The past 20 years have witnessed a dramatic rise of corporate interest in European football. Football clubs have transformed from being community-owned organisations to full-blown capitalist entities owned by individuals or companies who have nothing to do with the game. Before explaining the 50+1 rule, the consequences of this transformation and how it fits into today’s topic, it is important to understand the historical significance of football clubs. Or to be more precise, what exactly have football clubs historically meant to common people?

In many European households that support their respective local clubs, football is almost as important as religion. If you head down the streets of any European city and visit such a household, you’ll realise that club kits and flags are treated as sacred symbols and every home fixture calls for a pilgrimage, yes that’s the word, to the local stadium.

What makes it even more special is that in most cases, this football fandom is intergenerational. Many contemporary local fans can testify to the fact that their grandfathers also supported their local clubs. Hence, the support of a club can be characterised as a tradition which must be carried forward at all costs.

For such fans, and there are many of them, trophies and winning is secondary. What matters most is having a sense of stability and familiarity in life which is provided to them by their constant, life-long support for a football club and everything associated with it. A decades-old stadium, an enduring philosophy and a distinct culture hold much more importance than a trophy which is bound to rust sooner or later.

After considering this, it is fair to state that every football club exists for, and because of, its fans. If the fans were to boycott a club, no amount of financial jockeying would be able to save it from imminent collapse since no one would watch that team play. This undisputed and supreme bond between the fans and a football club is the bedrock of Bundesliga’s 50+1 rule.

German football has always respected and valued this fan culture. The Bundesliga has one of Europe’s highest average attendances for its games primarily because of low ticket costs. In fact, Germany’s respect for football fans is so immense that up until 1998, no private investment in football clubs was allowed at all. The clubs were run as non-profit organisations by fan groups. Even though private investment was allowed after 1998, the DFB (Deutsche Fußball Bund) devised the 50+1 rule to ensure that the interests of fans don’t become subordinate to capitalist enterprises. The rule basically states that in order to be eligible to compete in Bundesliga (German domestic league system), a club must give its members a majority stake (50% shares +1 share) in its financial structure.

The average annual membership fee is around 30 to 60 Euros. This means that any middle-class person in Germany can easily become a member of the local football club and influence its decisions. One of Germany’s best clubs, Borussia Dortmund, has over 150,000 members. What purpose does this rule serve? Since the members have a majority stake in the club, all potential operational decisions need to get passed by the club membership. This usually occurs through a process of voting.

A proposed policy is put up on the agenda and all members have the right to vote on it. Only if the vote is favourable can the proposed policy be implemented. The club president is elected using the same procedure. However, there is a caveat in this rule. If a company or an individual has funded a club for more than 20 years, they can acquire a majority stake in the club. VFL Wolfsburg (owned by Volkswagen) and Bayer Leverkusen (owned by Bayer) are notable examples of clubs where the respective companies acquired a majority stake after substantially funding these clubs for 20 years.

It is clearly evident that this rule stands for democratization and respects the pivotal role of fans in European football. Despite claims that this rule harms German football by depriving clubs of potential capital worth billions, German clubs have performed reasonably well at the highest stage. In fact, just a week ago, Bayern Munich lifted the UEFA Champions League which is the ultimate achievement for all European teams. However, the revolutionary scale of the 50+1 rule can be properly understood only when we compare the financial structure of German and Non-German clubs.

Let’s start with the team which took on Bayern in this year’s Champions League final. About 10 years ago, Paris Saint Germain was languishing at 13th place in Ligue 1 (France’s domestic league). It was facing considerable financial debts, had no marquee player and no discernible international fan base. Notwithstanding, its fortunes were about to change. In 2011, Qatar Sports Investment (QSI) acquired a majority stake in the club.

What’s interesting is that QSI, being a state-owned organisation is under the direct authority of Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, the ruler of Qatar. Hence, it won’t be far-fetched to claim that PSG is literally a capitalist extension of the state of Qatar. This takeover may have allowed PSG to win trophies and woo players like Beckham, Ibrahimovic, Neymar and Mbappe but it also meant that the power was concentrated in the hands of only one person who lives thousands of miles away from Paris with no direct link to the club’s culture. The fans of the club have no decision making power at all.

PSG is just one of the many examples where a football club has been taken over by capitalists who have no interest in the sport. One of the most famous clubs on the planet, Manchester United, is owned by The Glazer Family which is based in the United States of America. One of the members of this family openly admitted that it took him 3 years to wrap his head around the offside rule and that he still hadn’t fully understood it.

Another interesting story outlining the absurdity of capitalist expansion in football revolves around a Manchester City fan, Colin Shindler. He is a 71 years old professor of history who has been a lifelong fan of the club. Unfortunately, for most of his lifetime, Manchester City was overshadowed by its arch-nemesis and neighbour, Manchester United. So, in 1999, Shindler penned a book called ‘Manchester United Ruined My Life’, in which he spoke about his love for Manchester City and highlighted his frustration at United’s seemingly endless phase of dominance.

However, in 2008, Manchester City was acquired by UAE-based Abu Dhabi United Group. The owner of the group, Sheik Mansour, pumped in hundreds of millions of pounds into the club and completely transformed its stadium and training facilities. Within a short span of time, Manchester City had won their first Premier League title in 46 years and had developed an international fan base. Currently, Manchester City is one of the biggest clubs in the world and consistently performs better than Manchester United. Colin must be happy, right? Wrong. Instead, he wrote another book called ‘Manchester City Ruined My life’.

While it did not achieve as much publicity as its predecessor, the book outlined his disgust at the radical changes that Sheikh Mansour had made at the club. Even though Manchester City won trophies, Colin claimed that the decades-old philosophy and structures of the club had been dismantled and he felt a sense of disenchantment with the new project.

After considering all these examples, it is easy to appreciate the ethical basis of the 50+1 rule. However, it has had its fair share of problems. For starters, a German club called RB Leipzig was able to exploit a lot of loopholes to its benefit. RB Leipzig is owned by the Austrian soft drink giant, Red Bull. In order to bypass the 50+1 rule, RB Leipzig kept the annual membership fee so high (600 euros) that no rational person wanted to become a member.

As a result, for a long time, the club only had 17 members and all of them were Red Bull employees! So, RB Leipzig was under the direct control of a capitalist enterprise which is a big no-no in the eyes of German football fans and a clear dereliction of the spirit of the 50+1 rule. On top of that, this club has risen quite rapidly in German football and, in addition to being placed third in Bundesliga, was also a semi-finalist in the UEFA Champions League this season.

These achievements are amazingly remarkable especially after considering that RB Leipzig was founded only in 2009. Many critics of the rule, such as former Hannover 96 president Martin Kind, claim that it stops German clubs from competing at the top level against the best clubs of Europe. For these critics, RB Leipzig is the perfect symbol of the potential success that German clubs can achieve if the rule is lifted.

Apart from this argument, many critics claim that scrapping this rule will pull out a lot of clubs from the quagmire of financial insecurity. Nearly 13 out of the 36 clubs making up the top two divisions of German football almost went bankrupt due to the pandemic. This prompted Herbert Hainer, Bayern Munich’s president, to claim that the rule must be lifted as strong private investors will have the capability to bail German clubs out of such sticky situations; but the fans remain adamant and firm in their protection of this rule and any attempts to tweak it is met by fierce protests.

The chief executive of DFB, Christian Seifert, has suggested establishing a task force to investigate possibilities for any future change to the rule but no further action has been taken against it. The drama is just beginning and one can expect to hear about the 50+1 rule on a regular basis from now on as the debate around it intensifies.

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