The last time I was down in the catacombs of Borussia Dortmund’s stadium for post-match quotes, there was an eerie silence drowning out the chatter as players, staff and journalists looked at the monitors usually showing the Bundesliga results. There were no results shown, instead we all stared at Hoffenheim and Bayern Munich players passing the ball to each other as if it were a training exercise.
The reason for this bizarre spectacle was a protest by Bayern’s fans against the billionaire owner of Hoffenheim, Dietmar Hopp. They felt that his presence in German football undermined the league’s 50+1 rule – the idea that over 50% of a club must be owned by its members. Hopp had exploited a loophole and fans across the country were outraged.
But the players sided with Hopp, first by leaving the pitch in protest, then by returning but refusing to play properly. Hopp’s fellow football executives also backed him. One club lawyer even demanded the fans should be jailed.
As the European Super League debate has played out in England, many voices have suggested the solution to billionaire ownership lies in Germany and the 50+1 rule. In the past it has certainly enabled a more level playing field by limiting outside investment, but as the Hopp protest demonstrates, the rule has become looser. Four Bundesliga clubs – VfL Wolfsburg, Bayer Leverkusen, RB Leipzig and Hoffenheim – are all effectively owned by companies or investors.
The latter two have been the target of frequent attacks by fans, but have, by and large, been accepted by the other clubs. At the same time, traditional clubs like Schalke 04 have fallen off the cliff because of bad management and the increasing pressure to qualify for Europe where the big money can be made.
Fresh cash has flooded the system, the German league’s turnover nearly doubling from just under €2bn in the 2010-11 season to €3.8bn last term. But its distribution remains a problem. Bayern and Dortmund account for around a third of that turnover. And no club is able to compete with Bayern’s annual salary costs of more than €300m, the biggest indicator of the widening gap.
A few weeks after the Hoffenheim protest, the pandemic brought football to a halt – protests have waned. Occasionally, fans would hang up banners inside the empty stadium to protest against the forthcoming Champions League reform. The Dirty Dozen’s attack on Uefa and the current system was duly noted with a sense of relief that Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund were not among the breakaway teams.
But German football has similar problems to England when it comes to money. The competitiveness of the Bundesliga has long gone, and for now the answer from German supporters is not bigger stars but equal distribution of the income. It’s a utopia. Kept on a long leash by the clubs, they have a say, but not in everything. When football returned as the pandemic eased, it promised it would become a better version of itself, humbler and less greedy. The jury is still out.
Stephan Uersfeld is the Germany correspondent for ESPN FC