China’s under-20 team will soon be able to hold regular friendlies against German fourth tier sides, triggering protests by clubs and fans alike. The plan is a grave miscalculation by the DFB, argues DW’s Felix Tamsut.
All but five of the 19 Regionalliga Südwest clubs have confirmed they are willing to play China's under 20s as part of the latter's preparations for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, securing a 15,000 euros payment from German football's governing body in the process. The league is currently lacking one club, and the DFB's idea is that the team that's out of action on a given matchday will play against the Chinese instead of having a week off. The matches will be held as friendlies and no points will be awarded to the winning team.
Waldhof Mannheim, TuS Koblenz, Stuttgarter Kickers and Mainz's reserve team have announced they are not willing to take part, with 1. FC Saarbrücken requesting time to consider the club's options.
Quite a few German clubs have already voiced their objection to the move. Some even labeled it as "pure capitalism” and "a horror story.” Fans of ten Regionalliga clubs have written an open letter to the German FA, asking it to "meet your responsibilities to clubs, players and fans… and stop the further sellout of football.”
Locality matters in Germany
Germany as a country takes pride in its many local traditions, dialects and habits. That cultural and social setup also includes club football, which many Germans see as a modern way of expressing those that pride in one's town or region. These emotions tend to be even stronger in the lower leagues, where the prospect of television exposure and international fans is significantly smaller.
The DFB's plan to involve a Chinese side in a lower league stands in complete contradiction to that ideal. Clubs in the region will now feel hard done by, including those who were relegated from Germany's fourth tier last season. FK Pirmasens, a local club based in Rheinland-Palatinate, finished 14th in last season's Regionalliga Südwest, meaning they were the last of six clubs to be relegated to the fifth tier of German football. The club has already appealed against the decision to include a Chinese team as the league's 20th club instead of a local one. The club's chairman rightly pointed out that the league's name litearlly means "Regional League Southwest," and weekly games against an opposition from the other side of the planet would all but nullify the regional connection.
Fans and DFB at collision course
While the move is hardly the only connection between German football and China, approving it rather than opting to include a local team in Germany's fourth tier seems like one step too far in the attempts to introduce German football to new markets, even when the fact matches will be held as friendlies is taken into account.
It comes as relations between German football fans and the DFB seem to be at a low point. It was only a couple of months ago that the DFB were heavily criticized for including a show by German popster Helene Fischer during the DFB Pokal final half time, triggering whistles from both the Eintracht Frankfurt and Borussia Dortmund fans. The DFB's repeated fining of clubs due to fan behavior isn't helping, either.
The German footballing nation is drawing plaudits worldwide due to the national team's success in recent tournaments, most notably the World Cup win in 2014, with the Bundesliga gaining popularity abroad by the year. But the DFB must not forget the vital role that local clubs and fans are playing in giving German football much of its appeal. If they do, that appeal will rapidly diminish.