The fierce backlash to the proposed European Super League highlighted the growing divide between fans and the clubs who tried to create a closed competition in order to line their own pockets at the expense of tradition, fairness and sporting integrity. German clubs were not involved however and the decision by Bayern München, Borussia Dortmund and emerging 'super club' RB Leipzig to quickly signal their opposition was remarkable but not in the least bit surprising.
One of the reasons for this is the '50+1 Rule'. Integral to the German game, it affects everything from ticket prices to club presidential elections, and is often championed as the exemplar of how the game should be run whenever football, power and politics begin to merge.
Historically, German clubs remained part of the amateur sports clubs they formed under and were initially slow to come round to the idea that people could make money from football. In fact, it wasn't until 1963 that top-flight football in Germany became professional when the Bundesliga was formed - a full 74 years after the English league system it was modelled on. Even then, private ownership of clubs wasn't allowed with each club being run as a not-for-profit organisation by their membership associations i.e. the fans. Although it may seem an old-fashioned approach to the modern game, the 50+1 rule was introduced in 1998 to prevent clubs falling under the influence of high net-worth individuals in a bid to preserve these founding principles of German football.
But what does the '50+1 Rule' mean and how does it work?
Basically, it's a shorthand term for a clause in the German Football League (DFL) regulations that states 50% of shares, plus one share, must belong to the club's members to ensure that supporters retain the majority voting rights when it comes to any and all decisions. In essence, it means that private investors cannot take over clubs and potentially push through measures that prioritise profit over the wishes of fans. The ruling simultaneously protects against volatile ownership and safeguards the democratic traditions of German clubs.
“50+1 is a very important aspect of German football” says Tobi Altschaeffl of German newspaper SportBild. “It’s rooted in our footballing traditions and is the reason we have such strong fan groups in this country. We recently saw, with the proposed European Super League plans, just how much Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich, and in fact all of the Bundesliga clubs, value these traditions. The 50+1 rule didn’t directly prevent German teams participating in the European Super League but the outcry among fans was clear and football in this country lives and dies on the opinion of fans. Of course, it never got that far, but the fans could have stopped it.”
In short, the 50+1 rule is the reason ticket prices remain so low compared to other European leagues, debts and wages are under control, flags and banners are permitted in grounds, alcohol is sold on the terraces and the traditions of clubs are upheld and respected by those at the top. Most importantly, it's why football fans in Germany are not taken for granted with Borussia Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watze saying "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."
Are there any exceptions and why are RB Leipzig so unpopular with many German football fans?
Of course, there are exceptions - three in fact - because of a clause that allows any club with investors who have funded them for more than 20 years to apply for exemption. Bayer 04 Leverkusen were founded in 1904 by employees of the pharmaceutical company Bayer based in the city; and VfL Wolfsburg were founded because of the community built by Volkswagen workers assembling the famous Beetle or “people’s car". Another exception was agreed in December 2014 when software billionaire Dietmar Hopp was given the green light to take majority control of TSG 1899 Hoffenheim after investing consistently over two decades. “Crucial in the assessment of Hoffenheim’s request was that for more than 20 years Dietmar Hopp has provided considerable financial support for both the professional as well as the amateur teams of the club,” a DFL statement read at the time.
Exempt or not, failure to comply with the 50+1 rule is considered a serious breach of trust by many German football fans and these clubs are deemed to have crossed a line. The biggest offender though is RB Leipzig - funded to the tune of tens of millions of Euros by Austrian energy drinks giant Red Bull GMBH who craftily circumvented the rule forbidding clubs naming themselves after corporations by calling themselves RasenBallsport Leipzig.
They took over the playing licence of fifth-tier SSV Markranstadt in 2009 before completely rebranding them under a new name, in different colours and in a new stadium before beginning a journey to the top of German football. This was the first time a private company had owned a football club in Germany and they sidestepped a core principle of the 50+1 rule by simply limiting the number of club members to about 20 - all of whom are employees of Red Bull. The fewer members involved, the easier it is to get the decisions you want over the line - and it's even easier if they're on the company payroll. Technically speaking, Leipzig haven't broken any of the 50+1 ownership rules but the sleight of hand way that has given Red Bull 'wiiings ' to rise through the leagues is one of the reasons they are widely disliked by fans of the traditional clubs in Germany.
The 50+1 rule however isn't without its critics with former Hannover 96 president Martin Kind, and TSV 1860 München's Jordanian billionaire owner Hasan Ismaik adding their voices to the argument that limiting commercial investment in clubs has ruined competition within the Bundesliga. With Bayern München about to clinch their ninth successive title, it could be argued that if a wealthy investor came in and bought for example, Borussia Mönchengladbach or Eintracht Frankfurt, then the title race could become more interesting. This in theory could lead to greater exposure around the world and ultimately generate more money that would benefit all the clubs in the league, not just a few. Clubs like Borussia Dortmund wouldn't then have to be a 'stepping stone' and look on helplessly as their conveyor belt of young talent is cherry picked by bank rolled competition around Europe.
A way forward ?
The debate is a complex and intricate one. But, as we've seen recently, the rule has proven to be an effective safeguard against corporate greed and shown that German football belongs to the fans - not Russian oligarchs, Chinese conglomerates or Middle Eastern sovereign wealth funds. 50+1 is at the heart of everything we at Samstag 15:30 admire about football in Germany and it protects precisely that which English football has lost in its relentless pursuit of money.
And if you don't believe us, then just go and find an English fan outside a Bundesliga ground on a matchday and ask them why they're there.