April 26, 2017

FC Bayern’s Arabian Adventure – Strictly Business

FC Bayern are back in Munich after returning earlier this week from their winter training camp in Qatar, only they appear to have brought a little extra baggage with them on the return flight. The club is facing significant backlash following a decision to go ahead with a (sponsor organized) friendly in Saudi Arabia against Riyadh based club Al-Hilal last Saturday; critics are specifically calling Bayern out for putting monetary interests ahead of ethics by overlooking Saudi Arabia’s poor human rights record, systemic gender inequality, and a near absolute religious intolerance and going forward with the match.

Zwanziger speaks out and Bayern’s Jewish Heritage

Current member of the FIFA Executive Committee and former DFB President Theo Zwanziger has been most vociferous in his criticism of Bayern’s handling of the Saudi friendly situation. In an article from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), Zwanziger said he was not surprised that Bayern took the opportunity to choose money over morality because they have done the same in the past, although he doesn’t cite any specific examples as evidence to this claim. He also made a very interesting observation in regards to Bayern’s Jewish roots. More specifically Zwanziger thought of former President Kurt Landauer, who was a Jew, and how he might have reacted to the club’s decision to accept a match where Landauer, if he were still alive, would have very likely not been able to attend due to Jews not being able to enter Saudi Arabia.

The topic of Bayern Munich’s Jewish past has been brought to the forefront over the last year and it was the supporters who were in the beginning the catalysts. In February of last year at the first home match following the Holocaust Remembrance Day, the supporters in the Südkurve paid tribute to Landauer with an incredible choreo honouring the former President. Later that year in October a TV movie based on Landauer’s life aired in Germany and was met with rather positive reviews. Finally, next week the FC Bayern museum is opening up an exhibition celebrating the club’s Jewish roots. So when viewed in that context the decision to play last weekend’s friendly looks rather bad.

FSV Frankfurt and the Double Standard

There is little doubt that Bayern profited from their day trip to Riyadh, whether in the form of an appearance fee, sponsor money, or some other form of remuneration. At this point no one knows what exactly the club intends to do with the money, although cynics might argue that it’ll just end up getting heaped onto the already huge pile of money Bayern already possess rather than say a donation to a charitable foundation or some other benevolent cause. But whatever does end up happening with the money, at least they got to keep it. FSV Frankfurt weren’t so lucky.

In December of 2013 FSV Frankfurt, under pressure from both the German public and the DFL, terminated a sponsorship deal with Saudia, an airline based in (you guessed it) Saudi Arabia on the grounds of the airline’s discriminatory practice of not allowing passengers with Israeli passports onto their flights. FSV’s CEO Clemens Krüger admitted that he and the club had erred when making the sponsorship deal but were not aware of the airline’s business practices until the FAZ had pointed it out. Interestingly enough, DFL President Reinhard Rauball voiced his displeasure at the deal and claimed that the DFL would have intervened had the club not reversed their decision. However what is even more interesting is the absence of his, and the DFL’s for that matter, voice condemning Bayern for their recent dealings in Saudi Arabia. This is a pretty cut and dry case of different clubs operating under a different set of rules.

Traditionalism vs. Modern Football

One way of looking at this entire situation is through the lens of traditionalism vs. modern football. The modern football club can be seen, for better or for worse, as a de facto corporation. As an industry, “big football” is incredibly competitive and any advantage a club can gain over their competitors (domestic and international) can translate into serious revenue generation for the club and their shareholders alike. With increased club revenues comes the ability to make high profile transfers and pay players hefty wages in the hopes of retaining their services in order to win titles and compete in big money continental competitions.

Another important facet in modern football is for clubs to grow their brand in emerging markets. For a club like FC Bayern there is only so much they can grow domestically or even in Europe which means expansion into relatively untapped regions in order to secure bigger television broadcast rights and sponsorship deals. In preparation for the 2012-13 season, Bayern went to China to play a preseason match vs. VfL Wolfsburg. In April of last year the club opened its first overseas office in New York City and took part in a mini United States summer tour by playing a match in New York vs. Chivas Guadalajara before making their way across the country to be the opponent in the MLS All-Star Game. The friendly match last week in Riyadh could then be viewed as an attempt to establish a foothold in the Middle East.

But does this pursuit of a bigger piece of the pie necessarily have to come at the cost of a damaged reputation and an affront to the club’s identity?

While it may be slightly hyperbolic, the question in its essence remains a valid one to ask. Bayern made a conscious decision to play the friendly match and now has to deal with the fallout from it. Club Chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge did make a statement on the club’s website condemning any violations of human rights (even specifically mentioning the case of imprisoned Saudi blogger Raif Badawi), but he stopped short accepting any responsibility for the club’s decision to play the match; indeed he attempted to deflect the attention away from the club by saying that football clubs do not have the authority to establish policies in cases such as this.

But for supporters of FC Bayern, this isn’t good enough. Much has been made already about the club’s recent commitment to honouring its Jewish past and the club’s actions last week seem to stand in stark contradiction to this initiative.

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Born in Toronto, Adrian is a first generation Canadian by way of Bavaria. A lifelong supporter of FC Bayern, his first ever exposure to the club was the 1999 Champions League Final, a true baptism of fire. Follow @AdrianSertl

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