There’s a story that regularly does the round, that Arsenal introduced the first £100 ticket for a football match. It is untrue, for there is no £100 ticket (in that the very odd combination of events that would lead to a £100 ticket have never come about, and are unlikely to) but there’s no doubt that we have gone down a very different route from Germany.
As is regularly pointed out, the Champions of Germany, Borussia Dortmund, have a bigger stadium than any league ground in Britain, and include standing areas. As such the season tickets for the standing areas are much cheaper than any Premier League season tickets.
So why have things gone so differently in Germany? After all they have had their own problems with supporter behaviour, as has England, and they suffered a big decline in crowds culminating in very low numbers in the 1980s.
The German FA did indeed consider following the Thatcherite rulings of membership cards for everyone wishing to attend games (which ultimately was abandoned as a compulsory ruling because the technology wouldn’t work, but which now is commonplace for clubs like Arsenal), and all-seater stadia, but chose not to go down this route. In a statement that the Guardian recently re-ran, and which those in favour of standing areas often quote, “Football, being a people’s sport, should not banish the socially disadvantaged from its stadia, and it should not place its social function in doubt.”
This enabled the German clubs to adopt a different approach from England – with large membership associations run by supporters. Of course we have such associations in England, but they have little power. I am a member of Arsenal’s own membership organisation – a Gold Member no less – but that comes with my season ticket. Quite how many members Arsenal if you include the Red, Silver and Gold members I really don’t know. Maybe someone could tell me. But what I do know is that apart from the ability to get into matches, my membership doesn’t give me much power at all.
But it is not the same everywhere. Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkeusen have historically been the works teams of Volkswagen and the pharmaceutical company Bayer respectively, and Hoffenheim is owned by a software entrepreneur. Bayer however has, at least according to my history book, an extraordinarily awful past as part of the Nazi machine and is hardly an organisation to be held in respect. But perhaps that is best left for another article.
The companies that run the league clubs are majority owned by the member associations. Bayern have 185,000 members owning over 80% of the club.
Now we have had clubs in England owned by the members – I think back to Notts County for example. And what did they do? They gave their club away to a very dubious organisation that promised massive investment and which subsequently raped the club and left it on the edge of bankruptcy. (That’s a summary – I have told the story here before in fuller detail.)
In a very real sense the modern German clubs are like Royal Arsenal FC and Woolwich Arsenal FC – our club’s predecessors, where the members had a lot of say in the club, electing a committee which ran the club. It was only when the local population failed to support the club by buying shares in it to get the club out of financial trouble in 1910, abd when Henry Norris stepped in and paid off all the debts, that the club moved into the ownership of a small number of people. Arsenal, the most famous workers club in Britain, let a small group of people take over – although the result was the opposite of the Notts County disaster. Money poured into the club, and we moved from the Manor Ground to Highbury.
“Football clubs are social and cultural institutions and not just businesses like any other,” said Antonia Hagemann, head of European development at Supporters Direct. “Democratic structures mean clubs are run openly and transparently; boards are held accountable, there is a certain stability in place, ownership doesn’t change so democratically run clubs tend to follow a longer term vision.”
So why don’t we have anything like that in England?
The problem goes back to Margaret Thatcher and her famous speech of 1987 in which she put into words what many Conservatives had believed for years…
“There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.”
The opening phrase is the one that is remembered, and it was taken as the standard for the contemporary view that holds sway in Britain, and especially in the British media and British politics. Society, that amorphous thing that we really do know is out there but cannot touch, is (according to this right wing view) non-existent. Everything is down to the individual. It is up to the individual how he/she behaves, therefore legislation, the legal process and indeed all social process should be reduced to the individual. Social groups are meaningless, and so in law are given no special treatment. Clubs are just a bunch of individuals – let them get on with it.
If individuals cause problems inside and outside of football grounds, there is no point in looking for a social solution such as working to bring the supporters within the membership of the club, and give them real power – because the problem is not with the group, the crowd, or the mass, but with each individual within the mass.
Unsere Kurve, said: “German football is not perfect but we do not want to be like England, where the clubs are owned by one rich man who puts money in. That causes inflation and instability, and it is in the spirit of clubs for there to be democracy.”
Of course the German social solution – to think of supporters as meaningful groups rather than individuals, has not been a perfect solution, and clubs have gone near the brink – Dortmund for example – but generally the situation has worked, because people are involved.
“The Bundesliga is remaining true to its principles and maintaining its reliance on the factors which have made a decisive contribution to the success of the professional game in Germany in recent decades: stability, continuity and proximity to fans,” said Dr Reinhard Rauball, the German league association president.
For “proximity to the fans” read “involvement” and for “involvement” read the recognition that people behave both as individuals and as part of groups. You need to work with the groups – the social settings – as well as the individuals, if you wish to change the way things work.
But in Britain the “no such thing as society” model reigns supreme. It is always down to the individual person to decide to hold a pitch invasion or stay in his place. Thus groups can be discounted, and everything comes down to the individual. If the individual wants to buy and run a club as his plaything, then fine. Because the group, the society, in short the fans, don’t matter. Because they don’t exist. Football is not a people’s sport. It is a sport attended by individuals.
That is, to my mind, rubbish. Of course society exists. But without a change in mindset in Britain, it will continued to be discounted as a way of justifying right wing policy.