Speaking on the TOMorrow podcast, former Bayern Munich CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge shared his concerns about the Bundesliga’s competitiveness in the face of the Premier League.
From this weekend stadiums across the Bundesliga and the 2. Bundesliga are back to capacity again, Borussia Dortmund’s ground is sold out for the first time since 29 February 2020 with 81,365 spectators in attendance for their game against RB Leipzig on Saturday evening. The 2. Bundesliga match between Dynamo Dresden and Schalke will be watched by 30,000 spectators. Two years after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, German football is looking forward to normality again.
But have Bundesliga clubs learned anything from the pandemic? If you ask Karl-Heinz Rummenigge the answer is basically no: “The big problem with professional football here is that it does not appear to change in spite of circumstances or challenges like what happened during the pandemic.”
Rummenigge is focused on the financial situation of the 18 Bundesliga clubs. With an eye on the Premier League, the top clubs of La Liga and Ligue 1, the former Bayern CEO raised his concerns in particular about the transfer fees available to the German clubs: “Salaries and transfer fees are still rising and any industry that increases its budgets during a crisis will have to pay a bill for that at some point and keeping up with the big money clubs is becoming a challenge for the Bundesliga,” Rummenigge explained.
Bayern are the ‘money kings’ of the Bundesliga but even they have had to let top-talent David Alaba move to Real Madrid following a breakdown in contract negotiations. The Munich team were unable to meet the Austrian defender’s salary demand which Kicker reported to be €22.5m per season.
Likewise, Niklas Süle rejected a new contract at the Allianz Arena for an unspecified ‘improved deal’ with Borussia Dortmund. There are also rumours this week in Germany’s leading Sports title Kicker Sportmagazin of a serious offer from Barcelona for Robert Lewandowski.
Likewise, Thomas Müller and Manuel Neuer are also in the midst of contract negotiations and the resolve of Bayern bosses is being tested with Müller in particular repeatedly raising his concerns about a lack of a suitable contract extension in the press in recent weeks.
Rummenigge, himself a former world-class striker with Bayern and one of the first million-dollar transfers in Bundesliga history, moving from Bayern to Inter in 1984, sees UEFA as being primarily responsible for a “worrying debt level in the game.”
In particular, Barcelona whose debts currently stand at €454m and Real Madrid who reported liabilities of €354m for 20/21 are highlighted by the 66-year-old for flaunting the Financial Fair Play rules: “The Fair Play rules are simply not working, clubs should not be spending more than they take in simple,” the two-time Ballon d’Or winner said.
It is not La Liga however that the 66-year-old highlighted as the primary problem but England’s top tier: “The Premier League is the primary driving force in European football, their clubs are at the top of their game, especially this season only the two top Spanish clubs and PSG can keep up, surely it’s not in UEFA’s interest for one league to be so dominant?.”
Rummenigge who as a player twice won the predecessor of the Champions League, the European Cup with the Munich club, raised his concerns in particular about the “limitations that the ’50+1′ rule imposes on clubs.” The regulation which limits any single investor to owning a maximum of 49% of any Bundesliga club has been in place since 2000 and came under fire in the interview: “The 50+1 rule is a huge handicap and the big question that has to be asked in the Bundesliga is how long can we afford restrictions that prioritise tradition more than competitiveness?.”
Whilst Rummenigge acknowledged the fan’s desire to maintain the historically strong ties with the clubs that the member-owned club structure which is maintained by the 50+1 rule he also criticised the regulation for being outdated: “Tradition is a great asset in German football which is deeply valued by most of our fans. But if we don’t reform the 50+1 rule so that investors are allowed to invest in the Bundesliga at some point soon then the question arises as to how long the Bundesliga can maintain competitiveness.”
Rummenigge further criticised the 50+1 rule referring to it as a ‘relic’ and emphasised the effect of the rule in terms of holding Germany’s club back in particular in the face of leagues with more liberal investment laws like the Premier League: “It is no coincidence that the transfer market is dominated by one country England, in real terms, not even Real Madrid and Barcelona can keep up with the top English clubs in money-terms as things stand at the moment.”
The 50+1 rule was introduced by the German football federation when the DFL the operating body of the top tier, the Bundesliga, was founded in 2000 and for the former Bayern CEO, who won the European Championship with Germany in 1980, for one thinks the time has come to modernise: “That rule was introduced 22 years ago and we have to think about whether it would not be more competitive to adopt this rule for the sake of the competitiveness of the German league.”
Rummenigge underlined the Bundesliga’s inability to retain and buy the best talent: “In particular in the face of international competition, the ability to really compete is dependent on a club’s ability to secure the best talent and in that respect, the English clubs have an unassailable advantage with their ability to buy almost at will the leading players right now.”
The culprits are also soon found, Rummenigge, who has held a position on the board at Bayern since 1991 and has become a leading voice in the Bundesliga, took aim at UEFA and FIFA demanding that they act to curb the dizzying levels of fees being demanded by the player’s advisers and agents: “We are running after ever more money to generate even more revenue, but any extra income is going from one pocket that of the clubs into the other pocket that of the players and their advisors with the clubs having little to show for it most of the time.”
With six of the seven Premier League clubs that qualified for European competition this season reaching the last 16 of European competition and only three of the German clubs; Bayern Munich, Eintracht Frankfurt and RB Leipzig, and the latter thanks to Spartak Moscow’s banned due to the conflict in Ukraine, 2021/22 is the weakest season for the Bundesliga in European competition since 2014/15.
Although the Bundesliga clubs appear financially to have weathered the pandemic better than some with 12 of the 18 clubs reporting a surplus in 20/21, there is little doubt that the pandemic has had an effect on the Bundesliga. Even with full grounds, it remains to be seen as to whether the German game can, at least in the medium term, return to the pre-pandemic success on the pitch of the 2019/20 season which saw both RB Leipzig and Bayern Munich reach the semi-finals with the latter winning the title.
For now, at least the 50+1 rule will continue to come under fire from ambitious clubs who want to match the financial prowess of the Premier League and indeed three clubs Wolfsburg, Bayer Leverkusen and RB Leipzig which are essentially corporate-owned clubs, maintain a different structure to the remaining member clubs of the Bundesliga.
Although transfer spending does not always translate into points, in the January transfer window Wolfsburg’s €48m splurge made up two-thirds of the overall transfer activity of the league the club find themselves only six points off a relegation place.
Whether a liberalisation of the governance of Bundesliga clubs and more investment would result in increased competitiveness is unknown at this time. But one thing is for sure an end to the 50+1 rule would not be popular with the members any club undertaking the change in the structure will have a battle on its hands. In a league where fans love the influence that membership gives them, as Hannover 96 President Martin Kind found out in 2009 when an overwhelming majority of 32 out of 35 clubs voted against the proposal to end the rule, even the challenges of the pandemic and playing behind closed doors may not be enough for the type of far-reaching reform that Rummenigge has in mind.