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Bundesliga title race shows England another way

February 19, 2023

Amid reports of further middle-eastern investment in the Premier League, the Bundesliga finds itself with a three-way title race. Not only are Bayern, Dortmund & Union level on points, they also adhere to the 50+1 rule.

Borussia Dortmund captain Marco Reus celebrates with teammates after scoring against Hertha Berlin
A different route to goal: Borussia Dortmund went level on points at the top of the BundesligaImage: Wunderl/BEAUTIFUL SPORTS/picture alliance

Borussia Dortmund and Union Berlin capitalized on a Bayern Munich defeat this weekend to draw level on points with the Bavarians at the top of the Bundesliga in the closest title race Germany has seen in years.

After Bayern's 3-2 loss to Borussia Mönchengladbach on Saturday, Sunday saw Dortmund beat Hertha Berlin 4-1 to go level on 43 points, while Union could even have gone top outright had they beaten Schalke, instead settling for a goalless draw and a point against the struggling Royal Blues.

It's the first time that three teams have been tied on points at the top at this stage of the season since the introduction of three-points-per-win in 1995/96 and, with Union playing Bayern next week and Dortmund also still to play both, there is cautious hope that the Bavarians' ten-year stranglehold on the league could perhaps be broken.

The desire for a serious challenger and a genuine title race is understandably strong in Germany – even among some Bayern supporters, if they're truly honest with themselves. But the debate about how exactly to go about achieving that has split German football for a decade.

Powerful voices at certain clubs and in certain media – most recently Bayern Munich's honorary president Uli Hoeness – claim that German football's restrictions on club ownership discourage the sort of investment which could help Bundesliga clubs challenge Europe's elite abroad and Bayern at home.

But a significant body of German supporters remain adamant that they'd rather see twenty consecutive Bayern championships than sell majority stakes in their clubs to outside investors.

Premier League ownership: cause for concern, not envy

Indeed, England's Premier League may have had five different champions since anyone other than Bayern last won the Bundesliga, but the identities and ownership structures of those clubs tend to be cause for warnings in Germany, rather than envy.

Manchester City, winners in four of those seasons, are 88% controlled by the Abu Dhabi-owned City Football Group and are currently the subject of an investigation into financial irregularities by the Premier League. Chelsea, champions in 2015 and 2017, were recently the subject to a forced sale by the British government following Russia's invasion of Ukraine due to former owner Roman Abramovich's ties to Vladimir Putin.

Even Leicester City's "fairytale" of 2016 was bankrolled by Thailand's Srivaddhanaprabha family and their King Power group, while Liverpool's American owners, Fenway Sports Group, were forced to back-track over their role in the attempted European Super League coup of 2021, and have since put the club up for sale.

And now this weekend, investors linked to the state of Qatar launched an official bid for record champions Manchester United, who themselves have been stripped of over £1 billion ($1.2bn/€1.12bn) by the Glazer family since 2005.

A successful Qatari bid for United would follow last year's takeover of Newcastle United by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia and effectively complete the transformation of English football's top flight into a geopolitical tool for a group of middle-eastern states.

Borussia Dortmund supporters waving flags on the famous Yellow Wall during the Bundesliga game against Hertha Berlin
Supporters not customers: German fans have a say in the running of their clubs, and they're not afraid to use itImage: Ralf Treese/DeFodi Images/picture alliance

The Bundesliga shows there is another way

This weekend, however, the Bundesliga has shown that there is another way.

The entire top four (Bayern, Dortmund, Union and, three points further adrift, Freiburg) all adhere, to varying degrees, to Germany's 50+1 rule, which stipulates that the parent clubs retain majority voting rights in the companies which operate the professional teams, preventing the sort of majority takeovers by external investors seen in England.

Indeed, Union Berlin and Freiburg go even further, being two of only four current Bundesliga clubs which are 100% owned by their members. The recent successes of both (Freiburg reached the German Cup final last season, while Union's latest step on their incredible journey came with a goalless draw away at European giants Ajax in the Europa League this week), vindicates their approach.

Another member-controlled German club, Eintracht Frankfurt, even won the Europa League last year, knocking out Premier League West Ham United en route.

Now, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund are hardly volunteer-run, not-for-profit charities themselves (Bayern have sold 8.33% stakes to Allianz, Audi and Adidas respectively while Dortmund are listed on the German stock exchange) but, in both cases, club members still retain ultimate control.

Fan power

And those members – the fans – know how to exert that control. Back in 2021, the threat of serious consequences at annual general meetings played a role in keeping Bayern and Dortmund out of those ill-fated Super League plans.

Even on Sunday as Dortmund strolled to a 4-1 win – their eighth win in a row in all competitions – their supporters unfurled banners criticizing examples of what they perceive to be over-commercialization both at their own club and within the league as a whole.

"You adorn yourselves with the symbols of the working class," read one banner as Dortmund's players took to the field wearing all-black kits rather than their traditional yellow as part of a club initiative to honor the industrial heritage of the city in coal mining and steel. The one-off kits are available to buy for €90 ($96), but the monetization the club's working class traditions is seen as hypocritical.

"But don't forget them with your ticket prices!" continued the message, a reference to the fact that, while match tickets at German clubs may be extremely fairly priced in comparison to the Premier League, standing season tickets at Dortmund are still the most expensive in the Bundesliga at €240 ($256) per season.

Next, there was a political criticism of the German Football League (DFL)'s latest plan to boost investment in the league by potentially selling shares in the league as a whole, rather than in individual clubs. "[You want to] strengthen the league's ability to compete?" asked one banner. "Sustainable solutions, not a total sell-out!" demanded the next. "No to the sale of DFL shares!"

In England, on the other hand, opposition to state takeovers at Manchester City and Newcastle United was conspicuous by its absence. It's unlikely to be much different on the red side of Manchester should United be sold to Qatar.

Indeed, rather than resist, fans appear to actively welcome their new overlords, concerns over human rights abuses or sportswashing glossed over by promises of reflected glory, which they'll tell themselves is theirs. But it's not.

In Germany, however, the successes of Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Union Berlin this season do belong to their supporters, who have a legal stake in their clubs. With all three now level on points at the top of the Bundesliga, however, it's just a question of which way it's going to go.

Whatever happens, it's proof that the German model can work, and proof that there is another way.