier League in England, there are no major issues with foreign ownership in Germany. Yet. The 50+1 rule ensures that club members carry the crucial vote, preventing the oligarchs, businessmen and sheikhs from turning football clubs into personal playthings. The DFB still stands by this ruling, but there are worrying signs that things may change at any time.

Football has always been more than just a game, but the last twenty or so years have witnessed dramatic changes. Foreign owners have moved financial goalposts and television companies have pumped obscenely huge amounts of money into the game. Many football clubs have been transformed into profit-making businesses. Unless they are lucky to get a cash-rich sugar daddy, smaller clubs are slowly being forced out of the reckoning.

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While growth is necessary for the game’s survival, there will always be a tipping point. The moment where it is all too much. As fans, we can tolerate small price rises, so long as they are commensurate with the experience we get at the ground. We can put aside some money for a new kit. I would like to think that most people, including football fans, are flexible.

Fake-Competition Fixtures

What we do not want are three new expensive kits every season, or fixture schedules dictated by television companies with no consideration for fans. Relentless overseas tours. A glut of fake-competition fixtures that pit all of the big clubs against each other. This is not what football is about.

Back in the day - not that long ago - a match against Real Madrid, Barcelona or AC Milan was special. We looked forward to every meeting, and remembered these great games for years afterwards. Today, such great fixtures are no longer seen in the same way. It is just one more commodity, one more thing that is losing its value.

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Internationalisation is all well and good, so long as it is kept under control. When the number of Facebook and Instagram “likes” become more important than home-based supporters, however, we have an issue.

The War Against the DFB

When I was at Bayern’s season opener against Bayer Leverkusen at the Allianz Arena, a number of these banners were on show. I will take each one, and provide some context and background. Each initial explanation (in italics) is taken from Südkurvenbladdl Onlinemagazin, one of the many voices of FC Bayern’s core support.

Aufweichung der 50+1-Regel: Softening of the 50+1 Rule

“The 50+1 rule has so far restricted the influence of investors at football clubs. Looking abroad, for example the Premier League, reveals what happens when football clubs become a game for investors. In Germany, the 50+1 rule has not only been increasingly softened, as currently at Hannover 96, but in the case of Red Bull completely ignored and passed over. Football belongs to the fans.”

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A policy that provides the crucial vote to the membership, the 50+1 rule has become a crucial line of demarcation in German football. While the majority of clubs are in favour of maintaining the status quo, there are some that are not. Red Bull Leipzig, the product of a simple purchase of a small club, smart rebranding and oodles of cash, is a thorn in the side for many fans.

In short, 50+1 is the only thing that is preventing German clubs from taking the same path as those in England.

Korruption: Corruption

“Scandals surrounding corruption among football associations, which have recently come to the attention of the public, show just how far the officials are from the fan base and amateur football. At the same time, these same functionaries present themselves as cleaner than clean while sitting on a moral high horse.”

This is a clear reference to the likes of FIFA and UEFA. With deals made in shady circumstances, vote-rigging, and international tournaments being hosted in countries like Russia and Qatar, there are big reasons for ordinary fans to believe that those in charge of the global game are taking it down the wrong path.

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Halbzeitshows: Half-Time Shows

“Half-time shows and more events around the games are pushing the ninety minutes of football into the background. The audience in the stadiums is being changed. For young fans, it is more important to follow stars on Instagram than support the team in the stands. A programme framework is OK, so long as it is a programme framework. Last but not least, the cup final between Dortmund and Frankfurt has shown that this is increasingly being lost.”

Half-time shows are an American thing, and many football fans in Germany would like it to remain so. While the majority of critics have no problem with a few kids coming onto the pitch at half-time to have a few shots from the penalty spot, patience will wear thin at the introduction of formal half-time shows.

Bayern fans know all about this. In the final home game of last season against SC Freiburg, the second half was delayed by some seven minutes, as ground staff desperately dismantled the stage set up for pop star Anastasia. While Bayern had already won the title, it was insulting to their opponents, who still had plenty to play for.

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Then there was the show before the DFB-Pokal final, which for some was a Helene Fischer concert followed by a bunch of guys kicking a ball about for ninety minutes.

Sportgerichtsbarkeit: Sports Jurisdiction

“As all of the clubs are members, the sports jurisdiction of the German Football Association (DFB) determines fines and bans for fan behaviour, which the DFB deem “misconduct”. Because the clubs, as organisers, are seen as responsible for preventing this “misconduct”, the DFB holds the clubs to account. Clubs are increasingly redirecting these penalties towards the fans, resulting in an unacceptable parallel system of justice in enforcing their own interests. In the case of criminal behaviour by private individuals, it is usually the state judiciary that enforces the penalties, and a not a private body such as federation or association. Further, it creates a situation where the DFB is the “victim”, prosecutor and judge. The “misbehaviour” of a person can be defined arbitrarily, resulting in an increase in the punishment of criticism and free expression.”

If supporters get up to no good in the stands, there are plenty of ways to identify them. CCTV is a big thing in most major stadiums. If a criminal act is being committed, it should not take too much effort to report the perpetrator to the police. Instead, the association ends up fining clubs, or creating empty stands as punishment.

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If one idiot waves an inappropriate banner or makes a criminal gesture, is it fair that everybody in that entire stand is subjected to punitive measures?

Auslands-Vermarktung: Foreign Marketing

“Both for the DFB, as well as for the league and the individual clubs, marketing in the Far East or America is now almost more important than fans in the stadiums or amateur footballers in the smaller clubs. A recent example is the decision of the DFB going over the heads of the affected clubs to allow a Chinese representative team to play in the Regionalliga Südwest, just to attract the Chinese television market.”

Football is a global game, and it is important to create and maintain a connection with foreign fan bases. Nobody can argue with this. But the way things are done right now, there is a genuine problem. Preseason preparations have turned into a city-hopping PR stunts, generating both air miles and injuries.

As for a Chinese representative team playing in the Regionalliga Südwest, this is not fiction. For the second half of the season, the nineteen-team division will be upped to twenty, with the Chinese Under-20s joining the fray.

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Fourteen of the nineteen clubs in the division rejected the plan. Not that this really mattered. From the start, it was a done deal.

A Strange Summer

This last year has been a strange one for many old school football fans. Even bigger television deals, crazy transfers and players breaking contracts have become part and parcel of the game these days. For every report on a football match, you can find one on a transfer, a transfer rumour, or quotes from a player’s agent. It is taking many of us away from the game we all love.

While Neymar’s move from Barcelona to Paris St. Germain grabbed the headlines this summer, more concerning was the Catalan club’s poaching of Borussia Dortmund’s Ousmane Dembélé. The Frenchman had already worked his way out of a long-term contract with Rennes to move to Germany, so it was no big deal for him to do the same again after just one season in the Ruhrpott. With the player not turning up for training and Barcelona upping the ante, there was no breathing space for Dortmund.

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Is this where football is going? Where player loyalty means nothing and where contracts are meaningless? Can we really believe that it is not fake, when a player charges towards the fans after scoring a goal, professing his love for them and club? One can only wonder what is going through the minds of many Dortmund fans, particularly those who may have spent hundreds of Euros on new shirts with Dembélé’s name on it.

What Next?

Fans in Germany have made their feelings known, and the DFB have promised to listen. But the wind is blowing hard against those who want nothing more than to keep things sane. It will not be long before there are more players following Dembélé’s greedy path to glory. German clubs will quickly realise that the only way to remain competitive is to either adopt the Red Bull model or invite a sheikh or foreign oligarch into the boardroom.

There may be a day when 50+1 is no more, the entire summer is spent overseas, and where there are half-time shows at every match. A day when FC Bayern may not longer be controlled by its membership, transformed into a plaything for foreign investors and cartels playing the big transfer game.

When that day comes, I will be pulling on my SpVgg Unterhaching Trikot.