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 By Uli Hesse

Issues looming for Germany's footballing landscape

Reviewing 2014 seems easy. In footballing terms, this has been the most successful year for the German game since 1980, when the national team won a title and three Bundesliga sides reached European finals.

However, football is not just the game played between the lines. Some things which happened off the pitch during the past 12 months considerably blur what appears to be such a rosy picture.

In terms of football culture -- currently one of the Bundesliga's strongest selling points abroad -- there have been worrying developments this year. One is the accelerating erosion of the so-called "50+1 rule," the much-envied cornerstone of how football is being organised in this country.

Another, not at all unrelated, development is a growing dissatisfaction among supporters with the sanitising and the commercialisation of the game. That's nothing new, of course. This process began many years ago, in the early 1990s, but it has now reached the point where the footballing landscape in Germany is being reshaped for all to see.

Let's begin with this fan unrest. NDR, the regional television channel for northern Germany, broadcast a documentary four weeks ago which followed supporters who were turning their backs on their teams. Not in the sense of booing the players, demanding the coach's head or hurling insults at the chairman. No, in the sense of actively walking away from the club they have supported all their lives.

The documentary, "Escape from the Curve," looks in particular at Hamburg (HSV) and Hannover 96, two of the most prominent clubs from NDR's broadcasting area. The reasons for the fans' discontent and the form of their protests are different in those two cities, but the underlying sense of alienation is the same.

In Hamburg, the club members' decision back in May to turn the professional football division into a limited company was the final straw. A few hundred supporters, among them some of Hamburg's most vocal and dedicated fans, came to the conclusion that this was no longer their club, and if they still wanted what they refer to as "an emotional home," they had to turn their backs on HSV and form their own team.

In July, these former HSV fans set up HFC Falke. The name harkens back to FC Falke 1906, one of the three clubs which merged in 1919 to create the modern HSV. Today, some five months later, the new club already has about 350 members. True, that's not a huge number, but we know how quickly such clubs can grow.

This is not the first time that disillusioned or angered fans have disassociated themselves from a big club to set up their own. A few weeks ago, 80 members of HFC Falke travelled from Hamburg to Manchester to visit F.C. United, formed by Manchester United fans in 2005.

There is a similar club in Liverpool. And, of course, in southwest London, where erstwhile Wimbledon FC supporters literally took matters into their own hands when their beloved club moved to Milton Keynes in 2002. They started AFC Wimbledon, now playing fourth-division football, only one tier below the MK Dons.

Perhaps the best-known fans' club on the continent is Austria Salzburg. The team came into being in 2005 when the original Austria Salzburg was bought up by Red Bull and renamed after the company's energy drink. Although the supporters' team is only nine years old, Austria are competing in the third division and narrowly missed out on reaching the second level in the promotion playoffs in June.

Clubs like Red Bull Leipzig are finding ways around Germany's 50+1 rule, which is supposed to prevent an individual or commercial enterprise from owning a club.
Clubs like Red Bull Leipzig are finding ways around Germany's 50+1 rule, which is supposed to prevent an individual or commercial enterprise from owning a club.

Which bring us to 50+1. A month before Austria failed to win promotion across the border, RB Leipzig moved up to the second level of the game in Germany. The club has been the subject of this column numerous times in the past, because its unstoppable rise is anxiously monitored by many German football fans.

The 50+1 rule says that 50 per cent of the shares in a club's professional football division plus one share cannot be traded and must remain in the possession of the non-commercial, non-profit parent club. The rule was created to prevent clubs from being owned by an individual or a commercial enterprise. But it no longer reflects reality.

When RB Leipzig were promoted to the 2. Bundesliga in May, there were faint hopes the club would be barred from playing at this tier, because Andreas Rettig, one of the two league chairmen, is an outspoken advocate of the 50+1 rule.

But while the Leipzig club -- created and run by Red Bull -- certainly violates the spirit of the rule, it doesn't actually break the letter of the law. (RB Leipzig don't issue shares, they simply prevent non-Red Bull employees from becoming members.) So Rettig's hands were tied and now it's just a matter of time until RB will be yet another team in the top flight which, despite the 50+1 rule, is individually owned or controlled.

Pretty soon, there could be no less than five such clubs in the Bundesliga, almost a third of the league. Leverkusen and Wolfsburg have always been operating under an exemption from the rule. Then, a week before Christmas, the league allowed long-time Hoffenheim patron Dietmar Hopp to acquire a controlling interest in the club next summer.

The reason Hopp can do this has to do with another loophole in the rule, one devised and enforced by Hannover 96's president, Martin Kind.

We have covered this man's crusade against the 50+1 rule before. In the end, Kind didn't manage to abolish it altogether but succeeded in having the rule amended to say that any person or company that has been supporting a club uninterruptedly and substantially for a period of 20 years will be allowed to become the club's owner.

According to the Wall Street Journal, a group of investors headed by Kind will use this passage in the rules to take over Hannover 96 during the 2017-18 season. And if Fredi Bobic, the former director of football at VfB Stuttgart, is right, the other clubs will eventually follow this model, too.

In an interview with Kicker magazine, published last week, Bobic said: "In the future, there will be no 50+1 rule but only PLCs. Perhaps even owners, which is common practice in other European leagues. We're a bit late, but sooner or later we are going to slaughter this sacred cow."

Which is what Kind has been demanding all along. He's never hid the fact that he isn't a football fan but a businessman and intends to run a football club like a business. As Bobic says, this is perfectly normal in many leagues around the world. Not, however, in Germany. Here, sport is not considered a part of the entertainment industry. Here, clubs are supposed to serve regional, even local communities, not customer bases.

Hannover 96 president Martin Kind has designs on becoming owner of the club by 2018.
Hannover 96 president Martin Kind has designs on becoming owner of the club by 2018.

It's one reason why Kind has repeatedly clashed with his own club's supporters. The tipping point was the derby away at Eintracht Braunschweig in April. Citing security reasons, the club told the fans they couldn't travel to the game individually but only in a police-escorted bus convoy photographed here.

In the wake of what the NDR documentary calls "the first enforced mass transportation in German football," some 800 fans, a substantial number for a club of this size, finally had enough and decided to stop supporting the Bundesliga team.

They returned their season tickets for the arena -- but they haven't stopped supporting their club. Because now they watch football in the fourth division, cheering on 96's reserve side in the intimate Beekestadion in south Hanover.

Christian Brehm, the former chairman of the umbrella organisation of Hannover 96's fan clubs, told the NDR filmmakers why he and many others gladly traded the glamour of the professional game for a more grassroots experience: "I have the feeling that here I can breathe football the way I like to. For me, football means emotion and passion, it is not a regulated marketing tool."

A few days before Christmas, I was invited to London for an event called "Greatcoats for Goalposts." It celebrated the 1914 Christmas Truce and looked at the role of football in a modern society. Also on the panel was Birgitt Glockl from the German Academy for Football Culture.

The moderator introduced us as coming from a "paradise" for football fans, a place where tickets are cheap and the game can be watched on free-to-air television, where fans stand on terraces and clubs are owned by their supporters.

When he asked Glockl why German fans still have all this, she said: "We are talking about these things all the time, every day." By which she meant German fans have been fighting for them for a long time.

And despite this year's grave setbacks, they will surely continue to do so in 2015. As one of the "Greatcoats for Goalposts" speakers put it (though he wasn't talking about football culture): The fight is never completely won -- but it's never completely lost, either.

Uli covers German football for ESPN FC and has written over 400 columns since 2002.

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