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Hannover supporters have been campaigning against a proposed takeover of their club all season. On Sunday, they face Wolfsburg, a club which relies on the ownership model Hannover fans reject.
The message from Hannover supporters has been clear all season: "Kind muss weg!" - "Kind must go!"
Ahead of their first home game of 2018, a 3-2 victory over Mainz, an estimated 2,000 fans of the newly-promoted Bundesliga side gathered on the city's central Opernplatz. Waving black flags and carrying a coffin representing "the death the people's game", they began a funeral procession towards the HDI-Arena as chants of "Kind muss weg!" echoed around.
The demonstration was the latest in a series of protests against the proposed takeover of Hannover 96 by local businessman Martin Kind, the club president since 1997 who has applied for an exception to German football's 50+1 ownership law.
The 50+1 rule states that a football club must retain 50 per cent of the shares in its professional football team, plus one share, thus preventing any other shareholder or entity from acquiring a majority stake. Exceptions are made for investors who can prove that they have "substantially funded a club for a continuous period of 20 years".
But Hannover supporter groups opposed to the takeover question whether Kind has fulfilled the necessary criteria and earlier this month submitted a 50-page document to the German Football League (DFL) detailing where they believe the 73-year-old falls short.
"The required level of support as outlined by the DFL's own guidelines isn't apparent to us," said Robin Krakau, a spokesman for the campaign group ProVerein1896 (Pro Club 1896). The group claims that Kind's support has been neither continuous nor substantial enough.
"Firstly, Herr Kind stepped down from the club presidency for a year [from 2005 to 2006] so his support hasn't been continuous. And secondly, DFL guidelines state that the annual financial investment must match that of the club's main sponsor, which we don't believe is the case either."
A decision from the DFL was expected by the end of last year but has been postponed following the submission of ProVerein1896's concerns - a boost for supporters who now expect a decision in February. "If the issue were so straightforward, and if Kind had fulfilled the criteria, there would be nothing else to check. So we're taking it as a positive sign," said Krakau.
By way of comparison, software mogul Dietmar Hopp has invested over €350 million ($435m) in TSG 1899 Hoffenheim over the past two decades to finance the village club's rise from the regional amateur leagues to the Bundesliga. Hopp was granted an exception to the 50+1 rule in July 2015.
"Of course we're not in favor of that either," said Krakau, "but Kind has only invested a fraction of what Hopp has put into Hoffenheim. We expect the DFL to adhere to their own guidelines. If Kind is granted an exception, it will set a precedent for others to follow suit based on smaller levels of investment, too."
Atmosphere boycott and protests
As part of the on-going protests, the usually vocal Hannover ultras have been refusing to sing at matches this season, despite Andre Breitenreiter's newly-promoted side starting well and establishing themselves in mid-table. But the atmosphere boycott hasn't gone down well in all quarters, with some sections of fans even chanting "ultras out!" in response to the silent "Kind muss weg!" banner.
Given the legal complexities involved, it has often been difficult for ProVerein1896 to generate popular support for the anti-Kind campaign among regular match-goers and convince them that the campaign isn't merely a radical ultra issue. But following the submission of supporters' concerns to the DFL, both media coverage and support has grown.
"The demonstration [before the Mainz game] was organized by the active fan scene but involved almost 2,000 people making their opposition known with creative banners and images," Krakau told DW. "It included a diverse mixture of fans from all areas of society. It wasn't just the ultras; it was a broad spectrum."
"The interest in 50+1 is growing and the fans are coming closer together. People are beginning to see the situation more critically than they did before."
VfL Wolfsburg – the Werksverein
While Hannover supporters are battling to maintain the 50+1 law at their club, fans 90 minutes down the road in Wolfsburg see things differently.
Both the city of Wolfsburg and its resident Bundesliga club exist purely because of German car manufacturer Volkswagen, the Wolves' main sponsor since 1952 and majority shareholder since 2007. Many of the city's 124,000 inhabitants work either directly or indirectly for Volkswagen and the plant itself employed 65,000 people as of 2015.
"Volkswagen, Wolfsburg and the football club are one," a supporter told DW on a recent visit. "The three are inextricably linked and they grow together. We are a Werksverein, a works team, from a workers' town. We're not untraditional; we have 70 years of working class tradition."
Nevertheless, despite the proximity most Hannover fans don't see the match against Wolfsburg as a derby, refusing to consider the company-owned club as a proper rival. That honor goes to Eintracht Braunschweig – the second division side who lost to Wolfsburg in last season's relegation-promotion play-off.
While it may not be a derby in the traditional sense, Hannover and Wolfsburg represent a clash of Bundesliga ownership models, and that's how the Hannover supporters want it to stay.