The return of Mats Hummels to Borussia Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park highlights the widening gap between those long regarded as Bundesliga elite and their Premier League counterparts.
Television money and restrictive, although hardly egregious, ownership rules designed to ensure fans remain as such in the eyes of the clubs they support, and not assets from which to have every last euro(€) squeezed, have nevertheless seen Germany’s top flight giants become dwarfed by English football’s ownership model only restricted on a case by case basis by the ‘fit and proper’ test for prospective directors, now superseded by the Owners’ and Directors’ test, which seeks to prevent scenarios of those with directorship bans being able to purchase clubs, and install puppet boards to do their bidding.
When the system failed to overlap from one test taking the reins from its predecessor there resulted an inability to impose bans retrospectively; the high-profile case of Blackpool Football Club’s now former owner, and convicted rapist, Owen Oyston, qualifying to own a club under the old rules but not under the Owners’ and Directors’ test, which his then in situ position couldn’t be critiqued against, does not suggest the system is inherently flaw but highlights the inadequacy of the former vetting process and the unique set of circumstances, without precedent, that almost brought the Bloomfield Road-club to its knees, and portrayed the English Football League(EFL) as little more than a toothless members club.
German football fans have become accustomed to being viewed as assets to their clubs, as the collective twelfth man and aside from a few exceptions, having the whip hand over investors unable to hold more than 49% of a club. Has though this rigidity stymied growth, precipitating stagnation within both the Bundesliga and as a consequence, the German national side, and allowed the Premier League to disappear over the horizon?
The guiding principles of the 50+1 ownership model adhered to by a majority of Bundesliga sides – Bayer Leverkusen and Wolfsburg, in effect ‘works’ clubs with a founding history of corporate ownership are exempt – are enshrined to protect supporters from being exploited through the pursuit of profit by investors regarding football clubs as businesses first and foremost, and not institutions rooted in communities through the generations. Such exploitation could be in the form of exponential increase in matchday ticket prices or in a wider context the leveraging of debt against a club, whose supporters would end up servicing the repayments through price hikes at the turnstiles, effectively the ultimate test of loyalty and an indicator of just how far an owner can push a club’s fanbase.
Are German clubs now locked into what has for so long appeared to be a Utopian system, but now one that holds the reins too tightly for them to run, if only occasionally, with the European pack? Those watching in modern, fan-friendly surroundings and paying a fraction of Premier League(and Championship) ticket prices are unlikely in the short-term to demand a review, or even a wholesale change from the status quo; if though a single player transfer can magnify the utter distortion of a system that is for all intents and purposes a free for all, both in comparison to the Bundesliga and actuality, compared to a fan-centred, albeit conservative approach, again in comparison and reality, it is that of Mats Hummels’ return to Dortmund for close to £30 million – despite the centre-back now being surplus to Joachim Loew’s requirements.
With a guaranteed 81,000 through its doors on matchday Dortmund ticks all the ‘big club’ boxes but have signed their former player back from Bayern a season or more after Hummels passed his peak, a point in his career that had obviously escaped him before Germany’s disastrous World Cup 2018 showing in Russia. A signing seemingly more sentimental than rational, there are no obvious comparisons to Liverpool’s astute capture of Virgil van Dijk, whose £75 million price tag not only represents better value but showcases an upside to Fenway Sports Group’s complete control at Anfield, a scenario that is anathema to the current German model. It should also be noted that the six-times champions of Europe have a stadium capacity 27,000 less than Signal Iduna Park.
Is there an obvious case for the feasibility of a hybridized model that encapsulates the best of both worlds to be investigated, somehow reigning in Premier League excesses without critically watering down its high-octane product? There is a fine line to tread to encourage sustainable development but without the high risk attached to ephemeral boom and bust fuelled by disingenuous intentions or simply from an overzealous, but naive approach.
One suspects the respective modi operandi of the Premier League and Bundesliga will remain poles apart for some time yet although quite who will blink first, if at all, is hard to say. The glitz and superficiality of the English top flight panders to a generation of selfie-takers and those wanting to be seen at even the opening of a crisp packet; such people are not in short supply and will continue to justify sky-high ticket prices that see ‘football tourists’ replacing genuine, locally-based supporters in the stands. Although not without its own WAGS and those wanting to visibly append themselves to the matchday experience the Bundesliga’s comparatively holistic experience is a lot to give up, and has little, except for perhaps van Dijk, to envy the Premier League.
A lack of depth within Germany’s top flight is though a concern to both the domestic scene and national side, something that won’t necessarily be remedied by the likes of Dortmund and Schalke drawing in huge crowds who’ve paid little to watch their heroes. If an upgrade in domestic quality and success in Europe are to occur Germany’s 50+1 ruling will feel the pressure and could require reform. At the risk of creating a terminal disconnect with genuine supporters more concerned with seeing their team than being seen to do so and owners given freer rein to roll the dice without any guarantees of success, is such a price worth paying?
The Bundesliga’s philosophy has much to admire, but even as a non-Liverpool fan I know who I would rather watch between Mats Hummels and Virgil van Dijk. Ultimately, in such a microcosm lies the yawning divide between two interpretations of the same world, whose respective philosophies are in little danger of colliding any time soon.
Source material and further information: http://www.bundesliga.com/en/news/Bundesliga/german-soccer-rules-50-1-fifty-plus-one-explained-466583.jsp