Doing the right thing is German football’s forte

Doing the right thing is German football’s forte
The Guardian, by Paul Wilson

In putting fans and tradition before profit, the Bundesliga upholds values the Premier League has lost

Robert Enke had been capped eight times at the time of his death and had not quite cemented his position as Germany’s No1 goalkeeper. Watching the sincere and moving tributes from team-mates and taking note of the fact that Germany immediately cancelled their friendly fixture with Chile, it was tempting to wonder whether the same thing would have happened in this country, or whether England’s game against Brazil would have gone ahead on the always available pretext that it was what the player would have wanted.

One thing it is safe to say is that German football can be relied upon to do the right thing by players and fans, and not necessarily the money‑making thing. That much was spelled out by Dr Reinhard Rauball, president of the Deutsche Fussball Liga, after a meeting of all 36 first and second division clubs in Frankfurt emphatically rejected a proposal to allow teams to be bought, sold and owned as they are here and in Italy. English football has been congratulating itself on finally ousting an owner who failed the fit and proper test, with Stephen Vaughan instructed to reduce his shareholding in Chester City after admitting to a VAT fraud. That’s progress of a sort, though typically small scale and English. In Germany, the whole concept of ownership fails the fit and proper test.

Under existing rules, no "outside" investor can own more than 49% of a German club’s shares and at least 51%, ie a controlling vote, must remain with club members. Naturally enough this deters the sort of private takeovers that have become the norm in the Premier League and when Hannover proposed a change designed to encourage rich backers to pour their money into clubs they failed to gain a single vote of support.

"The result cannot be any clearer," Rauball said after the Frankfurt meeting had effectively sided 35-1 in favour of the status quo. "The Bundesliga remains faithful to itself and will continue to build on the factors which have made a decisive contribution to making German football successful over recent decades. These are stability, continuity and being close to the fans."

As a mission statement that is almost perfect, and there is only one small thing with which to take issue. German football has not been successful over recent decades, at least not in the way that English football has been successful – generating income, attracting players and viewers from around the world, getting teams into Champions League finals and generally getting itself noticed. German sides are no longer the bullies of the European playground, Bayern Munich look likely to drop into the Europa League, and with Lyon and Bordeaux presently topping their groups it is possible to argue that the French league is now more powerful.

That is not quite the case, however, for European competition is only one measure of success. Inside France, the French league does not look quite so robust, whereas from inside Germany the Bundesliga is as strong as ever. Full stadiums, massive crowds, affordable ticket prices, support from all sections of the community; name something desirable in a national pastime and Germany has it. There is no shortage of players to supply the national team, no embarrassing over-reliance on imported talent on the field or in the dug-out, and while Germany may no longer be automatic favourites to reach the final of any forthcoming tournament their ranking of fifth in the world puts them deservedly ahead of England and France.

Perhaps most astonishing of all to English eyes, the Germans do not ask their public to pay through the nose for subscription television either. A decision to keep all Bundesliga games free to air was estimated to have cost German football €150m four years ago, and when the subject came up again last week the same course was agreed upon. That may seem like taking altruism too far and simply throwing money away, yet the Germans know they have a massive internal market and a business model that works. Maintaining a highly visible TV presence helps keep the game popular and profitable. "We are able to make a profit from our extensive TV presence," the DFL’s managing director, Tom Bender, explained. "We are No1 in Europe with €500m (£450m) from sponsorship."

In other words, because German football is on television so often and its popularity remains high, it is more attractive to sponsors and advertisers than its English counterpart. Manchester United and Chelsea may still be prominent enough to make big money from shirt sponsors, but teams lower down the Premier League have lost revenue and even gone without sponsors in recent seasons. The German system is not perfect – Schalke 04 are the latest club with financial problems reportedly bordering on bankruptcy, and Hannover are not quite the lone voice they might appear in arguing that private investment is necessary to compete with Europe’s leading clubs – though in general terms Germany seems to have taken a long look at the English model and decided against it.

That, along with a team such as Wolfsburg winning the title last season, ought to make us think. Is Germany really a football nation in decline, or have they got it exactly right?

It may be some time before German teams appear in three Champions League finals in four years, as happened a decade ago, but that hardly seems too high a price to pay when the whole country watches football, can still afford a half-time beer and sausage, and does not have to put up with Mike Ashley or Sky trailers.

Video replays are beyond dispute

Never mind the moaning and moralising, Fifa need to prevent any more World Cups being sullied by Dark Ages guesswork and ensure Hand of God goals can never happen again. It was obvious the referee in Paris needed to look at a monitor, so why not let him?

The debate around video assistance usually founders over the impracticality of viewing replays of every incident, yet a referral system solely for disputed goals would keep disruption to a minimum. Were each captain allowed, say, two appeals per game for timeouts to check specific complaints, only a few extra seconds would be required and the game inside the stadium could rejoin the rest of the modern world watching on television.

Such a system might even prove self-policing. There was, let’s put this politely, little incentive for Thierry Henry to come clean after securing his side’s passage to South Africa. Had he known the referee would be viewing a replay before awarding the goal he might well have held up his hand, so to speak, and saved him the trouble.