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A league with a social conscience


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A league with a social conscience

Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger



Every once in a while, I glance with a bit of envy at columns sent in by Phil Ball, Roberto Gotta or Jon Carter and Norman Hubbard. They are often about big clubs, bigger names and biggest money, about glamorous teams you can always watch on television because they do well in the Champions League.

This being, I quote, 'The world's site for the world game', I sometimes wonder if many people out there in the world still care about the Bundesliga, whose new season will soon get underway.

If you don't care (which is, I admit, kind of improbable, because why would you then read this?), if you're bypassing the Bundesliga because you're either prejudiced or simply prefer reading about the Ronaldinhos and Beckhams of this world... well, maybe you should reconsider.

It's not just that there are more goals in the Bundesliga, as I keep hammering home to you action-addicts out there. And it's not just that the new season will, at last, see some bona fide stars such as Luca Toni and Franck Ribéry. No, it's primarily that you should support the Bundesliga for - ideological reasons.

Yes. Ideological reasons. After all, you're a football fan, aren't you?

Two years ago, a Swedish writer was touring Germany for a long article he eventually published in a respected football magazine called 'Offside'. The piece was headed, somewhat dramatically and perhaps inspired by watching 'Lord of the Rings' too intensely, 'The Last Battle'.

Said writer literally travelled through the whole of the country, from Hamburg to Munich, and met players, officials and writers as well as supporters, both regular fans and members of pressure groups.

The gist of his article was that Germany is the last major European football country that still fights the pitfalls of commercialism, the last place where fans make their voices heard and are not treated like mere consumer cattle. Hence the title.

Was he right? Yes, I guess so. It's difficult for me to make a proper comparison, as I haven't followed football for any meaningful period of time abroad, but I know lots of people in foreign countries, and their reports have me concur with what 'Offside' said.

Last year, for instance, I spoke to branches of the England Supporters Club in Exeter and London. My favourite ploy to get people's attention was to pull out my Borussia Dortmund season ticket and have them guess the price printed on it. I was well aware that watching football in England is so expensive that hardly anyone would guess the correct figure. (Roughly 150 Euros or slightly less than one hundred pounds.)

Yet I didn't expect that some of the fans in attendance would tell me that they supported non-league clubs - and still paid a lot more for a season ticket than I did.

The average ticket price in England is more than 45 Euros. In Spain, it's roughly 30 Euros. In Germany, it's less than 19 Euros. And that's not even the whole story, as this average price doesn't explain my 150-Euro season ticket and doesn't tell the punter on less than princely wages what he will be most interested in: what's the minimum amount I have to spend to see my team?

“ It's important to note that there is by and large only one reason most Bundesliga grounds still have standing areas: because the fans wanted it that way. ”

Depending on the club, the cheapest Bundesliga ticket for an adult will set you back between 8 and 10 Euros. Those tickets are, of course, for a part of the grounds many younger and non-German fans only know from hearsay, namely the terraces.

Now, it's important to note that there is by and large only one reason most Bundesliga grounds still have standing areas: because the fans wanted it that way.

In the wake of the Taylor Report, the German FA (DFB) decided to go all-seater together with all the other major European countries, not least because UEFA seemed to force everybody's hand by decreeing that all European games had to be played in such venues.

But the German fans were not willing to just grin and bear it. Many pressure groups formed, using the slogan 'Seats are for Bums', and representatives from 23 different clubs demonstrated in front of the DFB headquarters in 1994.

In the end, they won. Or rather, the DFB won an exemption from UEFA and was allowed to handle domestic matches as it saw fit. This exemption was granted on a trial basis, but you know how it is with these things; it's been in place ever since.

Admittedly, fighting the all-seater mania was easier for Germans because we have never been wounded by the emotional scars of a Heysel or a Hillsborough. Then again, the Taylor Report did not declare terraces unsafe in themselves but bemoaned their state.

(Lines such as 'the overall picture of conditions and facilities to be expected by a standing spectator is depressing. It is in stark contrast to the different world, only yards away, in the Board Room and the executive boxes' abound in the report.)

The fight for terracing wasn't the last German supporters would win.

The fact that they can watch highlights from all Saturday's matches on free-TV and only about an hour after the final whistle is also neither an accident nor a gift from the powers that be.

It's down to protests and even more drastic actions: in 2001, the main free-TV football show was moved to a later time slot to help the pay-TV stations sell more decoders. Whereupon a fans' pressure group called for a mass boycott.

“ The supporters followed the suggestion to simply not tune in at all. The ratings plummeted so dramatically that the football show was quickly moved back to the earlier starting time. ”

Stunningly, the supporters indeed followed the suggestion to simply not tune in at all, neither to the free nor to the pay-TV station. The ratings plummeted so dramatically that the football show was quickly moved back to the earlier starting time.

In other words, German football fans are a quite active and powerful bunch. And the league and the FA know this and have learned not to ignore them.

In June, there was even some kind of general meeting, held over two days, between fans from 50 clubs, DFB (the German FA) officials and representatives of the DFL (which runs the two professional leagues). In all, more than four hundred people convened in Leipzig for what the DFB termed the first 'Supporters Conference'.

As is their wont, some of the fans who attended were sceptical rather than euphoric. 'At least we could list all of our demands,' said Martin Endemann from the Alliance of Active Football Fans (BAFF). 'Now the DFB will be judged by what it does with this catalogue.'

He's certainly got his reasons for being a tad suspicious. But it's important to remember that there are very few football countries which would even consider such a conference, let alone actually stage it.

And that there are very few football countries in which a fan could, without the faintest hint of irony, state that he's got 'demands'. At 'Offside', they'd probably now add that there is no other such football country.

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