Despite the best efforts of some of the larger clubs in Germany, it seems that many clubs there do listen to their fans and, in a vote at the end of March, elected to retain the 50+1 rule for football club ownership which has, quite rightly, been declared as something of a triumph for fan involvement.
It may, however, only be a temporary victory. The rule which states that (in all but three special cases) no one investor can hold more than 49% of a club’s shares and the remaining 50% plus one vote must be held by members of the club, has faced mounting pressure in recent years as clubs bemoan the perceived inability to compete with the financial might of the Premier League.
The vote had finally come about when the President of Bundesliga side Hannover 96, Martin Kind, challenged the ruling after many years of involvement at the club, forcing the hand of the German Football League (DFL) who called for a“fundamental debate”. Kind withdrew his request to be considered for special treatment alongside Hoffenheim. Bayer Leverkusen and Wolfsburg in exchange fora vote on the issue by clubs in the top two divisions. At the time, it was thought that at least 12 of the 18 Bundesliga teams were believed to support changes to the rule but, in a motion tabled by FC St Pauli, however, the move was rejected by the majority of the top 36 clubs in the country.
Fans, including over 3,000 groups who signed a petition aimed at retaining the 50+1 rule, see things somewhat differently to Kind, and have been anxious to retain influence to avoid the many pitfalls associated with club ownership in England.You only need to look at the depth of antipathy shown by fans of FC Koln and Borussia Dortmund towards RB Leipzig (owned by the Red Bull drinks manufacturer) over the past couple of seasons to realise that this is one tradition that will not be sacrificed lightly. Even the CEO of Borussia Dortmund, was at pains to point out, following the vote, that the majority of his club’s 153,000 members were in favour of retaining the rule and that they should be listened to.
The rule stops the investment of money in clubs in the way that has become customary in the English Premier League where Middle Eastern states, Russian oligarchs and American investors have become the norm. As if to exemplify the strength of the model, back in 2013, Hamburger SV decided, with the backing of the majority of their fans, to convert the footballing side of the club in an attempt to attract more commercial sponsorship to the club. Many at the time, including Supporters Direct, sought to point out that vested interests were playing a part in trying to force the move through. You can draw your own conclusions about the success of the venture given that the club currently sits bottom of the table facing its first ever relegation from the Bundesliga.
And the benefits of the model don’t stop at fan involvement. As Rafael Honigstein points out in his excellent book, Das Reboot, the retention of the model may even have contributed positively to the success of the German national team at the 2014 World Cup as club academies in the 50+1 ownership structure are strong and sustainable and have revitalised German football after their disastrous performance at the European Championships in 2000.
Whilst the 50+1 model is far from perfect - and there are still many battles to be fought over the issue - there are undoubtedly lessons for English football to learn.