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Borussia Dortmund Fans Are Beating Back Corporate Football

Last month, Dortmund fans voted to prevent their club changing its name, playing home games outside the city or leaving the Bundesliga – a reminder that fan power can stand up to modern football.

A Borussia Dortmund fan waves their scarf in support from the stands on 3 November 2021. Credit: Alex Grimm / Getty Images

At Borussia Dortmund’s annual general meeting last month, a motion to introduce a code of basic values to the club’s statutes passed with a single dissenting vote. Were it adopted at a Premier League club it would represent a radical break with the laissez-faire rationale of English football but, in the context of the Bundesliga, it was a reaffirmation of an ethos which already sets Germany apart from the rest of Europe.

Among the basic values put forward were the preservation of the club’s name, colours, and badge, priority participation in national competition, a pledge that all the club’s home games should be held in Dortmund, and adherence to the 50+1 rule, which dictates that clubs—and by extension their members, or supporters—must hold the majority of their own voting rights, giving fans a direct say in how they’re run. While the final content of the code of values will be worked out by a designated committee drawn from fan representatives, other demands include regular communication between the board and members, affordable ticket prices, and a commitment to social and environmental responsibility.

It’s telling that Dortmund fans wanted to restate their commitment to 50+1, given that without the democratic representation that it gives to supporters, the motion would have been a non-starter. ‘It wouldn’t have been possible without the 50+1 rule,’ says Steve Palmer, a UK-based Dortmund supporter and season ticket holder with a longstanding family connection to the club. ‘First and foremost, the club is for the fans. It is a massive part of the city and its culture. I think [the code of values] is a statement against the rise of new clubs like Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig… it’s important that clubs don’t forget their roots.’

While reasonable ticket prices, social activism, and democratic participation are all hallmarks of German football already, Dortmund supporters have good reason to want to strengthen the safeguards within the club’s statutes. Though German clubs were noticeable by their absence from the failed European Super League breakaway in April—no doubt because of their accountability to fans relative to, say, their English counterparts—supporters remain wary of how wider changes in the game might affect the Bundesliga.

Likewise, the rise of RB Leipzig has rung alarm bells for fans of Germany’s more traditional clubs, with many accusing the Red Bull vehicle of subverting the 50+1 rule with a highly restrictive membership policy (Hoffenheim are similarly unpopular after being bankrolled by billionaire businessman Dietmar Hopp). By restating their unequivocal support for 50+1, Dortmund fans have sent a message that they will resist any attempt to further undermine the principle.

Dortmund may be accountable to a membership of around 157,000—one of the largest in the country—but even they aren’t immune to controversy. There was a fierce backlash earlier this season when the team walked out against Besiktas in the Champions League wearing a new Puma-designed third strip with a barely visible club badge, which no doubt helped to persuade fans of the need to formally enshrine Dortmund’s heritage.

As such, the motion to introduce a code of basic values represents Dortmund supporters reasserting a collective vision for the club. ‘I’m delighted with the decision and certainly not surprised either,’ says Anton Shields, a member of official fan club Glasgow Borussen. ‘If German fans don’t like something, they certainly aren’t afraid to let you know about it.’

There’s still much for members to discuss before the code of values is finalised. Ben McFadyean, president of BVB’s official London fan club, adds one caveat on capped ticket prices, noting that Dortmund—who came close to bankruptcy in the early 2000s—still need to be able to raise extra income in times of emergency. He’s also keen to make sure that the committee process is as inclusive as possible. ‘I’d say yes to socially acceptable prices, but there just has to be an opening for the club to be able to define their pricing mechanism as needed at different times, based on different economic circumstances,’ he says.

Not long after Dortmund’s annual general meeting, fierce rivals Bayern Munich held an AGM which saw member Michael Ott try to force a vote on cutting the club’s commercial ties with Qatar over the state’s human rights record. When his attempt to lodge the motion was unsuccessful and Bayern president Herbert Hainer ended the AGM prematurely, board members were met with chants of ‘We are Bayern! You are not!’ and booed off stage before a member who had been waiting to speak delivered his speech to his fellow supporters while standing on a chair.

It’s this sort of fan power which makes the Bundesliga such a source of fascination in other countries, not least in the UK. Barring a few notable exceptions, German clubs ultimately have to respect the wishes of their members. If supporters want to limit what the club hierarchy can do in pursuit of profit, the choice is theirs. If they feel that they aren’t being listened to, they can take their protests straight to the board and make themselves heard loud and clear.

Other than at a select few supporter-owned clubs, fans in England—where football has long been treated like an unsupervised playground for the rich—have no such protections. Having triggered their long-awaited fan-led review of football governance in response to the European Super League debacle and received its findings last week, the government now has an opportunity to change that.

Despite stopping short of calling for the implementation of the 50+1 model—dismissing it as ‘not realistically achievable’ given the potential costs involved—the fan-led review’s recommendations might go some way to replicating the ethos of German football in England. Those recommendations include golden shares to protect club heritage, an independent regulator to improve financial oversight, shadow boards of elected supporter representatives, obligatory fan engagement and a strengthened owners and directors’ test, all of which are big wins for those who have campaigned for reform.

Naturally, there has to be the political will to follow up on those recommendations, and given the inherent fickleness of Boris Johnson’s government and the discomfort many Conservatives will feel at that level of regulation, that remains to be seen. With Premier League CEOs lining up to criticise the proposals—in direct conflict with the wishes of many of their supporters—the scramble to save English football’s status quo has already begun.

Whether it be Dortmund fans taking steps to safeguard the club’s future or Bayern fans making a stand on human rights, recent events in the Bundesliga show what football looks like when supporters are empowered. It’s no surprise that the Premier League’s corporate elite don’t like it. No matter how hard they push back in public and lobby behind the scenes, it’s evident that English football should have prioritised the needs of supporters over CEOs a long time ago. There has never been a better time to heed the lessons of German football.