German fan culture: The secrets behind Bundesliga's famously passionate support

Sporting News

For many tourists to Germany, a visit would not be complete without a trip to a football match. It's a unique sporting experience, thanks to the way clubs are run, as well as the close ties supporters have with their teams.

The 50+1 rule means that clubs are governed by their fans, while also ensuring ticket prices are kept relatively low, so as to make every game affordable, even those against the Bundesliga's biggest clubs Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.

Supporters are vocal on and off the field, and their displays, protests and dialogue with governments and associations have provoked changes inside and outside stadia in Germany.

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How the 50+1 rule affects German football

In 1998, German football introduced the 50+1 rule to ensure that clubs remained in the control of their fans, thus preventing corporations or wealthy individuals from taking over teams and treating them like profitable enterprises.

Essentially, it is a shorthand term for a clause in the regulations of the German Football League (DFL) which states that clubs will not be allowed to participate in the Bundesliga if commercial investors hold more than a 49 per cent stake. Therefore, it means that a club's members – the fans – will always retain a majority ownership stake.

However, there are a few exceptions to the rule, such as teams founded before 1998 which were founded by the staff from certain companies, such as Wolfsburg (Volkswagen) and Bayer Leverkusen (Bayer AG), while RB Leipzig have circumvented the law by having a very small number of active members, all of whom are Red Bull employees.

Protecting the 50+1 rule is of the utmost importance to German football fans. Indeed, Unsere Kurve is a union of supporter groups from clubs across Germany and one of their main priorities is upholding the clause.

Unsere Kurve board member Jost Peter believes that fan interests must be protected at all costs and that keeping 50+1 in German football is the best way to protect its teams from the commercialisation that has affected other countries.

Borussia Dortmund Sudtribune Yellow Wall
Borussia Dortmund Sudtribune Yellow Wall

"Most of the German clubs are guided and ruled by the members of the club," Peter told Goal . "The members of the club make the final decision on the direction of the club.

"They don't decide which player is to be bought or sold – this is determined by the club's management – but the overall path of the club is decided by the members.

"50+1 is a wall against capital interest in our clubs. It means that the majority of decision-making is done by the members and that a business cannot come and take over a team and start making their own decisions."

Affordable tickets, safe standing and drinking in stands

The Hillsborough disaster in 1989 caused the UK government to introduce the Football Spectators Act, which required all British football grounds to be all-seater venues.

However, the Bundesliga allows 'safe standing' in its grounds, with Borussia Dortmund's south stand containing over 25,000 standing fans, who form the famous 'Yellow Wall'.

This, in part, explains why ticket prices for top-flight football matches are lower in Germany than England. Indeed, prices were actually reduced for the 2019-20 Bundesliga season.

The cheapest ticket costs just €15.20 (£13.30/$16.50) and the most expensive one is €70.60 (£62/$77). By way of comparison, Premier League tickets range from £22 ($27) to £97 ($121) .

Another key difference lies in the fact that fans are allowed to drink alcohol in view of the pitch in Germany. They can buy their beers and bring them back to their seats or safe standing areas.

A pint of beer costs around €4 (£3.50/$4.40) at most Bundesliga stadiums. In England, a pint at Stamford Bridge or the Emirates Stadium sets you back £5.30 ($6.20).

Bayern Munich fans Allianz Arena 2019-20
Bayern Munich fans Allianz Arena 2019-20

Peter believes that the low ticket price is one of the most attractive aspects of German football and feels that the safe standing only adds to the spirit of inclusivity.

"Our experience in the stadium is better than other countries," Peter argued. "We have stands where it is safe to stand. This is forbidden in most other countries. This allows for a different sort of fan experience.

"In Germany, it's very old school and we can have supporters from the poorest to the richest in the stadium, as all people can afford to go to Bundesliga games."

Protests and displays highlighting social issues

Due to the influence of fans on how clubs are run, teams in Germany often have a wider impact on their local community. Fan groups have worked closely with clubs to create official policies against social issues such as racism, misogyny, homophobia and fascism.

As well as helping to define official club policy, supporter groups often display banners during games to further highlight social injustices. Progress can be slow, but fan displays and club policy have helped stamp out issues such as fascist displays at matches.

"Most of the clubs have stances on anti-racism, anti-homophobia, anti-sexism," Peter said. "This is sometimes hard work and involves little steps to bring everyone behind these aims.

"In Germany, we had problems with fascists in the stands in the 1990s, but the fan scene organised social projects which worked directly with the fans to fight against fascist actions in the stands."

Fans against modern football

While the 50+1 rule keeps the majority of clubs grounded, the impact of television revenue can be seen in the multi-million euro transfer fees and wages paid to players at the top of the pyramid.

The influence of television companies saw some Bundesliga games played behind closed doors at the start of the coronavirus crisis and many people were dismayed by this week's news that the top two divisions would return next week without supporters.

"Football is nothing without fans in the stadium," Peter insisted. "Everything that is important in football takes place in the stadium. We saw a few weeks ago (after the first games behind closed doors), that football in empty stadiums is actually very boring."

Fans have previously made themselves heard by bringing about an end to Monday night matches in the Bundesliga. The slot was used by broadcasters to show more matches over the space of a single weekend, but was strongly opposed by fans, who staged very public protests against Monday night games.

"We all remember the times when football was on a Saturday afternoon and that was it," Peter continued.

"Everything took place at the same time, but because of the television money, the games were divided into up to eight different time slots.

"Monday games are especially problematic, because if you want to go to an away game, it's nearly impossible to get there.

"If you want to travel from Hamburg to Munich for example [800km/500 miles], then you would have to take at least one day of holiday from work. Monday games are difficult for an active fan who wants to follow all the away games of their club.

"There were discussions over the space of five or six years, locally within the clubs and with the football associations and the DFB, as well as many public protests from the fans.

"One example was when the TV company who was broadcasting the game was criticised during the game on television on large banners. We also saw fans not enter the stadium for the first 15 minutes to show an empty stadium on television to the entire country.

"The meetings and the protests were able to bring back Mondays to the fans, so they could stay at home and not have to take time off to go to games."

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