An exile investigates the Bundesliga and beyond
In amongst the frantically waved flags and billowing banners at Bundesliga games, there's a particularly unmissable one raised by fans of all clubs.
“50 + 1 muss bleiben” – “50 +1 must stay” – is a mantra for supporters here.
The ’50 + 1 rule’ is one of the cornerstones of German football and one that fans believe helps preserve the distinct nature of the nation’s football culture.
It enshrines the idea that clubs must be majority-owned by their members (thus a minimum of 51 percent), thereby preventing a single sugar daddy owner snaffling up the whole club.
The remaining 49 percent can be made available to investors, be it privately or via the stock market, but a controlling stake in the club cannot officially be bought.
The only two clubs exempt from this regulation are Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkusen, who were founded as company teams (of Volkswagen and Bayer respectively).
When I asked my German colleagues why the rule remains so popular (when, for example, no German club has won the UEFA Champions League since Bayern Munich in 2001), the answer I got was “because we don’t want the sheikhs taking over our clubs.”
You can add to that the oligarchs, Americans and assorted carpet-baggers that make up the majority of new owners in English football.
If you asked fans of Newcastle, Portsmouth and Liverpool at various times this season if they would like more control over their clubs, it’s fairly safe to assume a resounding ‘yes’ would have been the answer.
Last week, at a meeting quickly overshadowed by the death of Robert Enke, Hannover 96 president Martin Kind called for the rule to be scrapped.
He has been banging that drum for some time, calling for greater financial freedom for clubs so that they can compete at the highest level.
“I think that it is a legitimate demand from investors to be able to have a substantial say on substantial issues," he says. "That’s why the change is necessary.”
But the Bundesliga’s other clubs, not to mention 100,000 fan signatories of a petition against the abolition of the rule, say otherwise – and 50 + 1 bleibt, 50 + 1 is staying... for the foreseeable future.
Is it a model that could work in England?
The notion of fan ownership has certainly grown in popularity in the past 10 years with the establishment of Supporters Direct, the organisation that provides advice and expertise to supporters’ trusts.
UEFA, too, see fan ownership as the most sustainable and desirable model for clubs.
However, the financial realities of English football have left these clubs competing on an uneven playing field, where clubs at all levels can with the right financial backing, punch above their weight.
A rule such as 50+1 could potentially combine the best of both worlds.
Examples here such as TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, who secured massive investment from software mogul Dietmar Hopp and shot up the divisions to the Bundesliga where they now reside in the top half of the table, demonstrate that investors can be found who are willing to work within the 50+1 framework.
Even blue-chip companies such as Audi, who are currently in talks with Bayern Munich about investing €100 million in the club, can be tempted to part with their cash for minority stakes.
In Germany the system has helped fans stay close to the clubs, maintained accessible ticket pricing and made the Bundesliga a league rich in culture, if not petro-dollars.
Is the kind of compromise between commercialisation and community you'd like to see at your club?
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I have sadly had to leave Berlin behind, but before I returned to dear old Blighty, I dug in in front
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