What English football needs?: 50+1, safe standing and Ultras

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Football is yet another German success story.

In comparison with other countries in Europe, Germany sees the biggest and loudest crowds, the cheapest matchday tickets and the best atmosphere’s and supporters and it’s mainly down to some major factors.

Earlier today, the DFL were in deliberation about potential changes and alterations to the current 50+1 ownership rule in German football.

After lengthy discussion they decided that the rule shouldn’t be altered in any way this coming season and also made a decision to keep the use of VAR (Video Assistance Referee) in the Bundesliga despite being at the heart of controversy throughout the current season.

It seems the vast majority of German football fans are pleased with the result of the discussions within the DFL (Deutsche Fussball Liga) despite arguments that the 50+1 ruling actually hinders the chances of clubs in the league to compete with the likes of massively successful teams like Bayern Munich. However the 50+1 rule, whilst it has its faults, is overall part and parcel of the German game and a huge reason as to why the stadiums in Germany see more supporters in attendance on average at Bundesliga matches than any other league in Europe, as well as the consistent atmosphere that is nowadays non existent in the English leagues.
But it would seem there are valid reasons for the diminished atmosphere and lack of control, sense of abandonment from fans at Premier League clubs.
How does Germany do it? How do German clubs gain so many supporters week in week out? (And no it’s not purely because Germans are football crazy and passionate for the sport) How is it so cheap? How is this all run? Why is it deemed to be so important?

What is 50+1?

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English football fans often ask what the draw of the Bundesliga is when the league itself is actually quite uncompetitive. Bayern have won the league 5 times in a row and are on course to clinch a 6th title this season which closest challengers Borussia Dortmund almost 20 points behind. The race for the title therefore becomes lackluster and boring and that’s where the rule perhaps plays into the hands of the rich.
Bayern’s continuous success means continuous funds, being continuously attractive to big name players and of course it means ultimately they can buy anyone they like regardless of who has shares in the club but even they abide by the 50+1 ownership law.

What exactly is it?
Well the DFL decreed the rule years back, as a means of preventing mishandling of the clubs as well as creating a way for the fans to remain an integral part of the running of the club itself.
The 50+1 rule stipulates that any Bundesliga club and 2.Bundesliga club must be owned in the majority by its on members, in other words the fans.  Whilst 49% can be owed by outside companies and investors, 51% of the shares MUST be owned by the members.
Most clubs in the Bundesliga have close to 100,000 members, and with a voting share the 50+1 rule allows them to speak to members of the board and the directors of the club about their concerns. It in a way, gives the supporters a voice. Whether the board decides to listen (and a lot of the time they do) is a different matter.
One consistent issue that is brought up from members of the question of ticket prices. If the members are unhappy with the ticket prices they have the ability to speak to higher authority and raise the issue.
Germany’s top tier has one the lowest ticket prices for league matches in Europe, which attracts younger crowds to the stadium (why not? Cheap tickets means they can afford it), and season tickets are no different.
The cheapest FC Bayern Munchen season ticket costs the average member 110 Euros a season, with single tickets costing 15 Euros per game. In comparison the cheapest Premier league season in 2016 was £365 for Leicester City, with a matchday ticket costing £22. Even the likes of Championship side Brentford FC charge at least £20 per game for a standing terrace ticket.
How is a ticket so cheap in Germany though?
It’s through the influence of the members running the club but it’s also partially down to the “Frei Sitzplatzwahl” or the “free standing”.

The cheapest Bundesliga tickets will always be in the home fans standing areas behind the goals, which is mainly subsidised by the clubs themselves. Charge far less to stand throughout the game and be part of the atmosphere of the safe standing Ultras section, or pay more for a nice seat and a better view.

The law put in places for 50+1 is a deterrent against rogue investors, which sadly has been something English football has become all to used to. It’s not possible in Germany for a billionaire to purchase and run an entire club, if they want control it can only ever be up to 49% of the shares and nothing more and since the majority shares of 5% reside with the members, if they don’t like the way the shareholder is influencing the club then their say will ultimately take precedence.
Unlike in England, it’s almost impossible to seize control of the club, in short the fans wishes and the wishes of the members will always be obeyed above that of private investors solely interested in profit and cash.

Unfortunately such investments in English football can swing either way. It can mean huge success on the pitch (and with it a wave of new glory supporters) such as the case of the take overs of Manchester City, Chelsea and even the Glaziers are Manchester United (lesser so since Utd were a success before their arrival), or it can go terribly wrong such as the case with Oysten at Blackpool, and the likes of Portsmouth who eventually ensured that the club was fan owed.
Giving such control to billionaire tycoons only interested in success and profit means that whilst the football is competitive and entertaining, player loyalty is lost, the game is almost meaningless and atmosphere’s diminish as clubs that become equated with success begin to arrogantly believe that the success is an entitlement and not something to be consistently worked towards.
These owners have seemingly little if no interest or knowledge about the sport itself or the wishes of the supporters and fans ultimately feel they have become silenced and the sport has become a business. The phrase “Supporters not customers” comes to mind.
Where as in Germany that majority share still remains with members that do have a clue as to what they’re talking about and whilst its not perfect it gives supporters a sense of being a part of the club rather than merely being a customer.

Inconsistency: Does it actually work?

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“Kind Must Go”: Hanover fans were furious with Martin Kind’s attempt to take over the club

The 50+1 rule was created to ensure that football clubs didn’t end up in the wrong hands, in other words in the hands of those that don’t have a clue how to run it. It means that measures regarding ticketing, supporters, spending, can’t be made without the go ahead of the clubs own members and that any intention in prioritising profit over supporters can be easily discarded. It also means debts and wages are lesser than that of other leagues across Europe, it allows far better control of the clubs running but there are difficulties with the rule.
Investments still occur. Bayern’s deal with Allianz and Adidas for example, in which outside companies invested cash into the club. There are certainly ways around the rule.

It also means that clubs with the most cash have the ability to spend more freely, so the likes of Bayern that generate their own money because of their success as a global brand not just as a football club, have the ability to invest in players that other clubs could never have the hope of attracting.
It’s frustrating for fans of other, less successful German teams, but unfortunately no rules have been broken.
Without the ropes of the 50+1 rule binding the Bundesliga, German clubs could have free investments from outside tycoons or companies that would see them have the ability to free spend on players to make a more competitive league but this sort of control ultimately means the members and supporters give up their right to vote on matters that were important them… almost like a deal with devil in the search of success and even then, with more cash, more star players, there’s absolutely no guarantee of success on the field.  If the investment is useless what’s the stop the investor up and abandoning the club all together leaving them in trouble?

It’s been a question raised recently by Hannover 96’s stakeholder Martin Kinds bid to take over the club in its entirety.  His move sparked the debate as to whether the 50+1 rule should be scrapped but his move for the club sparked outrage from supporters who’s protests eventually led to him being ousted.
Similarly, it was a tragic case for TSV 1860 Munchen, their faith in stakeholder Hasan Ismaik, who was eventually given free reign by the club, left them in tatters.

Technically the club had followed the 50+1 rule. Ismaik had 60% ownership but only 49% of the voting rights so the votes majority still remained with the supporters, but it was a way around the rule. Eventually it would lead them astray. There’s a great article here on 1860’s downfall.

Having already been relegated to the 3.Liga the club, which had financially been saved by the investment, saw inner conflict tear the management apart and eventually Ismaik wouldn’t pay the clubs 3.Liga playing licence fee and the historic club was relegated to amateur football.
Instances like the case of 1860 Munich makes a case as to why the 50+1 one rule whilst should be followed, proves how rogue investments can lead to massive trouble for clubs.

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Devastated: 1860 Munchen fans were let heartbroken when their club suffered double relegation, because investors refused to pay their playing licence.

From a competitive perspective the 50+1 rule actually hinders the league but from a supporters perspective it means the fans are closer to the club they care about and have some control over it, something that supporters of premier league clubs are now complaining about weekly.

The curious case of…: Exceptions to the rules (Leverkusen and Wolfsburg) and the hatred of Leipzig and Hoffenheim.

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Controversial but fair: Wolfsburg and Leverkusen are exempt from the 50+1 rule if they wish to be.

There’s always an exception to the rules somehow, but sadly some are exceptions by default and others slyly get around the rules by becoming and wolf in sheeps clothing.

The two major anomalies in the Bundesliga to the 50+1 rule are Bayer Leverkusen and VfL Wolfsburg but there is a good reason for it.
Whilst they can have shares owned more than 49% and the majority of control can rest with a parent company, both clubs abide by the clause of the 50+1 rule that makes the club exempt and it all stems from their creation.
Both Leverkusen and Wolfsburg have been consistently owned in a minority share for more than 20 years, so its suggested they have proven their minority owners can be trusted with the running of the club.
Leverkusen as a club were founded by the pharmaceutical company Bayer (Hence the name) in 1904, when employees of the company created the football club. Similarly Wolfsburg were a team created by the employees at Volkswagen. Whilst they have the right now to be owned by majority by their parent companies, both clubs have an incredible number of supporters and members that have been able to influence the club therefore they are technically exempt from the rule but there’s absolutely no fear from fans that Bayer of Volkswagen will mishandle the running of their club.

Two other clubs however that managed to bypass the rule did so under far more controversial.
Whilst TSG Hoffenheim have existed since the 1800’s, it wasn’t until their major investment from Dietmar Hopp that eventually transformed the club, that they became a controversial team in Germany.  Whilst Hopp does indeed have a connection to the tiny town of Hoffenheim (Sinsheim) his millions invested from his shares and then his major influence of the members of the 51% of share holders that voted in favour of him owning a majority, actually means that in truth, he owns the club in full.
Hoffenheim, with their new stadium and their new millions, successfully climbed the football Pyramid and eventually ended up in the Bundesliga. Whilst the clubs actions were seen as controversial, it was nothing compared to likes the Leipzig.

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Leipzig’s introduction to the Bundesliga wasn’t at welcoming: Dortmund fans protest

RB Leipzig are the most hated club in Germany. For their commercialisation of the game and their bypass of the 50+1 rule which they managed to avoid on a technicality… meaning technically they do abide by the rule but in truth, they don’t.
The club began in the 5th tier of German football under the name SSV Markranstädt, based just outside of Leipzig.
Energy drink giants Red Bull decided to purchase the playing licence of the club and began operating under a new name. RB Leipzig.
Because of law that forbids any club using a marketing brand in their title, they were unable to call the club “Red Bull” so instead created the term “Rasenballsport” or translated “Lawn ball sport”, a term that makes zero sense, but allowed the club to keep the initials RB.
Red Bull pumped cash into the small club and eventually they began to climb the pyramid too.
But it’s their avoidance of the 50+1 rule that probably makes them most hated… because technically they haven’t broken it.
Whilst the majority of German clubs have 1000’s of

paying members, some with shares some not, RB Leipzig began with just 17 paying members, all of which were employees of Red Bull.
Whilst other clubs charged perhaps 100 euros a season for members, RB Leipzig charged (and still do) extortionate amounts for a membership, around 5 times as much as other clubs, which can also be revoked or rejected by the board. So in truth the 51% majority is owned by the less than 1000 members now (around 700) of RB Leipzig (still far less than any other German club in the top two tiers), 49% is still owned by Red Bull… in total, the entire club is owned by Red Bull.
The reason  Leipzig were able to avoid being caught out of the rule was because technically the majority was owned by members and there was not definitely way of proving that the small number of members were solely members because of their position at the Red Bull Company, although most fans of other clubs believe this is a total cop out from the DFB. Whilst Leipzig went on to challenge Bayern last season, they haven’t been quite so successful this season.

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The grave robbers of football: Hertha BSC supporters protest with a choreo for the visit of RB Leipzig in 2016/17

With majority control with Red Bull, the investors could take a turn like many others before and destroy the club.  They have been praised for buying young players but the fact remains that their coming into existence in the first place was merely for Red Bulls marketing purposes rather than football purposes.
Red Bull owns other clubs in Salzburg and New York.  In Austria the fans of Salzburg took mattes into their own hands when Red Bull refuses to allow supporters a say in the running of the club after a take over and so Salzburg fans created a new team from scratch starting at the bottom of Austrian football but retaining their clubs traditions.
The existence of Leipzig and Salzburg, meant trouble for their European campaigns as well, as UEFA rules that only one club owned by an investor can compete in a single competition, so the two club don’t meet.
Eventually it was ruled that Red Bull did not have the same influence over Leipzig as they technically aren’t owned by the company and both were allowed to compete in European competition much to the dismay of German football supporters who believe that Red Bull are the sole owners of the Leipzig club (Their shirts are almost identical for goodness sake).

 

Unlike mishaps in England though Red Bulls ventures have been mostly successful, unfortunately though ethically their existence is negative, in footballing terms it’s good and the club has developed good players, but their ability to buy players if requested at the drop of a hat because of their investment is always something that’ll leave a bitter taste in the mouth. Without the millions Red Bull put into the club where would they be? It’s almost like Manchester City and Chelsea, only there were no rules in place to stop them, but there was one in place to prevent clubs like Leipzig from competing, and existing merely for marketing purposes of Red Bull rather than any other reason.

In England some lower league clubs are slowly getting back to fan ownership, but unfortunately it’s usually only after mishaps with big shot owners that this has happened. Portsmouth is a prime example, as they plummeted down the leagues thanks for a mishandling of finances and a series of administrations.  Now, they are fan owned and control lay with the Pompey trust. Similarly the survival of Leicester city, who would later become champions of England, rest with the supporters. Whilst Gary Lineker did partially aide with their bailout, the fans took control.

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Reborn: Portsmouth are now owned by the Pompey Supporters trust, after entering administration twice.

Manchester United fans opposed to the Glazier’s takeover at Old Trafford reacted in a different manner, by creating a brand new team of which they were in control and football and not success took centre stage.
But scenes such as recent ones at West Ham United which saw the owners attacked at the London Stadium and an invasion of the pitch during their 3-0 home defeat to Burnley, perhaps sends a message, if in a truly ugly manner, that supporters that are continuously frustrated with the running of their club by clueless billionaires that don’t listen to those that love the club the most (aka the fans), are now at breaking point.
It has it’s downsides but the 50+1 rule in Germany hasn’t just allowed fans to have a say, it’s also had a direct impact on who helps run the club with the election of the President coming from the members, as well as matters that are important to the fans.
After all a club without supporters doesn’t really exist.

 

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Enough is enough: West Ham supporters, livid with the board and owners, attempted to storm the boxes at the London stadium in West Ham’s 3-0 defeat to Burnley

Bring the noise: Ultra’s not Hooligans

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Fan section: Ultras and supporters of Hertha BSC in the “Ostkurve” free standing fan section

There was recently an article published by the BBC regarding the lack of noise at Premier League grounds, which saw the focus on Manchester United attempting to bring an atmosphere back to Old Trafford.
Some of the ideas such as cheerleaders and lyric song sheets were abysmal and I’m sure many other fans would agree, but even the addition of a “singing section” last season at OT is ridiculous.
Some people blame the stewards for telling fans to sit down and monitoring their behavior however they’re simply following orders from above (I’d know, I am a steward myself) and any steward would know if they were smart that any passionate fans aren’t going to sit on request.
Certain measures are in place in England that aren’t elsewhere in Europe and it truly hinders the atmosphere at Premier League stadiums.
Unlike in England, in Germany the fans can stand for 90 minutes, continuously sing, drink and smoke inside the stadium and it’s all safe to do so. Perhaps the English react differently when drunk to Germans but the fact they’re given the right to stand for 90 minutes brings with it the temptation to be loud… not aggressive but passionate.

It comes down really to the control of the crowd by Ultras groups.

People tend to confuse Ultras for hooligans.  But there’s a difference.
Hooligans are intent of being violent, causing trouble by just being exceedingly loud.
Ultras are fans that create atmosphere through singing, musical instruments, choreography and bright colour displays in their designated fan section of the stadium… usually this section is for safe standing.
Safe standing has been a major issue in English football since the Hillsborough disaster which saw 96 innocent Liverpool fans lose their lives due to overcrowded standing pens at the Sheffield Wednesday stadium. However the crush wasn’t to be blamed on the standing itself, the overcrowded was down to the total incompetence of officials and the lack of adequate police at the stadium.
Had supporters been prevented from entering the stadium once full, had there been enough police to prevent it, the crush probably would’ve never happened.
Safe standing also means the area can be quickly turned back into a seated area. Each row is railed to prevent a crush or a surge.
Borussia Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park can hold 80,000 spectators but the infamous Sudtribune, home to the Ultras, is a standing terrace that can house nearly 30,000 fans… and there has never been a major incident.
Nearly every Bundesliga club has a standing area for supporters, subsidised by the club. This is also the area where the noise is generated.
Why?
Because it’s controlled support.
Manchester United has the Stretford End, Liverpool has the KOP, ect, behind the goals… much like Bundesliga clubs ultras section.
In Germany Bayern has the Sudkurve, Schalke has the Nordkurve, Dortmund has he Gelbe Wand or the Sudtribune and Hertha Berlin has the Ostkurve.
Unlike the English clubs, the German ones have a Kappo or group basically in charge of leading the chanting for the entire 90 minutes and usually for a good 15 minutes before and 5 minutes after the game has ended. This includes banging drums and leading well known chants and shouting instructions at supporters if they have something planned like a Choreo/Tifo.

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Yellow Wall: Ultras of Borussia Dortmund on a European night

Although not everyone likes these guys, their job at the end of the day is to ensure that all the fans in this section are cheering their team on, just as you expect your team to give 100% on the pitch, the fans should do the same in the stand. Jumping, singing, chanting, Tifo are all part of the Ultras way of displaying their passion for their club, so the team on the field feel that for 90 minutes and it pushes them to perform well. Very rarely do ultras become violent or aggressive in their own fan section unless something sparks a reaction from their rival fans.
But in England this controlled support doesn’t exist. Fan chants become drowned out by random part of the stadium starting songs at different points and all the fans that want to sing are spaced out and separated meaning the atmosphere is lost in the vastness of the ground itself.
Controlled support in the form of ultras needs a leader, and those willing to participate. We’ve seen a glimmer of it at Crystal Palace who bring their own drum with them wherever they seem to go but other clubs have failed to follow their example.
Perhaps in England we’ve grown accustomed to simply sitting down and watching the game but you can do that in Germany too… just not behind the goal in the fan sections. You’ll never find anyone sitting in Berlin’s Ostkurve, they’d be berated on the spot.
You’ll also never finding anyone standing in the middle tiers further away from the goal. It’s all very carefully mapped out but it’s what English football is now missing simply because of the lack of differentiation between hooligans and ultras.

Would it work in England now? Who knows, but the English leagues are far behind Europe in terms of active and loud support and stadium atmosphere when it comes to club level football.
Ideas such a choreographed, fake and false initiatives won’t work and will be laughed at, but controlled support from actively willing fans of clubs that want to be loud and passionate and would be allowed to do so if some of the rules in the UK was relaxed, could well be a good thing.

In England it seems we’ve much to learn about how to bring back atmospheres to the stadiums and control to the fans. I’d say Germany pretty much already has it covered.