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The impending death of 50+1

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Germany's 50+1 rule has for a long time been touted as one of the main reasons for the fan friendliness of the Bundesliga and other German leagues down the divisions. The 50+ 1 rule states that no single person or entity may possess more than 49,99 percent of the voting rights in a German club's professional football division, meaning that 50 percent plus one share remain in the possession of the club and its members. Whilst the other big leagues in Europe have been flooded with big investors and controversial figures who have taken clubs and turned them into something most fans didn't appreciate, German football has remained more democratic because club members have had more of a say than investors, thanks to the rule.

Many international investors have shunned the Bundesliga due to the rule, as gaining complete control of a club is impossible as things stand. Fans on the other hand have had more of a say when it comes to club policy and matters such as ticket prices and how the club should be run. As things stand investors may even risk that they are being told how the club they have bought into should spend its money. Having the masses tell you what you should do is truly a nightmare come true for rich oligarchs and sheikhs looking to spend their, more or less, hard earned oil money.

Rummenigge's controversial remarks

Given the space of media coverage football produces, the amount of money that is being shuffled around are still low. That sentence in itself may seem absurd and offensive, however, one doesn't get around the fact that any top 500 company makes tons more money than any football club in the Champions League. And even though the clubs of the Premier League have always generated a bigger interest than the Bundesliga, which in turn meant more money for them than the rest of the teams in Europe, the clubs in the elite circle of the Champions League have always had ways of making up for the difference in some way, shape or form. Bayern sent a signal when they managed to dish out 40 million Euros for Javi Martinez. "We can dish out just as much money as you lot", the message seemed to be from the offices at the Säbener Strasse.

However, now that Neymar has been bought for 222 million Euros and that clubs with super rich owners are willing to pay whatever it takes to get the right players for their team the question might very well be, will football clubs begin to throw around as much money as the big companies? Back in the day of Javi Martinez the sums around 50 million Euros weren't such a big leap for Bayern München, however these days even a club like the Bavarian juggernaut can't keep up with the pace being set by Paris St. Germain and the rest of the teams fighting for the services of Europe's biggest hyperstars.

The fact that the Neymar transfer would have almost wiped out all of Bayern's savings in one go must have sent shivers down the spines of both Uli Hoeness and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. The best employees always end up at the places that pay them the most in a free economy, and even though the rules of football seemingly aren't as predictable as the rules for other markets this still seems to be largely the case.

All these things considered one shouldn't be surprised by the fact that Karl-Heinz Rummenigge recently stated:
"Everyone must decide for himself whether to open the door for new investors. You must leave the decision with the clubs if they want this. We are the last of the big five leagues in Europe to keep out investors."

If FCB want to play a major role in the Champions League in years to come they must throw themselves onto the bandwagon of the clubs who can spend insane amounts of money on players and wages the message seems to be. Until recently Rummenigge used to be head of the European Club Association(ECA), which represented the interests of the biggest clubs in Europe. In that position the 61-year-old fought for the rights of the big boys of the game, which also meant that he might have a good idea of how certain trends are going to impact the game in the not too distant future. Fan involvement with the addition of rules that hinder investment are certainly not in the interest of a man who wants to generate as much as money as humanly possible in order to help Bayern get to the top of the European game.

Some may argue that Bayern have been the biggest benefactors of Germany's 50+1 rule. The fact that no investor has been able to come in with pockets full of money, bolstering up one of Bayern's competitors with loads of expensive signings has been a good thing for the Reds over the years. Above, the rule has created certainty and allowed Bayern to establish themselves safely at the top of the league. Being outspent on the transfer market by a competitor in the Bundesliga was never a problem the Bavarians were facing at any given point in the recent future. However, times are changing and as it turns out Rummenigge might be of the opinion that it might worth sacrificing that safety net in order to be able to keep up with the rest of Europe.

RB Leipzig – A toxic club for the rule

Rummenigge's attack on the 50+1 rule is the latest in a long series of statements made by officials at German clubs calling for its abolition. Fredi Bobic stated both back in his days at Stuttgart and again as Eintracht Frankfurt's sporting director that German football clubs need to be able to get investors on board which, according to the former striker, means that the rule has to go. These days one of Bayern's fiercest competitor, RB Leipzig, is a team that many fans loath with an unbridled passion precisely because of the club's disregard for the spirit of the 50+1 rule. Bayern's officials have been strangely supportive of the project in the past stating on several occasions that they appreciated the things going on in the capital of Saxony. Leipzig may follow the letter of the law, but so far very little seems to be Cinderella like when it comes to the rise to the top of the team from East-Germany.

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Sporting director Ralf Rangnick told AFP that his team's participation was a fairytale story come true as his club had been promoted 4 times in 5 years time prior of entering the competition for Europe's elite football clubs. However, most people would point out that RB so far have spent a whopping 173 million Euros on players all the while the club has received around 25 million Euros in transfer fees themselves. Given the fact that the Austrian soda maker backing the club has ensured that the operation in Leipzig was run like a top level football team with all the resources that requires from the very first day, one can see why Rasenballsport has managed to get through the division system all the way up to the Bundesliga so quickly.

Rangnick may scream at the top of his lungs about the fairytale come true in East Germany, but given the amount of money that has been thrown at this project it amounts to roughly the same as a porn star of many years saying that he or she is a virgin. Having said that, RB wouldn't be where they are if the likes of Rangnick didn't how to spend the money at hand well.

What makes life easy for those at the top of the pyramid is the club's membership structure. So far fans are only allowed to become supporting members of the club, meaning that they aren't allowed to vote on anything. The members who are allowed to vote amount to around 20 people according to the German newspaper Handelsblatt. Funnily enough all of those members have some relation to the Austrian soda maker who kickstarted the project. No fan revolts can topple those at the top of the club, not a single vote at the annual members meeting can surprise Dietrich Matteschitz(owner of the Austrian conglomerate) and whatever the fans put forward or want, they are at the mercy of corporate employees.

This horror scenario is precisely the sort of thing the 50+1 rule set out to prevent. Ralf Rangnick has stated in the past that he doesn't see the point of why club members should decide anything. And why would he? The working conditions is a dream come true for ambitious sporting directors who don't want any outside influences soiling their vision.

So far the 50+1 rule has been a pesky side note for those in charge of the club. Besides complaints by the DFL about the logo and the membership structure there has been very little outside pressure on the club though. After cosmetic changes to the logo(which funnily was approved by the DFB in the lower divisions) and minor changes to the membership structure that didn't do anything to give fans more influence at the club, the club now is complying with the laws set out by German football's governing bodies(according to these authorities).

Defenders of the project may compare RB to VfL Wolfsburg or Bayer Leverkusen. However, that line of defense doesn't take into account that these two teams have a long standing history of support by their corporate backers and the fact that they have been in the division for many years. Back when the 50+1 rule was written into the statutes of German football both teams already had been playing in the Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2 for many years. Therefore the Wolves and the Pharmaceuticals were granted exemptions from the rules. The corporate stooges in Leipzig tell the public that they are following the rules, but their actions and how the club was created run a mock of the spirit of the rules.

Martin Kind and Dietmar Hopp – Sugar daddies with their hands on the prize

Creating a club for marketing purposes and strategically placing it in a region that has been yearning for Bundesliga football for ages is probably the most cynical, or brilliant, move that anybody has managed to pull off since the rule was established. Circumnavigating the rule has proven to be far too easy for the liking of most Bundesliga fans, but there have been other forces at work to take down the rule for some time now. One of the most vocal opponents of the 50+1 rule has been Hannover 96's president Martin Kind. Last May the 73-year-old told German broadcaster Sky Sport News:
“I’m against the rule and I would recommend to dissolve the rule entirely. However, this is going to be difficult and therefore I would suggest modifying this rule.”

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This statement does hardly come as a surprise to most fans who have been following German football for some time. Kind already managed to force a change of the rule back in 2011. After taking his case to the courts the patron of the 96'ers won his case. Back in the day VfL Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkusen were granted exemptions, because their owners were involved for more than 20 years. After hearing the case the court decided that every owner who had been involved at the club for 20 or more years had to be given the same right as the owners of Germany's two plastic clubs.

The first beneficiary of the rule was Hoffenheim's Dietmar Hopp who was able to gain the majority of the shares back in 2015. At that point most people thought of Hoffenheim as a club which existed due to the software billionaires largess, meaning that his purchase turned him from de facto strongman to the legal owner of the club. Martin Kind has already been given the permission by the board to purchase the majority stake of the club and right now the deal is awaiting confirmation by the DFL. So far the fans have been fighting as hard as they can to stop the purchase from going through, but a first court case didn't yield in a court order that could have stopped the takeover from happening.

Hasan Ismaik – The man to challenge the status quo?

Even if the fans are successful in stopping the club from being owned by Martin Kind, their undertakings may turn out to be fruitless in the end due to the fact that the rule is being challenged by a rich investor who has had it with being told how his money should be spent. The liaison between Jordanian investor Hasan Ismaik and 1860 Munich has most of the time been a rather unhappy marriage. Rumour has it that the rich man thought that he was buying into Bayern Munich when he bought his stakes. After the purchase had gone through the 41-year-old was shocked to find out that he didn't have the necessary powers that would have allowed him to make the changes that he wanted.

After 6 years of fighting things escalated even more when the Lions were relegated from the Bundesliga 2. At that point the club officials and Ismaik failed to come to an agreement due to the Jordanian insisting that he'd be given more powers at the club. In the end the investor decided against putting up the 10 million Euros that would have allowed the club to play in the 3. Liga. Instead Munich's second biggest team had to start playing their matches in the Regionalliga Bayern.

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In the aftermath of the sporting disaster that saw 1860 being relegated, Ismaik decided that he should challenge the 50+1 rule. His thought on the rule he expressed in a Facebook post where he stated:
"This rule doesn't protect German football, it hurts it."

After his rant on social media Ismaik confirmed that he would try to overturn the rule by taking his chances in the court system. His first step would be to ask the German cartel office to take a closer look at the legality of the rule the investor fumed. If this approach doesn't yield results the rich investor stated that he is willing to take the case all the way to the European courts. Ismaik told Süddeutsche Zeitung that he expects that this process would take around 3 years.

If the rule is put under scrutiny of the legal system it might very well be determined to be illegal according to both German and European cartel law. Many legal experts in the field have stated in the past that the rule in itself wouldn't stand a chance if an investor is willing to challenge it. The fact that RB Leipzig haven't experienced any sort of harsh sanctions by the DFL all the while violating the spirit of the law indicates that the officials at the top of German football fear the consequences of a lawsuit that would put the rule up for legal review. Kind's case from 2011 tried to force the abandonment of the rule, but in the end the court decided against that. However, the Hannover 96 president was happy with his partial success which is likely to give him the chance to take over in the not too distant future. If Ismaik decides to go all the way, the 50 +1 rule might very well be toppled entirely in the end.
Niklas Wildhagen

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