The decline of English football: a German perspective

Dietmar Hopp

Dietmar Hopp, backer of TSG 1899 Hoffenheim (Image via Wikipedia)

Regular readers will be under no illusions that I have a very low opinion of the state of English football. In my opinion, it is far too commercialised, bloated, devoid of atmosphere and passion, weighted far to far in the direction of the wealthy few, inaccessible to ordinary working people. Its virtually at the point of eating itself. Its not even as if the overpaid, overhyped players we are told to idolise are really any good – witness South Africa earlier this summer.

By contrast, I’ve been to a few football matches in Germany over the years, and the contrast is striking. 90 minutes spent on the terraces at Borussia Monchengladbach is like going back 20 years to the uncovered, terraced Fratton End. Not just in terms of architecture, but in terms of the culture, and the experience. Why is this so? How has our national game declined to such a pathetic level, whilst in Germany it is thriving?

Ownership and Management

Lets just take a look at the ownership of the 20 Premier League clubs – the vast majority are owned solely by wealthy foreign oligarchs, people who have little or no understanding of football or English society. Rich person’s playthings. By comparison, the majority of clubs in Germany are just that – clubs. Not only football clubs, but full blown sporting clubs, with amateur, junior and womens teams, athletics, basketball, and all kinds of other sports – Unterhacing’s logo is a bobsleigh, as the club also has a winter sports heritage. Bayern Munich, the biggest club in Germany, has 162,187 members. The football part of the club is run by a spin-off company, of which 81.82% is owned by the Club itself, and 9.09% each by Adidas and Audi. The club is not listed on the stock exchange, so is therefore a private company controlled by the members of the club.

There are several German clubs that do not follow the club principle. Bayer Leverkusen are supported heavily by the Bayer pharmaceutical company. Although the club started as a social club for Bayer employees in the town, many fans of other German clubs consider Bayer Leverkusen to be an ‘artificial’ club. Ironically, however, perhaps the most prominent example in Europe of an artifical club is that of 1899 Hoffenheim. A fifth flight club in 2000, Hoffenhiem made a remarkable rise to the top rung of the Bundesliga ladderr in 2008, helped along the way by the wealth of software magnate Dietmar Hopp. The club only turned fully professional in 2007-08. Hoffenheim and Hopp have been roundly criticised in Germany, even being referred to as 18.99 Hoffenheim. The village of Hoffenheim only has 3,000 residents.

Schalke 04 were once known as perhaps the most down-to-earth, working class club in Germany. Hailing from the heavily inustralised Rurh city of Gelsenkirchen, in recent years Schalke has evolved into a slick business operation, with a brand new 60,000 stadium. Disturbingly, in in 2006 Schalke announced a link-up with the Russian energy giant Gazprom, who also own and sponsor Zenit St Petersburg. Gazprom apparently intend to invest up to 125million Euros over 5 years, something that has been seen as an attempt to gain political influence in Germany. It’s sad indeed for such a proud, cultural club to turn its back on its roots.

Although FC St Pauli are often held up as an example of a working class club with a strong fan culture, this reputation has almost become a victim of its own success, with thousands of random people around the world deciding that they are St Pauli fans. Whilst it is OK to go along with the ideals and the culture, I cannot help but feel that an English person randomly deciding to support St Pauli ‘because everyone else does’ is like a Londoner supporting Man Utd. Why St Pauli? Pick a different team!

But these examples aside, German clubs are overwhelmingly exactly that – clubs. Clubs are viewed by the size of their membership. The differences with English football are not just in ownership. In German football Clubs are often run by former players (it is not hard to come to the conclusion that English footballers, on the whole, are too intellectually challenged to run a hot dog stand, let along a football club). Figures such as Franz Beckenbauer, Karl-Heinz Rumenniegge and Uli Hoeness, and more recently Jurgen Klinsmann and Rudi Voller moved not only into team management, but also club management. Club boards are also larger, and made up with a far more balanced membership, from a wide range of backgrounds. Not just the rich owners handpicked flunkies.

Fan Culture

Not only is German football different in terms of the bigger issues. I have often felt that English football has sold its soul and fogotten the very people who made it so special – the gate-paying, ordinary working fans. Now, you have to sit down and shut up. Even at Portsmouth, ‘fans’ (no doubt called Norman or something like that) complain about the noise of the singing and the drums, or when someone stands up in front of them. A club with any bollocks would tell them to stick their season tickets somewhere uncomfortable. When did English football get so soft? (see Taylor report). Fans are no longer supporters, but customers. Fans have no real stake in the club, and are there only to be exploited and taken for granted. Clubs do nothing to encourage atmosphere, or stimulate passionate support. Spectators of English football are as removed from events on the pitch as a cinema goer is from the film on the screen.

I would like to see somebody complain about standing or excessive noise on the Nordkurve at Monchengladbach. At a German football match atmosphere is appreciated and encouraged. Tickets are cheap. Huge flags and banners and singing are encouraged. Many fans will be full members of the club, so are not just spectators, but really are part of the whole club experience. No wonder they are more likely to get more involved and more passionate about events on and off the pitch. At Monchengladbach there is a Fan Haus (Fan House) a few hundred yards from the ground. Decked out in flags and memorabilia, it is essentially a hub for supporters, selling beer but also putting on live music, and surrounded by food and clothes stalls. I know of nothing like it in English Football.

In England, the supporters clubs are normally run by eccentric bearded gentlemen, often called Roger or Norman. Their most important contribution to the operation of the club is giving their opinion on the number of toilets, or the quality of the meat pies at half time. You cannot help but feel that the Football Clubs view them as a nuisance. At Pompey we have the Supporters Club, the Independent Supporters Club, and now a Supporters Trust. The next step will probably be a supporters club branch from the People’s Front of Judea.

Whereas in Germany, the Fan Club is a real powerhouse. Although independent from the clubs themselves, the supporters clubs have real influence over what goes on. Most German clubs also employ fans liaison officers, who play a significant part in looking after supporters, both home and away. When I worked in youth politics some time ago, I came across something called the ladder of participation. At the bottom of the ladder, you are standing there watching; powerless. Whereas nearer the top, you are in the thick of the action, playing a part in what is going on. No prizes for guessing where on the ladder I place English and German football respectively.

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21 Comments

Filed under debate, social history, Uncategorized

21 responses to “The decline of English football: a German perspective

  1. John Erickson

    Okay, time for the bloody Yank to show his ignorance! Is there any kind of “feeder” series, where younger athletes train and learn team play before graduating to the “majors”? I’m drawing from both US football and baseball. For football, we have high school (grades 9-12) and college teams. For baseball, we have so-called AA and AAA “farm teams”. Both of these setups “feed” players into the highly commercialised, often over-hyped NFL and MLB teams seen on TV. Many fans I know state that college football and AAA baseball offer far better competition, new talents without attendant egos, and an affordable fan experience. (NFL and MLB teams often charge dozens of dollars for a single game; season tickets can run into the thousands for good seats with a first-rate team. By comparison, college football and AAA baseball can cost less than $100 for season tickets, again depending on team quality.) Forgive me my ignorance. While an Anglophile of the first order, sports has never been high on my priority lists.

  2. James Daly

    In terms of English football, kids generally start playing competitively at the age of 10. The good ones will be identified and plucked by the big clubs, and the ones who are good enough at about 16 will be given an apprenticeship. Some young players come through the ranks and play their careers with one club, but thats rare. Most end up moving around, dropping down the leagues if they can’t cut it in the Premier League for example.

    Some of the lower leagues are more accessible, more enjoyable and more honest. Portsmouth are now in the Championship (second rung) and its a more honest, more real and more enjoyable experience all round. Its more gutsy, and theres generally less diving and play acting. But on the whole, English Football has sold its soul and its really sad.

    • John Erickson

      Your description does sound an awful lot like the differences between the various American “feeder” levels and the “big leagues of Major League Baseball and the National Football League. And it sounds like the same problem – money. I’m unfamiliar with “soccer” paychecks, but both our football and baseball have players commanding outrageous salaries, which are linked to the performance of the team, which (quite like Formula 1) depends on sponsorship money to buy the best talent, and so on in a destructive spiral. I know the MLB has tried salary caps, but they haven’t seemed to work. I’m not sure what to suggest – I’m FAR more into auto racing than any other sport, and I’ve seen both American NASCAR and Formula 1 struggle with rocketing costs to no avail. We’ve even tried a couple variations on American football, Arena Football and the XFL, which both flopped miserably.
      Help, X! Can you back me up here, buddy? :)

      • James Daly

        salaries in English football are exorbiant – 6 figures sums PER WEEK are common. Its the wage bills that cripple clubs – under pressure to over-achieve, clubs splash out on prima donnas with expensive salaries regardless of whether the ‘income’ column justifies it. There is no incentive for clubs to balance their books or live within their means; the culture of the Premier League is all about chasing the impossible and to hell with the consequences

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  4. x

    When I was chair of the local Sea Cadet unit we did a bucket collection at the local premier soccer club. As somebody legally responsible for the 2 instructors and 12 cadets taking part I found it to be an absolutely terrifying experience. You could smell the hate in the air.

    Um. On a tangent one of my odd passing interests at the moment is watching how soccer professional values are invading rugby union. If it isn’t continentals “acting” it is the increasing levels of back chat. I am though quietly confident that as rugby will never grow to the same levels as soccer (all though this afternoon’s Quins London Irish game had well over 70,000 spectators) so the commercial pressures will never be as great.

    I think rugby union seems to appeal to a better class of person. ;)

    • John Erickson

      Isn’t that because the worse class of people get slaughtered and eaten? Or am I thinking of Australian rules football? :D

      • x

        Ozzie rules is a good game that deserves a wider audience.

        I wouldn’t say this in front of James but I think the idea of soccer as the games of the masses in the UK is a bit of myth. ;)

        • James Daly

          It was back in the 40′s and 50′s, during the boom years when everyone would go to the football on a Saturday afternoon. Pictures from Fratton Park back then show thousands of men in cloth caps, many of them dockyard workers having clocked off after a mornings work. Those days are long gone now though.

        • John Erickson

          Please don’t say the game of the masses is cricket! I’ve studied sub-atomic particle physics, and I STILL can’t make sense of cricket!

          • James Daly

            I’ve been watching it for a few years and there are still rules I don’t understand! The long-play strategy and thought involved appeals to me though, and although it has got more histrionic of late, there is still a level of respect and class about it.

          • John Erickson

            That’s why I love you guys! Any country that can think that 4 battleship guns in a canoe is a good idea would NATURALLY love cricket! Then again, we came up with the natural cure for insomnia – baseball. Maybe you guys DID get the better end of it! :D

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