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‘We won’t be remote-controlled’: how German football fans took on investors and won

They have hurled tennis balls and chocolate coins on to the pitch; they have disrupted play with remote-control cars and planes mounted with smoke bombs. In recent months German football fans have thrown almost everything they have into protests aimed at preventing foreign investors from increasing control of their much-loved clubs.

This week it appeared their dogged defiance, driven by deep-seated grassroots sentiment, had paid off, after the German football league (DFL), which runs the Bundesliga, dropped its plans to sell an estimated €1bn (£850m) stake in its media rights income to a private equity firm.

The league’s board said it would no longer go ahead with the deal, in the hope, it said, of ending the unprecedented wave of protests, which have disrupted almost every game in the top two male divisions of German football since the start of 2024.

The stunts have led to lengthy delays, even match cancellations, which bosses said were a threat to the integrity of German football.

For fans, though, they were a winning gameplan that pulled off an unlikely victory. Comparing the struggle to that of David and Goliath, the fan group Unsere Kurve (Our Stands) celebrated the decision, and noted: “Ultimately the key to this success were these comprehensive, and very peaceful and creative protests.”

Last Saturday, among the most dramatic actions, masked football fans from Hansa Rostock jumped over advertising barriers during a match against Hamburger SV and placed two toy cars on to the pitch. Egged on by the crowds, they proceeded to steer them via remote control over the grass, with attached flares spewing out white and blue smoke, the Hansa colours.

As fans cheered in delight, lapping up the slapstick flavour of the moment, frustrated officials were seen to shake their heads and bury their faces in their hands, while two beleaguered stewards were laughed at as they tried to pounce on the cars.

At a time when many Germans have been joining demonstrations, including against the far-right populist AfD, often for the first time, taking a stand in support of democracy, the football protests have also touched a popular nerve and public support for them has been high.

The weekly newspaper Die Zeit commented: “The country’s football fans look to have pulled off the most relatable protest of the moment – and the most entertaining.”

The debate as to the future face of German football in the wake of the crisis has spilled into mainstream debate, including on primetime TV discussions, mirroring as it does other debates about the course the country wants to steer as it faces the challenges of conflict, climate crisis and the drastic economic knock-on effects of these.

At another top-flight match, disrupted by flying tennis balls, chocolate coins – a symbol of the perceived money-grabbers trying to “steal” fans’ clubs – more remote toy cars were deployed. A banner spread across the stands, read: “Why toy cars? Well, we won’t be remote-controlled.”

The humour has helped to galvanise support for the protests.

Among other stunts, protesters clamped combination bike locks to the goalposts. They were removed by bolt cutters, but could have been more simply unlocked with the code 5001 – a reference to the almost sacred 50+1 ownership rule governing Bundesliga clubs, according to which a club has to either in whole or as a majority own its association football team.

In case of majority ownership, the football team is operated as a separate company. The parent club has to have 50% of the votes, plus one vote, ensuring that an investor does not have majority control, to reduce outsider influence.

Critics of the protesters say they have left German football exposed, and open to blackmail, leaving questions as to how multimillion euro income shortfalls caused by the pandemic can be filled.

Admitting defeat, Hans-Joachim Watzke, a spokesman for the DFL executive committee, and CEO of Borussia Dortmund said: “In view of current developments, a successful continuation of the process no longer seems possible.

“Even if there is a large majority in favour of the entrepreneurial necessity of the strategic partnership, German professional football faces an acid test, which is causing major disputes not only within the league association between the clubs, but in some cases also within the clubs, between professionals, coaches, club officials, supervisory bodies, members’ associations and fan communities, which are increasingly jeopardising match operations, specific match schedules and thus the integrity of the competition,” he said in a statement.

The only investor left in the deal had been CVC Capital Partners, which had been expecting to receive a 20-year stake in broadcast and sponsorship revenue, in return for an upfront payment.

A second private equity firm, Blackstone – like CVC, backed by Saudi Arabia, leading to fans’ taunts of “blood money”, due to the country’s human rights record – had recently dropped out of the deal.

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