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THE German Bundesliga is set to return next weekend, becoming the first of Europe’s high-profile leagues to take to the pitch during the coronavirus crisis.
If it is a success, the move will be seen as an example for other leagues to follow, but this return to the pitch isn’t a return to football as we know it.
The game will be much weaker in the supporters’ absence, and the power of fans at the game, especially in Germany, will be there for all to see in these empty facilities where games will be played over the coming months.
This provides an opportunity for match goers to make their voices heard in other ways, reminding TV companies, other shareholders and sponsors of the role of the fans, how the game is run and who it is run for.
The Bundesliga is more open to change and supporter input than most other leagues thanks to the 50+1 rule applied to the majority of clubs which means members always have the majority share.
Changes which might be impossible in other domestic European competitions such as the English Premier League, which has little to no restrictions on who can take complete control of these historic football institutions, are at least workable in Germany if the desire for such change exists.
In a statement released in April via the website of Wurzburger Kickers fan group, B-Block, a number of German fan organisations signalled their opposition to football’s return behind closed doors. They were against any form of football being played without fans present.
“The resumption of football, even in the form of games behind closed doors, is not justifiable in the current situation,” it read. “Especially not under the guise of social responsibility.”
Given that fans may not be able to attend games until well into 2021, this raised the question of what would happen to clubs in the meantime.
CEO of the DFL (German Football League), Christian Seifert, believes that many clubs would cease to exist were the league not restarted.
“Games behind closed doors are not an ideal solution for anyone, but in a crisis threatening the very existence of some clubs, it is the only way to keep the leagues going in their current form,” he said during a press conference on Wednesday.
Union Berlin president Dirk Zingler is of a similar mindset when it comes to the restart of the 2019/20 season, but emphasised the importance of supporters to the game as a whole.
“Games without people will not be much fun for us,” Zingler said after it was announced on Thursday that the league would restart next Saturday, May 16.
“In addition to the economic, legal, and organisational issues, the coming weeks also include a mental challenge.
“Football is deeply rooted in society through people, which is why it is important for us to keep the period of time without spectators in the stadium as short as possible.”
It is easier to make a case for member-owned clubs who have been working together throughout the crisis — from players and staff to supporters — to make a responsible, safe and considered return to work in the correct manner for the right reasons.
Union Berlin supporters have already suggested donations in the form of Geistertickets, which would see them make a contribution to the club of the price of a matchday ticket, even though they are only able to watch on TV.
Union fans have already refused refunds on their tickets for this season’s remaining games, but Zingler wants to be careful that this goodwill from the supporters isn’t taken advantage of.
“You should only do this in a real emergency and not for any PR reasons. You can’t just have people reaching into their pockets all the time,” he added.
Though some fans remain divided on whether football should resume at all, the statement released in April by Germany’s fan groups contained many other relevant points.
“Obviously, professional football has much deeper problems,” it continued.
“A system which has received sums of money beyond the imagination of many people is on the verge of collapse within a month.
“The preservation of the structures is completely dependent on the flow of television funds. The clubs exist in total dependence on the rights holders.
“The question of why, despite all the millions, there seems to be no sustainability in professional football, and how the structures and clubs can be made more robust and crisis-proof in the future, has not been asked by any official.
“For years, fans have been demanding reforms for a fairer distribution of TV revenues, and have criticised the lack of solidarity between large and small clubs.”
The fan groups took it upon themselves to ask these questions and called for changes in the way the game is managed financially, and especially a move away from the reliance on TV money.
Their focus was also on clubs below the top divisions who are often forgotten in the clamour for football to return, and suggested there should be a better flow of resources from top to bottom.
“The current challenge is also an opportunity,” they added. “The associations should understand this crisis and fundamentally change the structures of modern football. It’s about time!
“A future solution must be based on solidarity. There must be no winners and losers after this crisis.
“The gap between ‘large’ and ‘small’ must not widen further. We expressly include the clubs of the third division and the regional leagues for which games behind closed doors are not an option.
“The discussion about fundamental reforms to make professional football more sustainable and economically crisis-proof must start now.
“It must not only be managed by fans and journalists but is the central task of those responsible for the clubs and associations.”
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