Bayern Munich vs. Borussia Dortmund is supposed to be the Bundesliga’s answer to European football’s biggest fixtures, showcasing the best that German football has to offer in a global shop window.
It actually does it very well. In fact, it goes even further, offering a much more realistic and truthful reflection of German football in 2023 than the marketing experts behind the ‘Der Klassiker’ moniker probably ever intended.
On the pitch in Munich on Saturday evening, a goalkeeping howler led to Dortmund conceding three goals in ten first-half minutes, ending the game as a contest and setting Bayern on their way to a ninth home win in a row in this fixture, by a combined aggregate score of 37-8.
Dortmund may yet turn this title race around. They’re only two points behind with eight games to play. Crazier things have happened. But that’s not the point. Even if they do manage to win the Bundesliga for the first time since 2012, it will take a lot more than that to put them back on a level footing with Bayern Munich.
The gulf is simply too big, and will remain so. A decade of domestic dominance and regular deep runs to the latter stages of the Champions League will do that. It ensures that Bayern continually reap a greater share of prize money and broadcast revenue, and allows them to sell sponsorship (and indeed equity) for higher prices than Dortmund can command, let alone the rest of the league. The circle is as vicious and simple as that.
Would scrapping the 50+1 rule help?
So, what to do? Ask certain figures at the top of the German game, and certain influential tabloid media outlets, and the answer is to scrap the 50+1 rule, which stipulates that German clubs remain under the control of their members, preventing majority takeovers and therefore discouraging massive investment on the scale seen in England’s Premier League.
It’s an answer typical of late-capitalist modern football, and it would probably work to an extent. Superficially, at least. Qatar could buy Bayern, a Chinese consortium could buy Dortmund, and Jeff Bezos could take over Stuttgart. They could all pump in billions of euros and manufacture a title race, or even a Super League if you will. Are you not entertained?
The only problem: Unlike in England, where fans of Chelsea, Manchester City and Newcastle United have actively celebrated and welcomed their clubs being bought, or Spain, where support for the idea of a Super League remains strong, there’s simply no popular appetite for that in Germany.
On the contrary, rather than financial deregulation, the general tenor across the game is more regulation, more member control, and an even stronger commitment to the 50+1 rule.
Why? Because fans want to protect their affordable match tickets, their communal standing terraces, their vibrant fan culture and their clubs’ social engagement. They don’t want their clubs owned by nation states and billionaires. They watch the Premier League and they play against English clubs in the Champions League, and they don’t like what they see there.
That’s why, even with their team already 3-0 down on Saturday, and with the sporting and financial gulf between them and Bayern once again playing out before their very eyes, Borussia Dortmund’s traveling supporters took part in a pre-planned coordinated pro-50+1 protest, along with their Bayern rivals.
“Everyone is equal,” read the banner in the home end. “But some are more equal,” read the response from the away end, before both sets of fans demanded “proper implementation of 50+1!”
The banners referred to the recent German Football League (DFL) decision to retain 50+1 in its current form, but also to protect existing exemptions from the rule, namely VfL Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkusen.
If German football wants regulation, then regulate it
But perhaps the focus on 50+1 is missing the point somewhat. After all, it’s not Wolfsburg or Leverkusen who have won ten Bundesliga titles in a row. Even RB Leipzig only have a single German Cup, won on penalties, to show for Red Bull’s circumvention of league rules.Hoffenheim have contributed very little to the league, on or off the pitch.
Meanwhile, there’s ample evidence to suggest that clubs run according to 50+1 can compete if properly managed and supported. Eintracht Frankfurt won the Europa League last season in spectacular fashion, while 100% member-controlled Freiburg reached that German Cup final against RB Leipzig, who were incidentally hammered 3-0 at home by 100% member-controlled Mainz yesterday.
There were two further banners displayed on Saturday which were arguably of more relevance. “Future strategy: Sell out to investors…,” read the message from the Bayern fans, referring to the alternative DFL plan to boost investment in the league by selling equity in a sister company managing the league’s broadcast rights.
“… instead of sustainable solutions!” the Dortmund fans completed the sentence. What exactly those “sustainable solutions” are probably doesn’t fit on a banner. But it could feasibly entail a fairer redistribution of broadcast revenues, as detailed in proposals submitted to the league by fan groups back in 2020.
German football fans are calling for regulation, and perhaps that’s the answer: Regulate the sport.
What about Bayern Munich?
As for Bayern Munich, the perennial champions could yet turn out to be the most intriguing battleground in this ideological war over the future of German football, making the current soap opera surrounding the sacking of Julian Nagelsmann and the appointment of Thomas Tuchel look like child’s play.
Despite Bayern being a perfect example of how 50+1 can work (with lucrative sales of 8.33% stakes to Audi, Adidas and Allianz, yet an effective commitment to 75+1 enshrined in the club’s constitution), it’s no secret that Bayern’s club hierarchy would prefer to see the rule scrapped.
But they are also well aware that they have a vigilant and well-organized membership keeping a close eye on them ― not least since the club’s 2021 annual general meeting descended into chaos over the issue of the Qatar Airways sponsorship.
New club president Herbert Hainer was taken aback by that, learning the hard way that being the chief executive of Adidas is not the same as being the democratically-elected representative of 300,000 members of a football club.
By all accounts, communication has since improved in Munich. There is a dialogue between club and membership. But suspicions remain, particularly regarding the intentions of CEO Oliver Kahn, who has been engaged in a very public dispute with Lothar Matthäus this week over the nature of the “values” which the two club legends think Bayern Munich ought to represent.
All of this was on show to the world on Saturday. Perhaps “Der Klassiker” really is a perfect advert for German football after all.
Edited by: Matt Pearson