Does democracy make Germany better at football?

Does democratic ownership of German clubs help explain their success at football?

Joel Sharples
21 August 2014

Mario Götze/wikimedia

Germany’s superb performances during this year’s World Cup in Brazil have prompted the usual tired tropes from commentators and pundits. They tend to follow two well-trodden narrative arcs: either we are told that their success is due to their brutal efficiency and discipline, or they are compared to a finely-calibrated German automobile – a triumph of technique and engineering.

While these stereotypes of German exceptionalism may be comforting for an English media still struggling to come to terms with the vast gulf in standards between the English and German sides, there are other plausible factors that are rarely mentioned.

The Bundesliga’s ‘50+1 rule’, which ensures that clubs are majority-owned by their own fans*, has long been praised for delivering dramatically cheaper tickets, a stronger fan culture and more prudent financial management. The clubs’ presidents are accountable to their members and can be voted out – can you imagine Ivan Gazidis or Khaldoon Al Mubarak saying, “We do not think the fans are like cows to be milked. Football has got to be for everybody,” as former president of Bayern Munich Uli Hoeness said in 2013.

You can buy a season ticket at Bayern Munich (82% fan owned) for £67, as compared with £985 for the cheapest season ticket at Arsenal. In fact many Bundesliga games are so much cheaper that English fans can fly over to Germany and still pay less than watching their local club. Around 1,000 English fans actually do travel to watch Borussia Dortmund at every home game.

Furthermore the debt-ridden boom and bust tendencies of the Premier League, which saw clubs such as Portsmouth go from FA cup winners to financial ruin in the space of around three years, are barely anywhere to be seen. No Bundesliga club has ever faced insolvency since the league’s creation in 1963, as compared with over 50 insolvencies in English football since 1992.

But could Germany’s fan-ownership model also be a factor in the national team’s success? There are a number of reasons to believe it could. The focus on long-term stability over short-term profits means that clubs are less likely to assemble lavishly-paid ensembles of international superstars that will maximize their merchandising and television revenues. At Schalke 04, who finished third last season, the club’s constitution stipulates that it can’t sign a player for over £300,000 without the approval of the supervisory board, which includes fan representation. Policies such as these are borne out in the numbers of homegrown players in the Bundesliga: 60% as compared with 30% in the Premier League.

While we should be wary of a ‘British jobs for British footballers’ parochialism, the focus on bringing through young local talent has definitely given players the breathing space to develop. Of the 2012 German Under 19 first team, ten had already played first-team football in the Bundesliga. Mario Götze, scorer of the World Cup-winning goal, broke into the Borussia Dortmund team aged just 17 having come through their youth academy, and played 33 games to help them win the 2009-10 Bundesliga title. Had he been at Chelsea, for example, where the last player to break into the first team from the academy was John Terry around 15 years ago, he almost certainly wouldn’t have had the same opportunities.

Of course it’s no good providing opportunities for young players if the talent is simply not there, and a significant factor in generating this talent has been the huge investment in youth academies by German clubs. Since 2001 it has been mandatory for each of the 36 Bundesliga clubs to have a youth academy, and the requirements for these are the most stringent in Europe. At the same time the Bundesliga struck a deal with the German FA to funnel €700 million into the youth academy system over ten years. An interview with the Bundesliga’s CEO in The Observer highlighted the links between the 50+1 rule and the investment in young German talent: “The rule keeps clubs closer to their roots, their community and the central purpose they have […] The people who run the clubs very much have their roots here, and together with the [German FA] I guess we share one idea: that Germany should have world-class German players.”

The comparatively longer terms served by Bundesliga managers also gives it the edge over the Premier League, where managers that have been in their post for longer than a season are in the minority. This too stems from the ownership model – with Premier League clubs’ stock market value so tightly coupled with their performance on the pitch, investors will rarely tolerate a manager that is struggling to find his feet. Manchester United’s share price fell from $18 after Alex Ferguson’s retirement to $14.26 at the nadir of David Moyes’s reign, rising again to $18.78 after his sacking. When a football club is run as a PLC the share price takes precedence over allowing a manager to build a team for the future. Fans, on the other hand, tend to understand that it takes more than just a season for a manager to build a squad, win over the dressing room and implement their playing style, and will be more willing to give a manager time to settle in.

Although a hire-and-fire culture is pervasive in all European leagues, the Bundesliga tends to do better than most in giving managers a chance. This matters for the national side because it provides stability for young players that are coming through. Often young Premier League players who are liked by one manager can quickly find themselves out of favour and on the bench halfway through a season when a new manager comes in. Take Andros Townsend at Tottenham Hotspur, who had a strong start to the season under Andre Villas Boas and scored a spectacular goal on his full England debut in October. When Villas Boas was sacked in December following a few heavy defeats Townsend struggled to get a game under his successor, Tim Sherwood. Although he was ultimately ruled out of England’s World Cup squad through injury, in truth his season had already petered out by March due to Sherwood’s preference for the more predictable Gylfi Sigurdsson. When you consider that a record ten managers were sacked during the 2013-14 season, it’s easy to see why the Premier League is not a stable environment for young players to flourish.

Although it is by no means perfect, the German fan ownership model gives fans more of a say in how their club is run, providing a bulwark against the ruthless forces of the free market that have taken over the Premier League. It’s not German efficiency or Vorsprung Durch Technik that made them World Champions; it’s having a football league that is grounded in principles of democracy, cooperation and financial sustainability.

* The two exceptions are Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkusen, which originated as works sporting clubs owned by Volkswagen and Bayer respectively.


This article is part of the Modernise: de-privatise series.

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