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German fan protests intensify in the fight against external investors

Over the last week, there was no shortage of action on the pitch in German football. Yet the game between Hertha Berlin and Hamburg was overshadowed by events in the stands as tennis balls were continually thrown onto the pitch in protest. The fixture was held up for 32 minutes in total, creating a lot of headlines and drawing further attention to the situation.

In a continuation of protests against the German Football League's (DFL) decision to bring in an external strategic partner via private equity investment, there was also significant disruption to the game at Berlin's Olympiastadion which HSV won 2-1.

What are the German fan protests all about?

In December 2023, a vote was carried to approve the investment for a share of TV revenue but only just. From the 36 clubs in the top two divisions of German football (the DFL league body), a two-thirds majority is required for a proposal to be passed. This particular motion returned 24  in favour, with 10 against and two clubs abstaining, therefore reaching the quota by just one vote.

This would be contentious on its own but since the vote, there has been significant consternation expressed in the stands over what was a secret ballot and growing suspicion that Hannover 96 chief Martin Kind voted against the directed position of his club.

Supporters have demanded an open, transparent re-run of the ballot, with some clubs speaking out in favour of this.

The agreement is said to involve selling six to nine per cent of the shares in a DFL subsidiary, to which all media rights are outsourced, over the next two decades, at a cost of around €800 million to €1 billion.

Hertha Ultras lead the revolt

In the prime game last Saturday night in front of a massive TV audience, Hertha Ultras led the latest revolt against the plan, supported by their HSV counterparts in the away section.

During the first half, the game was held up for a couple of minutes as the tennis balls came from the Hamburg end. A point was made, with banners held up by the fans, but it was little more than an interruption.

Then in the second half, the serve was well and truly returned by Hertha supporters as a large volume of balls hit the pitch. Considering the running track around the historic venue in the German capital, the balls were not only thrown but catapulted. Some pyrotechnics followed.

Not once, but twice the disruption emerged, leading the referee to lead the teams off the pitch with a threat of abandonment if the protests resumed. The action had succeeded, it was the main talking point of the night beyond what was a good, competitive game between the sides. The protests dominated the talking points on TV shows over the weekend and since, with plenty of media coverage.

As well as in Berlin, there were other protests at Bayern Munich's game against Borussia Monchengladbach and from Stuttgart fans in their away fixture at Freiburg.

Icon mis 020324BFRF13
03.02.2024, Fussball 1. Bundesliga 2023/2024, 20.Spieltag, FC Bayern München – Borussia Mönchengladbach, in der Allianz-Arena München. Investoren-Deal mit CVC?!
3 Mio Euro Bonus für den Liga – Boss in Frankreich
Welche Boni streichen DFL-Funktionäre ein? . – Photo by Icon Sport

Why are there so many German fan protests?

The matter goes to the heart of what makes German football what it is, the standing and stakeholding of the supporters in the game, their game.

We know all about the standing sections and beer that Germany is renowned for, but the supporters cherish the say they have in their football, the representation and input which underpins the 50+1 rule, maintaining democratic member-led clubs for the majority.

There is an ever-present suspicion of external involvement and over-commercialisation, and especially when that emanates from abroad.

The DFL's investor deal would see private equity funds CVC and Blackstone entering the fray, both of which have Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (PIF) as an investor. This is never going to meet the approval of the organised German supporters, especially not the hardcore ultras on the terraces.

Hertha Berlin's supporters were proud of the principled stand they took, even telling their players and manager Pal Dardai that the result of one individual game pales into insignificance against the greater battle.

What happens next?

More campaigning and protesting from the supporters is guaranteed, to crank up the pressure on the DFL.

With some clubs joining supporters to demand a new vote, the noise isn't going away and it will only get louder. This coming weekend sees the top-of-the-table clash between Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich. Will the game pass without incident in the stands? That appears very unlikely, especially given the interest there will be nationwide and around the world.

The debate and the protests continue.


Graeme Hanna

A long-term Rangers season-ticket holder and switched-on football writer with a passion for fan culture, Graeme Hanna is a freelance writer who has featured in titles such as The Rangers Review, Glasgow Evening News and Give Me Sport, as well as having a long association with Follow Follow fanzine. He joined Football Ground Guide in September 2023 and stated that Juan Roman Riquelme is the best opposition player that he has seen at Ibrox. Graeme experienced a 36 hour supporters bus journey from Glasgow to Florence for the 2008 UEFA Cup semi-final and has attended games in several European counties with a particular interest in German fan culture.

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