During Bayern Munich's 2-1 win over Freiburg in the Bundesliga on Saturday, a huge banner was unfurled by supporters behind the goal at the Allianz Arena.
"We'll wash anything clean for money," read the text, above depictions of Bayern CEO Oliver Kahn and club president Herbet Hainer putting blood-stained clothing labeled "Qatar" into a washing machine, surrounded by bank notes. "You can rely on us," read the text on Kahn's briefcase.
The banner was just the latest in a long line of fan protests against Bayern Munich's business dealings with Qatar, including a kit sleeve sponsorship with state airline Qatar Airways and annual winter training camps in the Arab country since 2011.
For critics, including the supporters behind the banner, Bayern Munich is willfully engaged in "sportswashing," laundering the image of Qatar which is using football to distract from egregious human rights abuses.
But on Wednesday, speaking on a podcast from WDR, a German public broadcaster, former CEO and Bayern legend Karl Heinz Rummenigge defended the club's engagement with the Gulf state.
"We at Bayern Munich have made good money from this contract, money which is necessary for us to pay for the players we need to provide quality on the pitch," he said.
What Rummenigge said about Qatar
Rummenigge, who is also a representative of the European Club Association on UEFA's Executive Committee, repeated his assertion that Bayern's links to Qatar have brought about positive changes in terms of human rights and working conditions in Qatar.
"I have often flown to Brussels to speak with NGOs about what else we can do and how they see things," he said. "They all confirm to me: keep going, don't let up. Of all the Arab states, you have to say that Qatar has made the biggest improvements."
Human rights organizations, however, maintain that human rights abuses in Qatar are as problematic as ever. Earlier this year, the Guardian reported that 6,500 migrant workers have lost their lives in Qatar since the nation was awarded the right to host the 2022 World Cup back in 2010, a figure the British newspaper said is "likely to be an underestimate."
Amnesty International expert Lisa Salza recently told German media from the Funke Group that the situation for migrant workers in Qatar was still "precarious” and that "exploitative employers are still not being sanctioned by the government."
How Bayern Munich fans are taking action
Back in Munich, one Bayern supporter, one of 293,000 club members, has submitted a motion to the club's annual general meeting at the end of November, demanding that the club commits to not extending its current sponsorship deal with Qatar Airways, which runs until 2023, and to not enter into further deals with Qatari companies.
"This sponsorship deal represents the one-sided transmission of a marketing message for the benefit of Qatar," Michael Ott told Kicker magazine this week.
Ott is not the first Bayern fan to attempt to directly influence the club on this matter. In 2019, another member submitted a motion to alter the club's statutes to oblige the club to consider the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights when signing sponsorship deals, but the motion wasn't admitted.
In January 2020, the same member also helped organize an event in Munich at which human rights experts and former migrant workers discussed the working conditions for migrants in Qatar. Bayern Munich declined to send a representative. A month later, he attended a reserve team match at which Bayern fans protested against Monday night fixtures and later received an internal banning order, ostensibly for helping display an anti-Monday banner. The case is ongoing.
"I found that unacceptable, I was utterly ashamed of my club," said Ott, a 28-year-old lawyer, of Bayern's refusal to take part in the human rights discussion. "That's when I told myself: this can't go on, we have to do something more than just protest banners. During the pandemic, I've had a bit of time to do my research … and formulate the motion in such a way that it can't be rejected."
What Rummenigge said about the 50+1 rule
Rummenigge continues to insist, as he did at the Bayern AGM in 2019, that "dialogue improves things, criticizing or ignoring doesn't help." He also told the WDR podcast this week that such sponsorship deals are necessary if Bayern are to compete internationally against the likes of UAE-owned Manchester City, Qatari-owned Paris Saint-Germain or Chelsea, owned by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich.
"Being able to compete is the most important thing in football," he said. "If we're competing against nation-states and billionaires with unlimited amounts of money, but we in Germany have a completely different culture, namely with the 50+1 rule, then there will come a point where we have to start worrying about the Bundesliga and its clubs."
The 50+1 rule stipulates that a German football club and its members must retain 50% of the voting shares plus one share in the commercial company in which most clubs' professional football teams are organized. This prevents majority takeovers of the sort frequently seen in English football, most recently the Saudi Arabian takeover of Newcastle United.
Exemptions to the 50+1 rule are permitted if an investor can prove 20 years of "uninterrupted and substantial financial support," and currently apply to Bayer Leverkusen, VfL Wolfsburg and TSG Hoffenheim. Rummenigge thinks this is now a problem.
"That was the initial mistake," he said. "Now we have clubs in the Bundesliga who are not playing under the same conditions as everyone else."
The likes of Leverkusen, Wolfsburg and Hoffenheim are now established in the top-flight despite relatively low interest from fans, while traditional giants such as Hamburg, Schalke and Werder Bremen are languishing in the second division, or even lower.
Effects of this trend could be seen early in October. Only 12,800 fans turned up to watch Wolfsburg vs. Borussia Mönchengladbach in the Bundesliga on October 2. That same day, 12,500 attended Rot-Weiss Essen vs. Rot-Weiss Oberhausen, two former Bundesliga clubs now in the fourth division.
"Of course, with our fan culture in Germany, we miss these clubs," said Rummenigge. "But the problem is not to be found in Hoffenheim or Wolfsburg, but in Hamburg and elsewhere. These clubs have to be self-critical enough to recognize that they have made big mistakes which have ultimately led to relegation."
What Rummenigge said about Financial Fair Play
In order to help avert such mistakes in future and to level the financial playing field in European football as a whole, Rummenigge has proposed a new, revamped version of UEFA's "financial fair play" mechanism, or "FFP 3.0," whereby a club can only invest 60% of their total turnover in player wages.
"I am a huge fan of financial fair play," he said. "European football is currently facing the problem that clubs are making losses but still have the best and most expensive players on the payroll, and cannot be the aim.
"We have to find regulations, and that's not easy. Football has to be attractive and entertaining, but it also has to be serious and [financially] sound. This is in the best interest of the game."