German football is at a crossroads | Sports| German football and major international sports news | DW | 22.12.2017
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German football is at a crossroads

The Bundesliga is booming and profits continue to rise. However, not everyone is happy. More and more fans are unhappy about how things are developing and the future of the "people’s game" is more uncertain than ever.

The sound engineers in the Olympic Stadium in Berlin rushed to turn the television microphones right down as deafening whistles and boos rang through the historic arena. Midway through the German Cup final in May, Eintracht Frankfurt and Borussia Dortmund supporters made their feelings about the German football association's (DFB) halftime show quite clear as German pop star Helene Fischer's performance was all but drowned out.

"It's got absolutely nothing to do with the cup final," raged Frankfurt board member Fredi Bobic. "The supporters don't want to have to listen to that at halftime."

The jeering at the cup final marked a high point in a year of fan protests, a depressing symbol of the gulf that has emerged between those in charge and the grassroots.

"Football supporters see themselves as active protagonists at games, not as passive consumers waiting to be entertained. But that's not how many football functionaries see it," Sig Zelt, a spokesman for supporter organization ProFans told DW.

"I believe that active football supporters contribute to the attractiveness of the event. People go to matches to experience the atmosphere – and that comes from the fans."

Many supporters don't feel that their clubs or the football association take them seriously and the protests have been growing by the year. Flags, banners and chants condemning the DFB have become as much a part of German football as the 22 players on the pitch.

DFB Pokal Finale 2017 | Eintracht Frankfurt - Borussia Dortmund (picture-alliance/SvenSimon/E. Kremser)

Helene Fischer's appearance didn't go over well with Frankfurt and Dortmund fans

Attending matches made difficult

Supporters are quite clear about what they don't like, with unsociable kickoff times late on Sunday or on Monday evenings making it almost impossible for some fans to attend matches.

"When games are moved for TV, it means that many fans are then unable to support their team at away matches," Bernd Sautter, spokesman for FC PlayFair, a German fan culture initiative, told DW. What's more, with general sale ticket prices ranging from 40-70 euros ($47-82), an increasing number of fans prefer to stay at home or watch the game in the pub.

The commercialization of the "people's game" has been marching on for years. Advertising, light shows, halftime entertainment, sponsors for corners, cards, subs and the announcement of the attendance – all have long since become normal in German stadiums. Bayern Munich even attached mini-cameras to the players' giant beer glasses during their title celebrations in May – anything to give a sponsor greater visibility.

But the fans are increasingly being left behind. "It's a development that is encouraged by the market since sponsorship is only lucrative when it reaches a large audience," Sautter explained. "But it's not a positive development for the game itself."

This estrangement of clubs and their fans is only being exacerbated by astronomical wages and transfer fees.

Parallel worlds

"Incredible amounts of money are spent at the top of the game," admitted Stuttgart left back Dennis Aogo in an interview with German public broadcaster NDR. "The players are drifting further and further away from the fans. They live in parallel worlds."

FC Barcelona Präsentation von Neuzugang Ousmane Dembele (picture-alliance/dpa/M. Fernandez)

The price paid for Dembele is incomprehensible to the average fan

Stars such as Paris Saint-Germain's Neymar command €220-million transfer fees while Barcelona paid Borussia Dortmund €100 million for French starlet Ousmane Dembele. Both are on huge wages at their new clubs.

"The worlds in which they live are fundamentally different," Sautter agreed. "The unbridled money-making is putting a lot of fans off."

In a study conducted by FC PlayFair, 86.3 percent of the 17,000 fans surveyed described player salaries and transfer fees as being "out of touch with reality."

But for Sig Zelt, the incomprehensible wages earned by some professionals is only one part of the problem.

"When they earn such huge sums of money, some players' personalities change," he said, adding that some begin to exhibit similar behavior to mercenaries.

"One minute they're getting a tattoo of the club's logo and the next thing you know, they've handed in a transfer request."

The biggest mistakes come in spells of success

Hardcore fans may be getting fed up, but Bundesliga stadiums are still full most weeks with an average attendance of 44,000 – 92 percent of capacity.

"Along with England's Premier League, that's the best in Europe," said Christian Seifert, the managing director of the DFL, which operates the Bundesliga. He also predicted that the league would achieve its "highest turnover ever" this season. But appearances can be deceiving and the biggest mistakes can be made when you're at your most successful, as former Bundesliga coach Felix Magath once put it.

DFB Pokalfinale Borussia Dortmund Fans (picture-alliance/dpa)

You'll be hard pressed to find an atmosphere like this in the Premier League

"That's exactly what's happening," Sautter said. "The stadiums are still full but for how long?"

The 51-year-old is concerned about the replication of "English problems" in Germany. Premier League stadiums are also largely full but, with no standing terraces, no flags and little singing; the atmosphere leaves much to be desired in comparison to the Bundesliga.

"Many young fans never actually attend games in England," Sautter explained. "They can't afford the ticket prices and, even if they could, the matchday experience has been completely sterilized."

Protecting traditional values

It's not quite that bad in the Bundesliga yet, where fans from all over the world can still enjoy the atmosphere, choreographies and the emotions generated largely by the hardcore, active fans on the terraces. Indeed, for ProFans spokesman Zelt, football clubs often perform a social function, and he would like to see this remain the case for future generations.

FC PlayFair has even gone as far as to apply for special UNESCO protection for German fan culture as "intangible cultural heritage" – a status already enjoyed by the Cologne Carnival, for example.

"Over the past 100 years, football has developed into a cultural asset which we need to protect" Sautter said. "We want to demonstrate that in Germany, football is part of our culture."

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