Bavarian Fans Inspire Football Ownership Accountability

In November 2021, Bayern Munich experienced a momentous event that left a lasting impact on the club’s history. What unfolded that night had nothing to do with football, but rather with the values and democracy that Bayern’s fans hold dear.

The club’s annual general meeting, presided over by club president Herbert Hainer, concluded amidst chaos. Furious club members, many wearing masks, voiced their anger as Hainer prematurely ended the meeting, denying several members the opportunity to speak. The crowd chanted, “We are Bayern. Not you,” and demanded Hainer’s resignation.

The root cause of this unrest lay in Bayern’s association with Qatar. Since 2009, Bayern had been conducting winter training camps in Doha, and in 2018, they secured a sponsorship deal with Qatar Airways. This partnership drew widespread criticism from fans who saw it as a form of “sportswashing” for a country accused of human rights abuses.

In January 2020, critical fans organized a discussion panel featuring migrant workers from Qatar and human rights experts. Bayern was invited to send a representative but declined. This incident galvanized Bayern member Michael Ott, a trainee lawyer from Stuttgart, to take action. Before the 2021 AGM, Ott proposed a motion to halt the club’s deal with Qatar Airways. While the motion was not admitted, Ott spoke at the meeting, gaining significant support.

Although Ott’s motion did not immediately end the Qatar Airways deal, it set the stage for Bayern to terminate the partnership when the contract expired in June 2023. Around the same time, Qatar expanded its football interests, with Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad al-Thani expressing interest in purchasing Manchester United.

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While both Manchester United and Bayern Munich share a history of triumph and tragedy, they differ significantly in ownership structure. United is predominantly owned by the Glazer family, whereas Bayern operates under the 50+1 rule, which ensures that the parent club retains a significant say in the football operations.

United fans have long protested against the Glazers’ ownership, but their influence is limited. In contrast, German fans, including Bayern supporters, can exercise more influence due to the 50+1 rule, allowing them to participate actively in the club’s decisions.

Bayern’s 300,000 members hold a 75% stake in the club’s football operations, granting them a tangible sense of ownership. However, Bayern has taken steps to limit fan influence, creating challenges for members like Ott.

For German fans, direct action and protests, such as those that led to the discontinuation of Monday night Bundesliga fixtures in 2021, can be more effective than relying solely on club mechanisms. The 50+1 rule provides a legal basis for such campaigns, giving German fans a stronger position compared to their English counterparts.

In Munich, the battle for fan influence in football ownership may not be over. While Bayern’s deal with Qatar Airways has ended, the message that Bayern fans sent resonates as United visits the Allianz Arena. It serves as a reminder of how football fans can inspire change and demand accountability in the beautiful game.

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