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Eintracht Frankfurt's Europa League success is a victory for the Bundesliga and its fan ownership model

Eintracht Frankfurt’s Europa League success has done more than silence the Bundesliga critics for a few seconds. It’s a vindication of German football’s fan ownership model: 50+1.

After having finished, the 2020/21 season just outside the Champions League spot and having lost their head coach to a league rival, Eintracht Frankfurt fans could be forgiven for feeling a tinge of disappointment going into this season.

Eintracht are not a club that takes success for granted and celebrates it with huge passion, noise and in vast numbers. A Bundesliga 2 outfit as recently as 2012 this massive club with a huge fan-base has experienced some pretty desperate lows, only to bounce back. They beat Bayern Munich to win the DFB Pokal in 2018, and have proved colourful entrants in recent seasons the Europa League. Last season looked like they may be rewarded for the patient rebuilding that has taken place in the last decade and get to play in the big show: The Champions League.

But it didn’t happen. Die Adler were thwarted by local rivals Mainz, which opened the door for Borussia Dortmund to vibe their way to the final seat at Europe’s top table.

And when the Borussia Mönchengladbach bound coach, Adi Hütter’s replacement was announced there were concerns that Oliver Glasner’s more ponderous approach would not go well with a squad configured to Hutter’s more in-your-face style of football. Those concerns were well-founded when the former Wolfsburg boss watched his new team lose in the season opening first round of the German Cup to Waldhof Manheim of the third division. Indeed, taken as a whole, the domestic season has been underwhelming. Eintracht failed to qualify for Europe, finishing eleventh in the Bundesliga.

However, as we must surely all have heard by now, domestic achievement was sacrificed for spectacular Europe League success.

Even if Frankfurt had lost the final in Seville, last night (and they very easily could) it would still have been a triumph of sorts. Not the shiny cup, fancy medals, complimentary pizza for the rest of your life kind of success, I’ll grant you. But as a club that has set its mind to rebuilding after years of mediocrity and failure, SGE’s appearance in the final is a testimony to the club’s back room staff, led by the recently departed sporting direct Freddy Bobic who now has the dubious pleasure of trying to repeat the feat with Hertha BSC.

In winning the Europa League, Frankfurt have done more than just reduce the ammo for tedious EPL stans who regard the German top tier as a “farmer’s league” and witter on about the “Bundesliga tax”. This victory also acts as an inspiration to all traditionsverein (traditional clubs) that have gone into decline in recent years.

Their is a perception that, in order to stop Bayern Munich from winning the Bundesliga in perpetuity, the ownership rules of the clubs need to change. That the 50+1 rule which - with a few exceptions - applies to all clubs, prevents Bundesliga sides from maximizing their income by allowing individuals or private consortiums to buy a majority stake and pump lots more cash for players and facilities so they can challenge for honours and challenge Bayern. Proponents of this view point to the relative success of Bayer Leverkusen, Wolfsburg that were founded as factory clubs but taken on by their owners (Bayer and Volkswagen respectively) to greater heights, thanks to judicious funding at various times in their history. The Red Bull owned Rasenballsport Leipzig, while technically 50+1, have circumvented the rules by restricting club membership to a handful of Red Bull employees. RB is to all intents and purposes under the sole ownership of the energy drink sporting empire and, it must be said, is doing well. Hoffenheim, while not under the sole ownership of its benefactor Dietmar Hopp, may as well be as the billionaire software tycoon has bankrolled the club from humble beginnings in the fourth tier to being a hum-drum Bundesliga grey mouse about which very little is said, these days.

Truth to tell there maybe something in this argument. Although it goes without saying that if you relax the ownership rules for the whole league then Bayern Munich get to benefit from them as well. And if the Bavarian giants prove adept at running their club with billionaires at their back and without their management team having to sit through AGMs as they do now under 50+1, then we may be waiting even longer for a different Bundesliga champion.

And there’s the rub. Bayern haven’t achieved total domination to the extent that they can have a disappointing campaign and still win the league in April, as they did this season. Their achievements are built on having good people doing their jobs well and investing their money with the sole purpose of winning more football matches. As we have seen in many other countries, including Germany, money can easily be wasted. Ask Everton fans. Ask Hertha fans.

In truth, I suspect that the only way for Bundesliga clubs to bridge the gap to Bayern is for their rivals, both traditional and recent, to be the best version of themselves: run their clubs sensibly and hire the best people they can afford and patiently build. That’s what Eintracht have done, and now, not only are they are holders of a European trophy, but will earn a minimum of €20 million for playing in the Champions League. If they spend their money wisely their continued development will be accelerated and we can expect more great things from the Frankfurt club in the coming seasons.

In his daily newsletter, journalist Pit Gottschalk wrote “The European Cup victory in Seville should therefore be an encouragement for all traditional clubs that you can control their passion profitably. Frankfurt showed them how.” If the big traditional clubs with international support such as Stuttgart, Werder Bremen, Schalke and Hamburg can get their acts together, there is no reason why they can’t return to prominence and even one day challenge for honours. It will take time but if Eintracht Frankfurt can do it then so can they.

Similarly, the smaller majority of fan-owned clubs have also enjoyed great success this season. Union Berlin finished fifth, automatically entering the group stage of the Europa League. And if SC Freiburg can beat Leipzig in the German Cup final tomorrow, that will be a further vindication of 50+1 and that this ownership model is not a barrier but a pathway to genuine success and glory.

Picture credit: Werner100359, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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