Must German football clubs sacrifice tradition in the quest for glory?

Must German football clubs sacrifice tradition in the quest for glory?

MY FAMILY HAS a history of storytelling. Both my father and I have, at least once in our lives, had serious ideas for a book. Where this stems from, I have no clue, but I have therefore grown up surrounded by storytelling and words. One of my father’s favourite stories happens to be about German football. When he studied German at the University in Linköping, Sweden, he was tasked with creating a presentation about German sport. As a Stuttgart fan, he instantly decided to speak about German football, the wonders and the threats. His presentation included a profile on the history of the Teutonic side of the sport as well as a rather shrewd prediction for the future.

One chapter of his presentation was called ’Horror Games That We’d Never Like To See’. In this part, he discussed the future threat of commercialisation in German football and described a future where Siemens Berlin faced Mercedes-Benz Stuttgart at the Siemens Arena in Charlottenburg, Berlin. This was, among many other similar examples, a real horror scenario in which the German football he knew was dead and buried and had been replaced with a commercial world where the values of companies governed the footballing world.

I always enjoyed this story, for it was an example of what German football was not. However, as I’ve grown to love the German culture – music, football, art, politics, you name it – I have also come to realise that the fear of change runs deeper in Germany than anywhere else in Europe. For example, German politician Richard Mayer said in an interview with ABC that stability and predictability are favourable attributes for German politicians. This makes me ponder whether the genuine fear of a commercialised football sphere is rational, considering the ways of old are what have made German football’s culture so very special.

That culture is one of the most famous in all of Europe and many consider a gouging of the traditional values to be the absolute end of football as we know it in Germany. Herein lies a big problem, though. As tradition runs deep in most German clubs, the fear of change becomes institutional and national. When teams like RB Leipzig and TSG Hoffenheim challenge their values, they are quickly labelled as annihilators. It’s in many ways an irksome platitude, but these platitudinarians have become the grand voice of the German football fan base.

I want to explore the polarised issue of tradition versus commercialism by examining both sides, trying to problematise tradition to see if it might play a part in the international downfall of German club football. Nobody can guarantee any answers, but we can establish a level of understanding of the issue and therefore even an augmented perception of the German football culture, perhaps even Voltairian enlightenment regarding the issue.

The problem few see is when tradition becomes a real priority. Considering sport is about trying to win above all else – if for no other reason than to survive – it’s at times worrying to see teams prioritise their own history before success. This is not me claiming that success can not be achieved with tradition – it can and has often been achieved – but in a more commercial world where teams like Bayer Leverkusen, Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig are all fighting for Europe on an annual basis, the traditional teams might halt and be left behind by the economic superiority of these clubs.

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Considering Borussia Dortmund’s 41 points after 24 games this season makes them the worst second placed team since 1994, I would like to present the possibility of tradition actually harming German football. What if the increased desperation regarding tradition might actually lead to German football clubs failing on the European stage? What if tradition itself is the biggest threat to German football?

”You know, keeping the 50+1 rule isn’t just about tradition. It’s about keeping the sport we love as it is and as it always has been,” he said smirking, rather pleased with his statement. The Frankfurter skyscrapers blissed as the sun shined on their glassy stature.

”But, isn’t that what tradition is? Keeping things as they’ve always been?” I answered, as pleased with my rebuttal. The discussion had been going on for some time and the strange glasses of Frankfurter Apfelwein had doubled since our arrival on a marvellous roof terrace in the centre of the heart of Europe.

”I think there’s more to it. 50+1 is more important. Without that, there would be no culture. We would dry out – become England. Is that something that you’d like?” Filip continued. He knew that my view on tradition was normal, while also being aware of my need to question almost everything. ”No, of course not, don’t be silly.”

As you can tell, this was no exhilarating conversation. It was a mere discussion between two good friends who both had fallen in love with German football many years ago. It was a discussion between two fans of two different protectors of German values, Hamburger SV and Eintracht Frankfurt. While I’ve enjoyed a good period now with Niko Kovač in charge of my beloved club, my dear friend Filip has not been as lucky with his dear traditional incarnation.

His thoughts on tradition did make me wonder\, though. His club, one of the most traditional in Germany, shielded by the well-coveted 50+1 rule, has been on its slow way down for many years now. He remembers the Europa League semi-finals against Fulham as if it were yesterday, but also acknowledges that this year might be the year the clock on the Nordtribune finally stops ticking.

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Filip’s worries were relevant in many ways. He had historic English clubs dilute themselves – as have I – and we have both stood witness as the ticket prices in Premier League skyrocketed. The fear of commercialism was based upon the rational fear of German football becoming English – the dismay at ticket prices possibly no longer being available for all, an anxiety regarding HSV becoming a team for the privileged, and not for the passionate masses. To be able to understand the value of German customs, it’s important to understand what the stalwart defenders of it are scared to lose. Ticket prices and the close relationship between the fans and the players are two things most are afraid to surrender. It is very understandable.

The year is 1997 and Kaiserslautern have just been promoted after a shock relegation the year before. They begin their season with high hopes of at least staying in the Bundesliga, a notoriously difficult league to play in as a newcomer, albeit Kaiserslautern were at the time seasoned Bundesligists having played in the league for every season but one. This had made them one of the stalwarts of German football; one of the key figures of the project called Bundesliga and, while they had only won one title, in 1991, their status as a top tier regular had canonised the club.

The year started off well, Kaiserslautern winning games from the off, and with a rather young squad, led by Andreas Brehme and Michael Ballack, they surprised most when they beat defending champions Bayern Munich at home. They also managed to beat the Champions League winners Borussia Dortmund at the famous Fritz-Walter-Stadion, the mountain castle that had become a fortress for Die Roten Teufel.

When that historic season ended, Ballack, Brehme and Olaf Marschall were crowned champions under legendary coach Otto Rehhagel. Kaiserslautern’s 1997/98 triumph – secured with just 68 points – is seen as one of the biggest surprises ever in the world of German football.

Then it all changed. In 2003, the club began the season with three points deducted due to financial mishaps. They managed to stay up, but this was a clear sign of things to come. A feeling of economical forlornness must’ve been tangible at this once great club, an institution that had now fallen into a vexing gloom. The Betze wouldn’t rock again, Die Roten Teufel were never able to recover from their financial mayhem, and even though they managed to win promotion at the beginning of the 2010s, they were quickly relegated again. It was a sign of the club perhaps no longer fitting in.

As opposed to Filip, Scottish Tottenham fan Jonny Clark follows his newly-adopted side Kaiserslautern from abroad. While Filip sits in Frankfurt, Jonny is ’stuck’ in beautiful Scotland, doomed to watch his favourite German side from miles away. But the passion is still there, never faltering. The fans, the culture and the general atmosphere were even more important than the standard of football in regards to getting me interested in German football,” Jonny tells me.

It’s no secret, not for him nor for me, that his views in no way are original. However, non-originality does not equal platitudes. Jonny further states that the German Football Association (DFB) often become their own worst enemy with their futile attempts to make the German game more English through Monday games and ’Englische Woche’. This, in Jonny’s opinion, risks taking away all that makes German football so special. It’s an interesting viewpoint.

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Knowing both sides of this increasingly splintered and polarised issue is key to understanding the problem. HSV and Kaiserslautern are two of the biggest teams in German football history and the fans of these are in many ways representative of the traditional camp. As a result, it’s worth diving into the commercial side of things.

I remember being amazed by Hoffenheim’s rise. It was a beautiful story of success, the underdog rising to the occasion and, when they almost reached Champions League last summer, I was genuinely happy for them, while still acknowledging their role in the potential downfall of German football. Dietmar Hopp’s Hoffenheim climbed from the Regionalliga to Bundesliga in just a few seasons, but managed to spend more in one summer than all other clubs in the 2. Bundesliga when they got promoted. They have since been frowned upon by the German traditionalists and are still seen as a shameful part of the Bundesliga paradise, perhaps even as the snake in Eden.

Hoffenheim were only the beginning, though. A few years after Hopp’s project had reached Bundesliga, with Sejad Salihović, Vedad Ibišević and Demba Ba as the key protagonists, RasenBallsport Leipzig emerged as the new enemy, an enhanced version of the already evil ’Hoffe’. You’ve all heard the story before: the energy meisters are destroying German football with their money and their small number of members.

Owned by Red Bull, they have become the arch-nemesis of all that German fans cherish and stand as the destroyer of worlds and the changer of destinies. Some claim that Leipzig bear direct responsibility for the eventual fall of German football. Others, however, suggest that they’re are actually good for the Teutonic side of the sport. Nevertheless, it’s a team that keeps on dividing – and it won’t stop anytime soon.

Philip Oltermann wrote an astonishingly good piece for The Guardian during last season’s Hinrunde. Oltermann interviewed an individual organising Borussia Dortmund’s mass protest during their away game in Saxony. Borussia’s fans didn’t travel the 210 miles to the east of Germany as a protest, an objection against the commercial values the energy-crazed Saxonians represent.

In his interview, the organizer stated that Dortmund earn money to play football, while Leipzig earns money in order to promote a brand. To him, that’s the main difference between the two camps. Oltermann further explains another problem with Leipzig’s structure. At Dortmund, one of the best-run traditional sides, being a member with a right to veto costs about €60 per annum, while the same at Leipzig costs about €1,000. What would happen if teams like Leipzig and Hoffenheim, where becoming a member with a right to vote and veto costs more than most are willing to spend, became a norm? Would that be the end of German football as we know it?

Jonny Clark does not think so. He considers German football values to be well-rooted and uses the situation at Hannover as an example of where fan culture ultimately wins out against commercial forces. At Hannover, investor Martin Kind tried to buy the majority of shares at the club, thus surpassing the 50 percent mark that the 50+1 rule forbids. However, through extensive protests, the fans of Hannover managed to take their club back from the claws of commercialism. Traditional values and the passion that lies behind it won that battle, and maybe this will prove to be a benchmark of things to come.

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So is commercialisation really the problem? Can it co-exist with the tradition or are they doomed to fight each other until one stands as the winner? The answers – often overlooked – is that they have stood together for many years. Pharmaceutical superstars Bayer have openly supported, even named, two clubs to have competed in the Bundesliga. KFC Uerdingen 05 are now struggling in the German fourth division but they were once where Bayer Leverkusen are today, then under the name Bayer Uerdingen 05.

Uerdingen’s financial capabilities were huge at the time and they were truly the Leverkusen of the 1970s and 80s. Yet when they started to falter on the pitch, Bayer deemed the project unworthy of their backing and pulled out. Leverkusen became their next focus and they’ve not looked back since. VfL Wolfsburg is another team with significant backing from a big company. Volkswagen’s factories were responsible for the forming of Wolfsburg over 780 years ago.

The key question is whether RB Leipzig’s emergence has meant an increase in the need for tradition in German football and whether this hype, this need for self-justification, holds back the appeal of the German football culture as this pure, unadulterated, fan-centric model. In many ways, it seems like tradition in German football is a very big deal for most. While this is no surprise, it’s become evident that the German customs might mean more than even success – which defies the very essence of competition.

Perhaps the values are a way of life. Maybe they’re a product of a society yearning for increased stability. After all, it’s easier to look back and know the answers than it is to predict the future. However, it has also become evident, while researching for this piece, that the need to protect tradition has become much more desperate since the rise of Hoffenheim and Leipzig. These two clubs have acted as the anti-christ and fuel the fear of change. The two clubs are so extreme in their nature, it seems, that they’ve become real-life horror stories of what can happen when commercialism gains the upper hand. The fear of change has now gone from being rational to justifiable.

That said, the need for self-justification – clubs reassuring themselves of their own traditionalism – can be a big problem, especially if it becomes a priority. When history is used to shape the future, a dangerous game is being played. As a result of this, clubs miss out on titles or get relegated – and yet many are still pleased that their traditional methods are still intact. To me, it’s an odd problem to face: win with money or lose with tradition.

Beyond the club’s themselves, however, the fans see things different, and perhaps this is where German football is divided most. ”The fans, the culture and the general atmosphere were even more important than the standard of football in regards to getting me interested in German football, and I’m sure it’s really important to others too.” This corresponds with what Filip said when discussing the subject on a cold afternoon in Frankfurt: ”German football is more than just success. For me, it’s about the passion and the close relations to the players. And it’s about being able to watch cheap games and drink cheap beer and eat cheap currywurst. It’s all about the availability, something very few leagues in the world have.”

It’s all very agreeable and the entire issue basically boils down to this: what do you want, culture or success? Tradition or progress? I think it’s fair to suggest that, in many cases, tradition halts the progress of German football on the pitch, but it has also created the most appealing fan culture in the world. Tradition versus commercialism is a polarising issue – and it needs to be. For the directors, sacrificing their reputation, their respect, to save their club and gain the wealth that top-tier football brings is an easy decision to make. For the fans, however, a world of inflated ticket prices, of players ignoring them as they leave the pitch and of history being forgotten appears as though it could signal the death of German football. The debate rumbles on.

By Axel Falk  

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