Germany international Bernd Leno says fans who disrespect club investors are 'idiots' and wants the Bundesliga to welcome investment. His comments re-open familiar faultlines in the relationship between fans and owners.
Arsenal goalkeeper Bernd Leno had some tough words for German fans in an interview this week with football magazine Kicker. "How stupid are we in Germany?" the former Bayer Leverkusen stopper asked, regarding the ongoing debate between fans and club owners over outside financing in the Bundesliga.
Leno spoke out against what he perceives to be a lack of respect towards investors, whose resources he believes ultimately benefit clubs and their communities.
The German national keeper noted the outpouring of support for Leicester City club owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, who recently died in a helicopter accident at the club's home stadium. In contrast, Leno says, "some idiots, who are not fans to me," in the Bundesliga choose to insult club investors, such as Hoffenheim's Dietmar Hopp (see the banner held by Borussia Dortmund fans, top).
Leno's criticisms touch at the heart of the Bundesliga's most antagonistic relationship: fans and owners. At the root of fan hostility is the debate over money and the development of the German game.
Germany's football financing structure is very different to those in England, Spain, France and most other top leagues for one main reason: the 50+1 rule. It stipulates that a club must retain 50 percent of the shares in its professional football team, plus one share. This rule has allowed the Bundesliga to shield itself from foreign firms and individuals buying a club overnight, much like the late Vichai did with Leicester City.
Fan organizations fiercely advocate for the 50+1 rule and, earlier this year, clubs voted to retain it. Fans have also opposed owners who get exemptions to the rule, as Hoffenheim's Hopp successfully did. Last year, they mounted an active campaign to prevent Hanover club owner Martin Kind from obtaining the exemption.
Fundamentally, fans see themselves as a pillar of the game and believe moneyed interests pose a threat. They believe outside investors bring commercialization of the game and fear that a system like that of the Premier League would raise ticket prices and price 'real' fans out of games.
Investor money could help smaller clubs
Proponents of opening up the league to investors say that it can help smaller clubs improve their standards and become more competitive within their leagues. Arguably, Vichai's increase in funds contributed to Leicester's improbable Premier League win in 2016.
Rob Wilson, football finance expert at Sheffield Hallam University, agrees. "The Bundesliga is one of the least competitive leagues in Europe," he told DW. In his view, the lack of investment is a reason for it.
Wilson concedes that more money leads to commercialization and makes big clubs even bigger, but he says research shows that owner investment also helps regenerate weaker clubs and their communities.
"A gradual move away from 50+1 rule would actually be beneficial to smaller clubs," he concludes.
Wilson disagreed with the notion that all fans in the Bundesliga are unified against bigger investors. Though he lacks data to support this, he is willing to bet that it is organized fans, or ultras, who oppose more money in football, but other match-going fans would probably support it, if it improved their club's standards.
Wilson says his research has found no evidence that greater investor involvement leads to a worsening fan experience. Instead, he argues that attendances in England's top flight are high, with stadiums consistently 96 percent full. "Ticket prices did increase since the PL opened up to investors, but the rate of growth has slowed since 2012."
Stability versus growth
Just as owners can transform clubs for the better, they can also run them to the ground. Wilson admitted that fan's fears of bad investor practices are real. But he argues that while the 50+1 rule shields clubs from this risk and creates a more stable environment than in the UK, it also stifles growth.
As German clubs shun or hold back investors, they are sacrificing the opportunity to transform their clubs and in turn, the Bundesliga lags behind its European counterparts, he suggests.
Phillip Herpel, spokesman for FC Köln fan organization 100%FC and part-time lecturer at the German Sport University of Cologne, challenged Wilson's stance. "There is no proven correlation between increased capital injection and sustainable success."
“It might result in a short-term higher likelihood, that is for sure. But in the end, it [club success] is rather a matter of professional management structures and considerate decision-making," Herpel added. On the contrary, he argues, throwing money at problems is often a surefire way to ensure that it ends up being spent unwisely.
Bottom line, for the fans who invest time and money in their clubs, the game is more than just the competition itself. It is culture, it is a way of life and one that is more important than winning or loosing, or the continental supremacy of a league.