December 11, 2017

German Club Football Culture: Tradition in Transition?

Germany’s football structures are widely lauded around the world. Their focus on not just quality
football but also fan engagement, safe standing and cheap tickets are used as the pinnacle
example for other leagues in Europe and abroad. They’re doing it right.

Yet news that TSG 1899 Hoffenheim’s members have approved billionaire Dietmar Hopp’s quest
to gain a majority voting share of the club has many worried that this football mecca could collapse.
As followers of German football are aware, the ’50+1’ ruling for professional clubs provides the
pillars on which the country’s football culture rests. In a nutshell it prevents investors taking control of any more than 49 per cent of voting rights in a registered club.

Hoffenheim moving away from this approach could set a dangerous precedent.

Hannover 96, one of Germany’s so called Traditionsvereine (traditional clubs) could follow suit, and that would be a true blow to the traditional supporters who are fervently proud about how their
clubs are run.

Before delving into how Hannover and Hoffenheim are allowed to get around the rules, and how
this could pave the way for change, it’s important to understand the phenomenon of the
Traditionsvereine.

What is German tradition?

Being a Traditionsvereine has everything to do with how the club operates. It’s about 30,000
turning up to Alemannia Aachen’s recent home game against Rot-Weiss Essen, in the fourth
division.

It’s about community, about fans turning up midweek to a DFB Pokal match in the snow, all
wearing the colours of their team. It’s about fans having voting rights when it comes to appointing
key board members.

Fans are staunchly protective of tradition too, as seen last May when Hamburg members withdrew
their support from the club, citing that it had turned away from its roots. They went and formed new
club HFC Falke – that’s how much it means.

Most of the Traditionsvereine can be found in records from the first season of the Bundesliga: 1860
München, Nürnberg, Hamburg, FC Köln, Schalke, Borussia Dortmund, Eintracht Frankfurt,
Kaiserslautern, Karlsruhe, VfB Stuttgart, Werder Bremen, Hertha BSC, MSV Duisburg (nee
Meidericher SV), Eintracht Braunschweig, Preußen Münster and FC Saarbrücken. Then there’s of course Bayern München, St Pauli, Hannover 96, Borussia Mönchengladbach, VfL Bochum and Alemannia Aachen, among others. All of these clubs were born before 1910, with the exception of FC Köln, created in 1948.

So age helps, but it’s not everything.

This was acutely highlighted earlier in the week when VfL Wolfsburg board member Stephan
Gruhsem lamented the constant criticism his club faces on a daily basis. He claimed Wolfsburg
had more tradition than rivals Köln, because they had been formed three years earlier in 1945.

This statement caused much surprise in Germany. Wolfsburg are one of those older clubs labelled
as ‘plastic’ in German football circles, together with fellow Bundesliga teams Bayer Leverkusen
(1904) and Hoffenheim (1945). But why?

It’s complicated. But German supporters of Traditionsvereine are not fans of money and
investment, especially when it’s not their own, and especially when it comes from a big company.It’s about protecting football from takeovers and preventing clubs becoming playthings of
billionaires.

Leverkusen and Wolfsburg are both wholly owned by pharmaceutical company Bayer and car
manufacturer Volkswagen, respectively, which is why they can never claim to be a
Traditionsverein.

So for Gruhsem to suggest Wolfsburg has tradition was a bit of a shock. And while his claims were
unfounded in many ways, he’s within his rights to feel frustrated at the vitriol directed at the club.

Schalke’s traditions are tied to the coal mines and steel mills, and the team is based in a district of
Gelsenkirchen, home to a population of just 20,000. But they regularly welcome 60,000 fans to
matches.

Wolfsburg revolves around Volkswagen, started as a club for the working class, and they are
arguably trying to create a similar community as Schalke. The accusations are that they’re doing it
for the money, even though sinking funds into football is rarely profitable.

Detractors also fail to realise that Volkswagen is a huge part of the city. It’s not a foreign-owned
company waltzing in and splashing cash around. Wolfsburg’s population and economy is tied to
Volkswagen, and the company is therefore part of the city’s identity.

Wolfsburg have been around for almost 70 years, and that deserves some sort of respect. They
still boast cheap ticket prices and are not about to sell-up to a Qatari oil magnate.

It’s a similar situation at 2. Bundesliga club FC Ingolstadt, where most of the city’s inhabitants are
in some way picking up a wage thanks to car manufacturer Audi.

Traditionsvereine is more about bragging rights than anything else, but it’s also about envy. These
clubs are inherently proud, and they should be. Unfortunately they’re also very prickly when they
see a club operating in modern football, and efficiently.

Though while the criticism of Leverkusen and Wolfsburg is perhaps unfair, as they won’t bring an
end to German football as we know it, the fear is that the newer clubs emerging under sole
ownership could threaten the Traditionsvereine. And there’s good reason to worry.

The 50+1 dilemma

When the DFB introduced the 50+1 rule in 1998, it was a way of safeguarding clubs as the
governing body finally caved in and allowed professional clubs to operate as corporate enterprises.
To allow leniency in the cases of Leverkusen and Wolfsburg, a clause was inserted allowing sole
ownership “if a commercial enterprise had uninterruptedly and considerably supported the sport of
football at the parent club for 20 years prior to January 1, 1999”.

Long-time Hannover 96 investor Martin Kind, who sells and distributes hearing aids, had long been
an opponent to the 50+1 ruling and even went as far as the courts to challenge its legality in 2011.

In the end, he instead enforced a change in the rule’s loopholes, and successfully lobbied for the
removal of “prior to January 1, 1999”. This new loophole paved the way for Hopp’s recent takeover
of Hoffenheim, which he has invested more than €350 million into since 1990 thanks to his billion dollar
software company SAP.

Kind is now expected to follow Hopp’s lead, and take a majority share of Hannover in 2017, which
will make 20 years since he started sinking money into the club. In some ways it’s just reward.
When Kind arrived at the Traditionsverein the side was debt-ridden, languishing in the third division
and struggling to attract fans. Since Kind became president they have catapulted up to the
Bundesliga and now are a club that rarely finds itself in the relegation zone and instead sometimes finds itself in a European spot by season’s end.

So is Kind’s investment any different to that of Wolfsburg, Leverkusen and Hoffenheim? Hannover
was formed in 1896, giving it more credibility in the eyes of many. But a set of hard-core fans
haven’t been unhappy with Kind’s movements, and now only frequent the team’s second division
games. It would be interesting to know how many of them were attending third division matches
prior to 1997, however.

Has Kind’s investment, and his quest for majority voting rights, taken the soul out of Hannover? It’s
debatable, but Kind feels he needs outside help to take the club into Europe consistently, and the only way to do that is to give them a relative share of the club.

It’s dangerous waters, that’s without doubt. What happens to clubs like Hoffenheim and Hannover
when Hopp and Kind are no longer around? Will they fall into the hands of foreign ownership, just
like RB Leipzig?

For German fans, that would be a nightmare.

Leipzig are the real threat to German’s pillars of stability. Owned by Austrian energy drink
conglomerate Red Bull, the club is pushing hard for promotion to the Bundesliga. It’s well known
that they don’t adhere to 50+1, but they’ve been able to survive thanks largely to the questioned
legality of the ruling under European law.

If they were to succeed then it’s possible that by 2017-18 there would be no less than five clubs
operating outside the 50+1 rule. It’s a scary proposition for traditionalists.

Leipzig will get to the Bundesliga, it’s just a matter of when. And when they do, it could be a
catalyst for the changing landscape of German football. The Bundesliga clubs will likely oppose a
license, but the DFB will have their hands tied, and be eager to avoid a battle in the courts.

So why can’t both types of club co-exist? Well, the more clubs that become unshackled in terms of
investment, the harder it is for the Traditionsvereine to remain competitive. It could end German
football as we know it.

That’s why Wolfsburg and Leverkusen should be exempt from the hate, and the constant derision.
Volkswagen and Bayer are part of the city landscape and part of their community’s identity, and
they’re roots lie in Germany.

There is also no denying the Bundesliga is a monopoly, with Bayern firmly dominating the past 30
years with 18 titles. Wolfsburg potentially challenging the powerhouse should be seen as exciting
for the league. RB Leipzig’s eventual title runs, however, are much more daunting.

In some ways the 50+1 rule can be seen as similar to the current UEFA Fairplay sanctions.
They’re designed to keep the game free of outside vested interests, but really they’re just ensuring
the poor get poorer and the rich get richer.

Some middle ground is necessary to ensure Germany remains a football mecca, how the DFB
manages to find that safe haven is a complete unknown. Hoffenheim and Hannover are one thing,
but more clubs like RB Leipzig would be alarming.

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