Ken Early: Castrate a (Red) Bull or bow down to cash?

Dortmund will not produce half-and-half Red Bull scarves, cash killing Premier League

Borussia Dortmund: the club aren’t selling half-and-half scarves for their Europa League match against Red Bull Salzburg. Photograph: TF-Images via Getty

Borussia Dortmund: the club aren’t selling half-and-half scarves for their Europa League match against Red Bull Salzburg. Photograph: TF-Images via Getty

 

Borussia Dortmund normally produce a souvenir half-and-half scarf for every European match.

This week, however, their opponents in the Europa League are Red Bull Salzburg, and there will be no half-and-half scarves at the Dortmund club shop. “Basically, we don’t sell any scarves where a promotional logo can be seen with ours,” the club’s marketing director, Carsten Cramer, told the Bild newspaper.

Red Bull Salzburg compete in the Europa League as FC Salzburg, but their crest features a familiar-looking animal lunging to head a football. They are the original club of the Red Bull soccer empire, which has since developed colony clubs in Leipzig, New York and São Paulo.

The Leipzig branch has caused outrage in German football because of the way Red Bull has finessed the 50+1 rule, which is supposed to prevent football clubs’ being bought up by wealthy individuals or corporate concerns. The rule states that 50 per cent of a Bundesliga club’s shares, plus one, must be controlled by the club’s voting members, which in theory prevents wealthy external investors buying in to establish overall control.

Red Bull has got around the 50+1 rule by setting up its own club in the Bundesliga’s lower divisions and funding its rise

There are a couple of exceptions. Wolfsburg and Leverkusen are owned by the German industrial giants Volkswagen and Bayer, respectively, but provision was made for these historic cases when the rule was instituted, in 1999. Essentially, Red Bull has got around the regulation by setting up its own club in the lower divisions and funding its rise, while allowing only a tiny number of people to become members.

The antipathy from other fans has less to do with the notion that RB Leipzig could use their energy euro to dominate the Bundesliga than with the fact that their presence makes a mockery of the 50+1 rule and perhaps opens the league to a sustained legal challenge. How can the rules not apply equally to everybody?

This is the view of Hannover 96’s president, Martin Kind, who has been fighting to change the rules for 10 years. Kind believes the Bundesliga is “satiated”, that TV revenue has made clubs comfortable with mediocrity and that only opening the league to outside investment can allow German soccer to achieve its potential.

Most people, not least the fans of Kind’s own club, oppose this view. Kind thinks he knows why. Last month he told the Frankfurter-Rundschau: “I’ll say it very clearly: most people do not have the courage . . . In private conversation they agree with me that the clubs themselves should decide which way they want to go. But they don’t dare to say it out loud.”

The defenders of the 50+1 rule have always considered themselves to be fighting the good fight, defending football against predatory interests that see the game as nothing more than a means to an end, whether that be commercial profit, personal glory or something else. Kind is trying to recast them as cultural conformists who are simply afraid to voice their misgivings.

After all, it’s not as though Germany’s system is perfect. Bayern are about to win their sixth title in a row. That is, they’ve established what amounts to a stable monopoly position in the closed system of German football. Surely freeing up clubs to attract outside investment and challenge this dominance would be good for the league.

Yet these German fans are wise to beware the siren song of Kind. Yes, it might mean somebody other than Bayern winning the league once in a while. But that could happen anyway, and who really stands to gain from changing the rules?

Money pit: Chelsea, whose players earn a combined £224 million, or €250 million, a year – parked the bus for the entire second half against Manchester City, even though they were losing 1-0. Photograph: Peter Powell/EPA
Money pit: Chelsea, whose players earn a combined £224 million, or €250 million, a year – parked the bus for the entire second half against Manchester City, even though they were losing 1-0. Photograph: Peter Powell/EPA

The Premier League had a relevant showpiece match yesterday, between Manchester City and Chelsea, its poster boys for billionaire ownership. The game was adorned with talent plundered from the Bundesliga: Kevin De Bruyne, Leroy Sané, Ilkay Gündogan, Antonio Rüdiger. City won 1-0, with a goal by Bernardo Silva, and Chelsea didn’t have a shot on target all day.

The equivalent fixture 25 seasons ago featured no players born outside Britain except the Belfast-born Mal Donaghy. Chelsea won 1-0, with a goal by Mick Harford, and there’s no way to check whether City mustered a shot in response, as nobody was recording those statistics in 1992.

The City or Chelsea of 2018 would play their 1992-93 equivalents off the field, and the rout could be anatomised and analysed in a raft of statistics the 1992 players would never have heard of. But who has gained? Does a higher technical standard of play make people feel better about soccer? Were the City fans who celebrated Silva’s goal yesterday any happier than the Chelsea fans who celebrated Harford’s in 1992?

The most exciting part of the rest of the title race will be watching how the story of Pep Guardiola’s yellow ribbon plays out

Looking at how the Premier League has evolved in that time, the difference is that fans pay more than they once did to watch players who are paid more than they once were play football that should be better but is often actually worse than it was before commercialisation. The obvious winners of this process include the players, the agents and the people who have profitably traded holdings in clubs – but not the fans.

With live transfer-deadline-day coverage, the media in the UK has even managed to turn the spending of money into a spectacle in its own right, and it insists that money – any money – is good for the game. Anyone who believes this should have seen Chelsea – whose players earn a combined £224 million, or €250 million, a year – park the bus for the entire second half against City, even though they were already losing 1-0.

The most exciting part of the rest of the title race will be watching how the story of Pep Guardiola’s yellow ribbon plays out. Guardiola would never take it off just because the FA told him to, but might it feel too ridiculous to keep wearing it now that people are pointing out the hypocrisy of Guardiola’s standing up for human rights in Spain while saying nothing about human-rights abuses in Abu Dhabi, which is ruled by City’s owners, who pay him £15 million a year? When the world of football merges with that of international capital, things get complicated. Pep wanted to show solidarity, and the effect was to highlight how compromised he is.

This is one problem Dortmund’s manager doesn’t have whenever he weighs up his next public statement. In Germany they still have the luxury of feeling moral indignation when an energy-drink company tries to sneak its logo on to a club crest. They should enjoy it while it lasts.

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