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Why the German approach in football can’t work in England

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.”

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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.

12 comments to Why the German approach in football can’t work in England

  • arsenal4ever

    Bayer and Nazi? you cunt really know your stuff. What a shit post and site that is. Rott in hell you bastard.

  • insideright

    Back to the subject – in his opening remarks to supportets groups recently Ivan Gazidis stated that Arsenal views itself as ‘a sports and social club’. That self view governs how it is run and is fundamental to the policy of custodianship by which the current Board operates.
    When that Board is replaced (as is inevitable) that view might change. Certainly having someone more used to American sport would make that pretty certain. But FFP seeks to push everyone in th direction of custodianship anyway – dampening down the inflation in the process.
    I’m sure that all of the American owners in the EPL will want to see how that works out before trying anything new.

  • nicky

    A raw nerve was touched there, I think. Judging by the ignorant abuse.

  • Shakabula Gooner

    Without pandering, it does seem as if the Germans know how to strike the balance between private and public ownership as well as the right balance of motivation and work ethic within any ownership structure. It took my comparative economics teacher long ago to point out thet even under socialism, the East German model, bad as it turned out to be by the time the wall came down, worked best of all.

    By implication therefore, the German model is very unique to the German people: it can be envied or put up for others to review and rival but I agree that others should try to evolve something unique to them too.

    In this respect, I think we should count Arsenal lucky as fans. Over time it have evolved perhaps the best English model of all: a benevolent private ownership structure that looks more to the appreciation of share value than annual dividend pay outs for shareholder value and therefore that insists on the profitability discipline and its business outlook and reinvestment in stadium, better training facilities and such long term value enhancers as its main focus for re-investments.

    Eventually, it will be possible to pay shareholders reasonable annual dividends but the Arsenal reinvestment and profitability culture as well as FFP makes the Arsenal model the most stable English model to date.

  • Shakabula Gooner

    Sorry about the garbled statement somewhere in my previous posting. I meant to define the Arsenal model as:

    “a benevolent private ownership structure that looks more to the appreciation of share value than annual dividend pay outs for shareholder value. And that therefore insists on the profitability discipline in its business dealings and reinvestment (in stadium, better training facilities and such other long term value enhancers) as its main focus for re-investments…”

  • colario

    ‘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.’

    Mrs Thatcher belonged to a group (a society) and led this group and eventually led the country by means of this group.
    She demanded loyalty to her from this group, but when it suited her as an individual she was disloyal to the group.

    When it came to the Falklands War she appealed to the loyalty of the national group and yet she showed little loyalty to the nation.

    Sadly she was allowed to perpetrate her practice into football.

    Without the loyalty of the supporters group, football clubs exist as teams may be but not clubs. The problem for British football is anyone, anyone individual can take over a club and destroy it. This has to be stopped.

    History has shown when you have a dictator you have a despot it is rare you have a saint.

    Silent Stan is the majority shareholder in Arsenal he may well be the exception that proves the rule, let’s hope so. However we Arsenal supporters (whether we are directly involved with the club or cannot even get to matches) are members of the Arsenal community. Players, staff come and go it is we who remain permanent. It follows that we be the ones to determine the future of the club.

    The theory that there is no society only individuals is only ever expressed by dictators.

  • GoingGoingGooner

    I played for a club in Germany and it was more than a ‘football’ club. We socialised together, we took holidays together (Oktoberfest one year was quite memorable…from what I remember), we participated in local events (marshalling the local marathon) and supported town festivals by our presence.

    My impression is that the German football pyramid has tried to keep the idea and practice of the local Verein.

  • Adam

    “But perhaps that is best left for another article”.
    @Mr Attwood, Sir I dare you.

  • ATAF

    you can’t see or reach out and touch society, and it is too big for an individual to have an effect on. Only large organisations like the goverment can have an effect on it as a whole so does it exist to me as an individual? Only as a concept.
    Further more I think Thatchers speech is being taken out of context as it is trying to empower the individual and give them an identity and thus stand out from the masses, where as football is about belonging and becoming something more than an individual so direct comparisons should be ignored as you have already stated football is different to any other business or politics.
    Would Arsene Wenger have thrived in the Bundesliga with Bayern Munich as he has in the premier league?

  • Pat

    ATAF, I see Mrs Thatcher’s ‘There’s no such thing as society’ differently.
    She was claiming every person, every family, should be responsible for themselves.
    But human society has never been run on that basis.
    Human beings have always had to cooperate to find the means to survive. Cooperative work gave rise to language, for example.
    Mrs Thatcher’s words were simply a justification for all the policies that have been followed ever since, of running down public services and selling them off to private enterprises to make profits out of them.
    As a result we have more expensive gas, electricity, water, housing, transport, health provision – the list goes on. More expensive and not better.
    Even football is a good deal more expensive. And you have to pay to watch most of what is on television as well.

  • elkieno

    Bauer do share an association with the Nazis way back then. Not made up Tony isn’t making it up at all, but better left not talked about maybe.

  • jake

    @ pat in the uk you have to pay to watch anything on tv even “free view”

    as for your other points i believe its called tribalism(capitalism) just as you come across in the sopranos or say Somalian pirates (i’m agreeing with you)