Image Credit: Sven Mandel
Look down the results from the Bundesliga this weekend and one result will stand out among the others, Hoffenheim 0-6 Bayern Munich. For a home team that has been pushing for the European places and appeared in the Champions League over the last few years, a 6-0 defeat to an admittedly strong Bayern side is not going to feel great. However, the score line does not tell the story of this game, neither do the goal scorers or any stats. This weekend, and this game in particular, will be dominated by Hoffenheim President Dietmar Hopp, the 50+1 rule and banners.
Midway through the second half, Bayern’s travelling supporters unveiled a banner protesting Hopp with references to his mother. After warnings over the loudspeaker that followed the procedure for racist abuse, the referee took the players off the pitch. Bayern’s players during this time went over to the away end and asked the fans to take the banner down. The referee did resume play later, but in an act of protest, the Bayern and Hoffenheim players symbolically passed the ball to each other and neither team attempted to score. After the game, the Bayern players and staff, including club chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge gave Hopp a standing ovation in the centre of the pitch. Borussia Dortmund also had offensive banners and chants in their game against Freiburg and the same was seen on Sunday in Union Berlin’s game against Wolfsburg. Both games also saw delays due to the referee taking the players off the pitch.
So why is this happening, what is causing fans of teams both big and small to attack Hopp. The answer lies in German football’s historic ‘50+1’ rule. The 50+1 rule states the members of the club, actual fans like you and me, have the ruling say in how the club is ran, they need to have 50% + 1 of the vote on any matter, commercial matters can only have 49% of the vote. This means that most clubs in Germany are ran by their fans. Theoretically, I could buy a membership in Borussia Dortmund, and be invited to participate and vote in members meetings through the years I hold said membership. The clubs have to put the interests of their members/fans before profits. It’s important to understand just how valued this is in German football, the Bundesliga’s website says it’s heavily responsible for “top-quality play, the highest average attendances in world football, low ticket prices and a great fan culture”. Borussia Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke said in 2016 that “The German spectator traditionally has close ties with his club and if he gets the feeling that he’s no longer regarded as a fan but instead as a customer, we’ll have a problem”. Other clubs like St. Pauli and Union Berlin emphasise how important the members and fans are to the club, that football cannot be football without them and without the rules that allow for them to have the say they have.
Not all clubs follow the 50+1 rule though, some because of their traditional ties to companies. Bayer Leverkusen and Wolfsburg are traditionally the works teams for Bayer and Volkswagen respectively, founded by workers of that company and for workers of that company, so the power those companies have had in these clubs has always remained the same, they’re traditional. Other clubs simply don’t take the 50+1 rule to heart. Rasenballsport Leipzig (RB Leipzig) have tried to get around the 50+1 rule by setting the membership price so high, and making it so hard to get, that only people from Red Bull can easily get membership.
The other notable example is Hoffenheim, a club who originally come from a village with less than 4,000 people residing in it and that since 2000, has been bankrolled by Dietmar Hopp, one of the founders of SAP. Over Hopp’s time at the club, the team have gone from playing amateur football to playing in the Champions League. In 2015, Hopp was allowed majority control of the club from the German Football League, meaning Hoffenheim is exempt from the 50+1 rule. So, here we have a situation in which Hopp (Leipzig and German football in general) are seen as flaunting a rule that is pivotal to German football, that many clubs hold near and dear to their heart and allows fans to have their say, something that Germany is envied for. It’s not entirely surprising that Hopp has become a less than liked figure in German football. When Borussia Dortmund played Hoffenheim in December, their less than supportive chants towards Hopp ended with the team getting a two-year ban from taking fans to Hoffenheim, which many saw as beyond excessive. This lead to more hatred towards Hopp which spilled over into what we saw this weekend.
So that’s why the banners came out but that in no way justifies them. Union Berlin President Dirk Zingler said "I condemn the defamation of people in the strongest possible terms; such things are intolerable. The brutalisation of the way people treat each other in our society, which is also reflected around football matches, is extremely worrying. The challenge to stop this development is a challenge for all of us. Each and every one of us is called upon to counteract it. The form of expression of fan protest, which has been chosen in many cases over recent days and is now also being used in our stadium, is not suitable in its symbolism for pushing the fans' concerns. While it achieves the highest attention in the media, it leads to a broad rejection of justified fan concerns. All those involved in this form of protest would be well advised to stop and find suitable forms of expression for their positions. The right to freedom of expression is a high good in our society, which also includes alleged bad taste. Of course, it may be used to address situations in football that are worthy of criticism. But the inviolability of human dignity is the basis of our coexistence, and this must be protected. We all bear the responsibility for this together."
There are valid points to be made about the structure of German football and the importance of the 50+1 rule, including how it needs to be protected and what should be done when someone tries to undermine it. There are also good points to be made about how this has been dealt in comparison to the racist abuse suffered by players in the Bundesliga and around the world in recent months, most notably the monkey chants aimed at Hertha Berlin player Jordan Torunarigha in a game against Schalke. However, the unveiling of highly offensive banners against a person who’s biggest crime is spending money on his football team is not the way to go.
The 50+1 rule is a foundation of German football and there’s no wonder why fans of teams big and small hold onto it and cherish it. However, by making banners like this so strong, they undermine their own argument. Who wants to stand side by side with someone who puts up banners calling someone’s mother that? German football may have overstepped the mark too with their Dortmund ban, especially when considering recent actions around racism. Communication from all sides would go a long way, and consistency with other problem areas of football would go a long way too. If nothing is done by both sides, then this issue doesn’t end with the end of matchday 24.