When the European Super League breakaway was announced, German clubs were conspicuous by their absence. It was hard to see how an exclusive clique could claim to represent the elite of European football without Bayern Munich, last season’s Champions League winners, or Borussia Dortmund for that matter.
One factor in particular made it difficult for the billionaires, suits and creepy corporate waxworks behind the Super League to co-opt Bayern and Dortmund. Despite their status as the two most successful and wealthy clubs in Germany, they are at least somewhat accountable to their fans.
That is largely thanks to the 50+1 rule, which has become one of the defining principles of German football. In short, for a club to participate in the Bundesliga it – and consequently its members, or supporters – must hold the majority of its own voting rights.
Up until 1998 clubs were owned exclusively by members’ associations and run as not-for-profit organisations, a legacy of their formation – often with roots in multi-sports clubs popular with students in the late 19th century. When the rules were changed to allow clubs to convert their professional football sections into limited companies, opening them up to external investment, the German Football League determined that the parent club should still own at least 50 per cent plus one additional share in order to prevent private interests from taking overall control.
‘Thanks to the 50+1 rule, there are no investors who can make unrestricted decisions,’ says Manuel Gaber of German fan initiatives Unser Fußball (‘Our Football’) and 50+1 bleibt! (‘50+1 stays!’). ‘[Executives] who position themselves against the will of the members in such a fundamental decision as participation in a Super League must expect resistance… the 50+1 rule is therefore certainly one of the barriers to a breakaway.’
Feargal McEvoy, editor of Halb Vier fanzine, agrees. ‘Club members are afforded the privilege of voting on important matters – everything from the next president to ticket prices – and are perceived, by the clubs, as fans as opposed to customers,’ he says. ‘The 50+1 rule has definitely kept the German clubs in check.’
That marks out the German clubs from their English counterparts. English football has a unique social history, with clubs adopting professionalism long before it took hold in mainland Europe and the majority run as private companies from a relatively early stage.
That meant that, despite many top-flight clubs’ working-class origins, local grandees and wealthy businessmen were able to become majority shareholders and influential directors. When the Premier League split off from the Football League in 1992 – setting the precedent for the attempted Super League breakaway all these years later – many of their successors became enormously wealthy by cashing in on the increasingly slick television product and selling their shares.
As wages and transfer fees soared, others either followed their lead or were priced out. That is how the Premier League became a billionaire’s playground featuring Roman Abramovich, Stan Kroenke, Joe Lewis, John W Henry, Sheikh Mansour and the Glazers, who along with their Spanish and Italian associates, have just tried to jettison the rest of European football overnight.
While they may have prepared themselves for protracted legal battles with domestic leagues and governing bodies FIFA and UEFA, they didn’t reckon with the intensity of the resistance to their closed competition from coaches, players, politicians, the media, other clubs and their own supporters. In England, especially, they felt the full force of fan power, with supporters’ trusts and organised groups at all six breakaway clubs condemning the decision, a massive backlash on social media and protests breaking out at their grounds.
No doubt sensing a political opportunity, Boris Johnson promised to drop a ‘legislative bomb’ on the project. Keir Starmer also weighed in, pledging cross-party support for legislation to stop the proposals. By the time Chelsea fans blocked their team bus from entering Stamford Bridge ahead of their Premier League match against Brighton, the Super League was crumbling. Chelsea and Manchester City soon signalled their intention to withdraw, the other four English clubs followed and, before long, the breakaway was dead in the water.
In its wake, the Super League has left a sense of common purpose rarely seen before in English football. With the government launching its long-awaited fan-led review in response, it feels as if there is genuine popular and political appetite for fundamental reform. One proposal has cropped up again and again: adopting the 50+1 rule, or something similar, in our game.
In a statement declaring that ‘a return to the status quo is unacceptable,’ the Football Supporters’ Association (FSA) said that ‘implementation of something akin to Germany’s 50+1 rule’ should be considered. Culture secretary Oliver Dowden has cautiously confirmed that the government will ‘look at’ 50+1 while, speaking to The Independent, Starmer said: ‘There has got to be a mechanism on ownership and what the percentage of ownership would be on any given club, and the German model is quite interesting there.’
Naturally, there will be a degree of scepticism over whether, if push came to shove, either party’s leadership would back a reform which would so radically change the English game. ‘Registered member associations have a long tradition in Germany, not only in football,’ says Helen Breit of Unsere Kurve (‘Our Terrace’), who works alongside Gaber in German fan network Zukunft Profifußball (‘Professional Football’s Future’). ‘The situation in England is, of course, quite different and the owners will certainly not be enthusiastic about giving fans a greater say.’
Having allowed football capitalism to go unchecked for so long, introducing something similar to 50+1 would require a drastic overhaul of the legal framework of English football. ‘Although supporters owning clubs should always be an aspiration and something we aim for, when you look at the top of our league pyramid, it’s not necessarily straightforward to hand over a club worth hundreds of millions of pounds – or half of it – to the supporters,’ says Ashley Brown, Head of Governance for the FSA.
It’s important to remember that, even in Germany, 50+1 is not a panacea, with fan groups still demanding a greater say over how the game is run. ’50+1 is certainly not the one solution for all problems in professional football,’ says Breit.
In a notable exception to the rule, a person or company which has had an interest in a club for more than 20 years can own a controlling stake (as is the case with Bayer Leverkusen and Wolfsburg, owned by pharmaceuticals company Bayer and car manufacturer Volkswagen respectively). There is also the case of RB Leipzig, which adheres to the letter of the law on members holding majority voting rights but subverts the principle by making membership highly exclusive and prohibitively expensive.
Generally, though, 50+1 is a classic social democratic compromise between business and popular interests. Were it introduced in the Premier League or Football League, where ownership has so long been a free-for-all, it would represent a dramatic realignment of power towards the fans. It’s telling that, ahead of a vote to retain 50+1 in 2018, German fan groups rallied behind it overwhelmingly in the face of dissent from a small minority of clubs. ‘More than 3,000 fan clubs and all national fan organisations joined the campaign to protect the 50+1 rule,’ says Breit. ‘For many fans, 50+1 is the last regulation that puts a stop to ever-increasing commercialisation.’
In empowering fans and giving them democratic rights, 50+1 has been credited with keeping ticket prices low, grounding clubs in their communities and fostering Germany’s politically engaged fan culture. What’s more, when German fans protest, their clubs have little choice but to listen. Back in 2018, Monday night Bundesliga games were discontinued after fans created an uproar about the needs of television companies being prioritised over those of matchgoing supporters. It’s little wonder that a Super League breakaway was a non-starter.
Even if the successful introduction of 50+1 in England would require sweeping legal and legislative change, there are other reforms which can be implemented in the meantime. The FSA is also exploring automatic fan positions on boards – not dissimilar to the offer made by Labour in their 2019 manifesto – and golden shares for supporter organisations which come with specific voting rights and so on.
The most important thing is that, in the short and long term, power is taken out of the hands of the super-rich and returned to the communities which built football in the first place. Whether or not England adopts the German model, it can serve as inspiration for a better alternative to the unaccountable private ownership which threatens the sport – and a spur to build the kind of grassroots fan movement which might win lasting change.