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The delusion of English football fans

Manchester United fans protest but those who believe the German 50+1 system will bring equality (right) are misguided - Credit: Offside via Getty Images

English football supporters are deluding themselves over fan power and the idea that the Bundesliga is more even than the Premier League.

What do you imagine upset the Glazer Brothers more – their football team across the pond being prevented from playing on Sunday, or the Monday morning hit to the Manchester United share price on the New York Stock Exchange?

I ask with no conviction at all that the Glazers even bother to tune in to games, but darned certainty that they watch every cent by which their billion-dollar stake moves on the market. Because that is what they, and probably other foreign owners of European soccer clubs are: Remote venture (or vulture) investors. 

Any “victory” attributed to the thousand or so fans who invaded Old Trafford, causing the biggest game in the world that day to be called off, is Pyrrhic. What really caused the cancellation was the breach of Covid precautions inside the stadium and the consequent health risk to players who were held behind police lines at their hotels.

Fan power in this sense is delusional. I had similar misgivings about reports attributing the climbdown by the European Super League plotters to Chelsea fans massing outside Stamford Bridge the previous Monday. Yes, the people are angry, some potentially violently so. Their game is being taken from them.

They might think they won the day. But the Americans holding the purse strings at United, Liverpool and Arsenal, the Russian at Chelsea, the Abu Dhabi royals at City, and even the locals running Real Madrid and Juventus will plot again and again because greed – and need – drives them.

With the exception of the lout who slashed the policeman’s face with a broken bottle in Manchester, most fans drawn to protest are as delusional as those who Donald Trump sent to storm the Capitol.

Even after a year of being kept outside the grounds, their second homes in many cases, the English, the Germans, the Italians and Spanish have a sense of entitlement over football.

I have sons who were born that way. It doesn’t have to be a Liverpool or a ManUtd. Luton Town FC, for heaven’s sake, holds the same infancy-to-manhood power over the youngest.

But where is Utopia? Which league actually gives back to the paying customers?

Many say Germany because the Bundesliga has a charter, called the 50+1, that on paper gives the fans the last percentage point in voting rights. It’s a laudable attempt that has existed since 1998 to prevent private ownership pricing the supporters out of their seats (or standing spaces because one freedom German spectators still enjoy is terracing in their stadiums).

Borussia Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion is arguably the most atmospheric ground in Europe, its 24,454-capacity standing terrace in the south stand, the Gelbe Wand or Yellow Wall is a match for the old Spion Kop at Liverpool on a big European night.

A Manchester United fan holds a 50+1 sign during anti-Glazer protests outside Old Trafford – Credit: Photo by Andy Barton/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Raucous, fanatical, yet fair. These are the salt of the earth sections of major stadiums that literally set the pulses racing. And make players run beyond normal limits.

We have witnessed Dortmund come back from economic ruin to possibly the most thriving promotion of youth in Fußball, even if they do pay what it takes to lure other countries’ fledglings to their club.

That youth project is in part determined by losing their best players to the power that is FC Bayern München. Who knows, Jürgen Klopp might never have left Dortmund after winning the Bundesliga title in successive years had the mighty Bayern not stolen Mario Götze from him in 2013 and then Robert Lewandowski the following year.

That put paid to BVB – or anyone – troubling the Bavarians in domestic German football. München is on the cusp of a ninth consecutive Bundesliga crown, and a huge power in the Champions League at the same time.

No club beats Bayern at converting playing expertise into management. Franz Beckenbauer, Uli Hoeness and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge ran their hearts out in the team, then used their brains to run the club over the next era.

Rummenigge, the last of the three still in exercising power, hands over later this years to a planned progression that includes Herbert Hainer, 65, the former CEO of adidas, as president of the supervisory board of Bayern.

Adidas sponsors Manchester United to the tune of £77 million pounds (88 million euros) per season. The kit manufacturer has also backed Bayern since 1974.

However, adidas additionally paid 77 million euros for an 8.33 per cent stake in Bayern shares. For a similar holding, Audi paid 90 million euros in 2009, and Allianz insurers bought in at 110 million euros.

Those are the big three commercial backers, but Deutsche Telekom pays for its name on the Bayern shirts and Qatar Airways is among other partners hugely inflating Munich’s coffers. The club also has 290,000 members on the vote register.

So as much as we might laud the Bundesliga initiative to keep the fans relevant and the cost of tickets down, the playing field is more level to some than to others. German fans complain about RB Leipzig being bankrolled by the Austrian energy drinks company Red Bull, and by Hoffenheim being raised from small league football to the Bundesliga through local software engineer billionaire Dietmar Hopp.

Then again, Bayer Leverkusen was the factory team of the Bayer pharmaceutical giant since 1904 and VfL Wolfsburg grew out of the sporting club of Volkswagen car workers in 1945.

The little clubs made big on the ambition of local men happens everywhere. It is the story of how Blackburn Rovers won the Premier League back in 1995 through the patronage of local steel entrepreneur Jack Walker, and of how Juventus was financed for decades from the Fiat fortune of the Agnelli family.

Patronage happens, and has always happened. Sometimes it tilts the balance hugely in football – huger still when Gulf states and oligarchs and investment corporations cross the line between patronage and self-interest.

Football is a sport in our hearts, a multi-purpose vehicle for moguls. Baying in the streets or letting off flares in anger in the stadiums won’t give us back the level playing field.

Winners of the league in the Premier League and Bundesliga; last 10 seasons

                   England                       Germany
2010-11    Manchester United    Borussia Dortmund
2011-12    Manchester City         Borussia Dortmund
2012-13    Manchester United    Bayern Munich
2013-14    Manchester City         Bayern Munich
2014-15    Chelsea                        Bayern Munich
2015-16    Leicester City              Bayern Munich
2016-17    Chelsea                        Bayern Munich
2017-18    Manchester City         Bayern Munich
2018-19    Manchester City         Bayern Munich
2019-20    Liverpool                      Bayern Munich

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