Unsustainable finances and an increasing gulf between rich and poor; the coronavirus crisis has exposed deep flaws in modern football. Now, a coalition of German fans has produced concepts for fundamental reform.
German football supporters are well known for their protests, demonstrations and outspoken criticism of aspects of the game which they disagree with.
Ticket prices and kickoff times, politics and policing, fan culture and finances, corruption and commerce; barely a weekend goes by without fans somewhere in Germany aiming messages at club directors and other functionaries and decision-makers in the game.
A watershed moment appeared to have been reached at the end of February when a Bayern Munich game was temporarily suspended after fans displayed banners insulting Hoffenheim owner Dietmar Hopp, a figure whose involvement in football is considered by many to embody the over-commercialization of the sport.
And when football ground to a halt two weeks later as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the economic vulnerability of the professional game became abundantly clear. Unable to play matches, clubs across Europe's top divisions were faced with the prospect of key revenue streams from ticket sales to broadcasting deals being suddenly cut off. As many as 13 clubs in Germany's top two divisions alone were reportedly on the brink of insolvency.
The immediate existential threat was averted when play resumed behind closed doors in May, but the constant concerns and complaints of those active supporters down the years appeared justified. But now, they weren't even present inside the stadium to make their point.
In June, German supporter representatives launched a new nationwide initiative called Unser Fussball (Our Football) demanding a "fundamental restructuring" of the game to ensure its future was "grassroots-orientated, sustainable and modern." An initial declaration quickly gathered support and has since been signed by over 2,660 fan groups with a combined 450,000 members, plus almost 14,000 individual supporters from over 260 different clubs.
"The [coronavirus] interruption opened a lot of football fans' eyes and showed that something is wrong," said Helen Breit, the chairperson of Germany's largest umbrella fan organization, Unsere Kurve (Our Terrace).
"The declaration shows that it's not just active supporters who are interested in these issues, but fans of all backgrounds – and that's new."
The declaration was officially handed to the president of the German Football Association (DFB), Fritz Keller, in August and since then, 50 fans have worked together on four detailed concepts which were published individually throughout September.
Under the title Zukunft Profifussball (Future of Professional Football), the concepts outlined "how we would shape football if we could," including:
The first concept contends that football fans are not simply passive consumers of a product, but rather that they actively shape their experience through their own actions and behaviors. This, the fans argue, is what distinguishes professional football from other elite sports and makes it more than just a product.
"Only through the spectators does professional football in Germany become unmistakably unique. They create the experience and the passion which are then ascribed as German football's unique characteristics. Without spectators, professional football loses its social importance."
For those reasons, the campaigners insist that fans be taken seriously and recognized as an "elementary component of professional football."
With Europe's top domestic leagues and even the Champions League dominated by an ever smaller number of the continent's richest clubs, the campaign argues that elite football has become a closed shop. In order to break into the elite, clubs either need to risk spending more than they have, risking bankruptcy, or benefit from rich investors, which in itself constitutes further distortion of the competition.
In order to break this vicious circle, the fans suggest a fairer distribution of broadcasting and media rights revenue, a more comprehensive and more effective system of financial fair play, and a mechanism to ensure that clubs have sufficient capital reserves.
"In a fair, genuine and exciting sporting competition, all participating teams have a realistic chance of success," they say.
According to the fans behind the initiative, football clubs are more than just elite sports organizations; they are "vehicles for integration and inclusion, binding together people from different social, political and cultural backgrounds."
This is especially the case in Germany, where clubs still have the legal status of democratic members' associations (Vereine). However, since the 1990s, it has been common practise for clubs to separate their professional football divisions out into private limited companies, in order to open them up to outside investment on the free market.
The so-called 50+1 rule stipulates that the parent association must hold 50% of the shares in such a company, plus one share, in order to retain majority control. But the fans believe that various constructions and exemptions have weakened the effect of the 50+1 rule, with democratic participation and transparency sacrificed for profit.
In their third concept, they therefore demand that the status of members' associations and their controlling influence over professional football divisions be strengthened. They also demand an end to exemptions from the 50+1 rule and potentially even an expansion of the rule to 75+1.
- Read more: Coronavirus, the Bundesliga and the 50+1 rule
Finally, the fans demand that Germany's – and indeed the world's – most popular sport take its social responsibilities seriously, rather than just paying lip service to issues such as diversity, sustainability, working conditions, youth football and reputable partnerships.
"The time for excuses is over," they say.
In response, the German Football League (DFL), which has thus far steered German football relatively successfully through the pandemic, has put together a taskforce to discuss the future of the game post-coronavirus.
"The fundamental purpose of the taskforce is to reflect on past developments, conduct interdisciplinary discussions and draw up potential plans for which direction to take in future," it said in a statement.
The balance of the competition, the flow of money, social responsibility, ethical guidelines, fan interests, economic stability and the development of women's football are all on the agenda for the taskforce, which consists of 35 experts from across all aspects of professional football – including Helen Breit and other fans from Unser Fussball.
"Fans have long been critical of commercialization and many of the demands aren't new," says Breit, summing up Unser Fussball's four concepts. "But now is not the time for small measures; it's time to question the entire system."
- All four concepts can be read and downloaded in full (in German) at https://zukunft-profifussball.de/