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German Football Supporters: Fan Power in action

September 27, 2010

There is definitely a spectre haunting European Football at the moment, the spectre of fan power. As a lot of clubs are in huge financial crisis, it has become almost a necessity for fans to come together and assert themselves, because the very existence of their clubs is at stake. As the private ownership model is revealing itself as a widespread disaster for the sport, people are looking for more collective solutions to ownership but also asserting that fans can’t just be dictated to, their loyalty can’t be taken for granted and that they have rights. 

Manchester United’s debt levels are at AUS$1.17 billion, while Liverpool owes AUS$574 million. Club problems aren’t confined to England; Valencia in Spain owes AUS$819 million and Roma from Italy AUS$443 million.

The German Bundesliga has mostly bucked the trend, with league clubs having turned a profit. This can mostly be explained by the German Model where most clubs have at least 51% fan ownership. This model isn’t perfect, however, with Schalke, a team in the German Bundesliga have racked up $382 million worth of debt. But one of the benefits of the German Model is that with ownership, fans feel much more in control and are willing to fight for their collective rights.

The most high profile of these actions recently was the boycott of by fans of Borussia Dortmund. They refused to travel and watch the away game against local rivals Schalke, the revere derby, known as one of the biggest games in German football. For the first time in Bundesliga history, the game wasn’t sold out. Overall, the boycott was organised more than 300 different Dortmund supporter groups across Germany. The reason? Schalke were asking Dortmund fans to pay 22 Euros for standing tickets, last year it was 13.5 Euros. Stephan Uersfeld, of the German fanzine Schwatzgelb, explained to BBC Sport, that it wasn’t just about this once incident. “This protest is not aimed towards Schalke but against the price hike which basically every club here in Germany is part of,” and that “”Now, for the first time, the 20 euro mark has been crossed by a club and we are no longer willing to sit back and find out what happens next. It is time to raise our voices, no matter what club it is.”

The joint statement of the fans associations said “We understand the Derby boycott only as a beginning to more actions to follow under the label “Kein Zwanni für nen Steher” (Twenty-Euro for standing – no way!). Our long-term objective is a fair pricing system in every stadium in Germany.”  And took a long term perspective of their actions “Of course it is not easy to not support the team in a Derby. But we want to have colourful and noisy terraces in the future and succeeding generations that can experience the fascination of football and Borussia – inside the stadium. To fight for this, we have to take this step now. The team will be informed about the boycott and its wherefores.”

That fans are willing to take such actions is the reason why prices are so comparatively low compared to other countries. A season tickets for all of Borussia’s Bundesliga games as well as one European game can be bought for 184 Euros, while a season ticket to Arsenal’s games is the equivalent of 2,148 Euros, over ten times what the Dortmund season ticket cost.

To achieve this required organisation and sacrifice, for instance Dortmund fans had to forego seeing their team beat their rivals away from home for the first since 2005.

Schalke fans have also been waging their own fights against the autocratic football manager Felix Mageth.

As BBC sport reported, “Prior to Magath’s arrival the club and fans would routinely hold extensive discussions over proposed ticket price increases.

Magath has pursued a different management style, sacking the club’s supporter liaison officer Rolf Rojek, who had been in the job for over 20 years, and dismissing fans’ protests, saying they were a “small” group of supporters.

That prompted 3,000 Schalke fans to wear T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “The Small Group” for the season opener at Hamburg.

Their action has forced Magath to back away from his confrontational managerial style and he spent time talking to supporters before he wrapped up the signing of Klaus-Jan Huntelaar from AC Milan.”

But fans have taken the problems as a collective challenge, on the 9th of October a protest march is scheduled, organised by three umbrella supporter organisations under the theme of “Save our fan culture”

The actions have had an effect around the world, football fan internet forums has seen the vast majority of fans supporting their own action, many stating “we can learn from this.  This is exactly what Craig Foster said on the SBS World Game, that Australian fans should learn something from this and we all should. Owners of sports clubs in Australia rely on passivity but discontent does exist, newspapers often cover complaints of fans about prices, facilities, etc. The German example shows that complaining isn’t enough. Fans using their collective power can make a difference and that power needs to be asserted in Australia.

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