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Page last updated at 13:11 GMT, Friday, 17 September 2010 14:11 UK

German club fans set for boycott

Football badges

By John Sinnott

Two historic matches take place in the industrial heartlands of England and Germany this Sunday that throw into focus just how little Premier League fans have been able to influence boardroom change.

Thousands of Liverpool supporters will make the trip to watch their team play Manchester United at Old Trafford, with large majorities of both sets of fans unhappy about the way their clubs have been run by their respective American owners.

Over in Germany, thousands of Borussia Dortmund fans are similarly unhappy - with the major difference that they will not be travelling to watch their team take on Schalke in the Bundesliga.

A boycott has been organised in protest against a hike in visitor ticket prices and 1,500 Dortmund fans have already returned their tickets. Many supporters have been unable to get refunds but still will not travel.

More than 300 different Dortmund supporter groups across Germany are involved in the boycott, which is designed to highlight unease at being asked to pay more than 22 euro (£19) for a standing ticket. Last season, Schalke were charging 13.50 euro for the same match, while Liverpool fans will have to fork out £51 for a ticket at Old Trafford.

One day we will have the keys to Liverpool - maybe not in my lifetime - but I genuinely believe it will happen

Spirit of Shankly's James McKenna

"This protest is not aimed towards Schalke but against the price hike which basically every club here in Germany is part of," Stephan Uersfeld, of the German fanzine Schwatzgelb, told BBC Sport.

"Now, for the first time, the 20 euro mark has been crossed by a club and we are no longer willing to sit back and find out what happens next. It is time to raise our voices, no matter what club it is."

Uersfeld, who pays 184 euro (£152) to watch Borussia's 17 home Bundesliga games as well as one European match, insists football supporters have more power than they might think.

"We are part of the game, part of the business, but people do not take us seriously," he said. "What happens if the fans don't show up? Can they be replaced by another audience?"

In the past, some English fans have been prepared to boycott the club that they support, notably the bands of supporters that formed FC United and AFC Wimbledon.

FC United was set up in 2005 in protest to how Manchester United had moved further away from its local supporters, culminating in the takeover of the club by American owner Malcolm Glazer.

AFC Wimbledon began its existence in 2002 to preserve the local club's history after a decision was taken to move the club from its original west London base to Milton Keynes with a new name of MK Dons.

"The Wimbledon Independent Supporters Association had a database of 1,500 members," said long-standing AFC Wimbledon supporter Laurence Lowne, who helped mobilise opposition to former Wimbledon owner Charles Koppel's plan to move north.

"We had lines of communication in play and were very active," added Lowne, who was part of a boycott of Wimbledon's home game with Rotherham in 2002 that saw just 849 fans attend the match - one of the lowest Football League crowds in history.

But it is telling that these supporters chose to set up alternative clubs rather than hang around - in the case of FC United - for the likes of the Glazer family to start listening to their concerns.

Statue of Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and George Best
Match day income is around 38% of United's total revenues

"There is an anti-intellectual strain in English culture," said Dave Boyle, chief executive of Supporters Direct, which aims to create the conditions in which fans can secure influence ownership of clubs.

"Many fans aren't interested in taking collective action. For many, football is about getting away from the wife, kids and their working life.

"On the other side of the coin, there aren't that many enlightened chief executives. People like Ivan Gazidis at Arsenal are in the minority. Too many take the view: 'What's the worst that can happen if I don't take these fans seriously?'"

While some fans decamped to set up FC United, the Manchester United Supporters' Trust (Must) has been fighting a campaign to force the Glazer family to sell the Premier League club.

In the summer, Manchester United failed to sell out their season ticket allocation, selling 51,800, compared to its target of 54,000, but blogger and United season ticket holder Andersred, who has written extensively about the club's finances, believes boycotting Old Trafford matches would be more symbolic than practical.

"I'm sure David Gill et al would worry if the television showed banks of empty seats, it certainly takes away from the "allure" of United and Old Trafford," he said.

"The interesting time will come when United have a poor season.

"With unsold season tickets already, the time could come in future years when there are a significant number of unsold seats - perhaps in the aftermath of Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement if that leads to a dip in form."

Back at Anfield, James McKenna - who is a Liverpool fan and member of the supporter group Spirit of Shankly - burst out laughing when he heard how much Schalke were proposing to charge Dortmund fans even after a price increase from last season.

Schalke fans
A Schalke season ticket for a seat behind the goal costs 292

In June the price of a Kop seat booked online rose to £680 with the main stand priced at £732 - a 7% increase.

This season McKenna, who helps run the Spirit of Shankly - one of the supporter groups unhappy about the way owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett are running the club - decided to give up his season ticket in protest at the Americans' continued presence at Anfield.

"I took the decision I didn't just want to support them financially," said McKenna.

"We have thought of boycotting them. But supporters think it's our football club and they don't want to be pushed out and lose their identity.

"I've made a decision to give up my season ticket, but it's difficult for others who have been given their tickets by their fathers.

"A boycott would have to be regular and sustained to make it work, but it probably would be successful. It sends a powerful message that they can no longer be depended on for our financial support.

"Having said that there is a lot of apathy. People just don't care and they just want to watch 90 minutes of football."

Sunday's match is not the first time this season that German fans have voiced their unhappiness as Schalke coach Felix Magath has found to his cost.

Prior to Magath's arrival the club and fans would routinely hold extensive discussions over proposed ticket price increases.

Magath has pursued a different management style, sacking the club's supporter liaison officer Rolf Rojek, who had been in the job for over 20 years, and dismissing fans' protests, saying they were a "small" group of supporters.

Spion Kop
In 1986 a standing Kop season ticket cost 45

That prompted 3,000 Schalke fans to wear T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan "The Small Group" for the season opener at Hamburg.

Their action has forced Magath to back away from his confrontational managerial style and he spent time talking to supporters before he wrapped up the signing of Klaus-Jan Huntelaar from AC Milan.

But protests in Germany are not just confined to Dortmund and Schalke.

On 9 October supporters from 30 clubs under the umbrella of three nationwide supporter organisations are planning a demonstration in Berlin to "Save our fan culture".

For United and Liverpool fans unhappy at the way that the Glazers and Hicks and Gillett have been running their respective clubs, attempts to have a say in the boardroom have been vocal, colourful and have garnered plenty of column inches, but so far, have been largely futile.

Influencing the likes of United chief executive David Gill and his Anfield counterpart Christian Purslow has proved nigh-on impossible, mainly because dialogue between boardroom and the fans is practically non-existent.

McKenna says the Spirit of Shankly has met Purslow once but that was at the request of the Liverpool fan group, and when BBC Sport asked Liverpool to give examples of ways in which the club engaged with fans, they failed to provide any response.

"All the dialogue has been one way, with us going to Purslow," said McKenna.

Manchester United, on the other hand, provided a statement outlining the club's fans forum which meets three times a year to debate club policies and "reflects the varied sections of the club's fan base".

Both Must and Shareholder Liverpool FC, which is campaigning for fans to have part ownership in Liverpool, say that potential buyers are keen to allow fans a greater say in the way their clubs will be run.

But the new dawn of new ownership structure, which incorporates fans, remains some way off.

"One day we will have the keys to Liverpool - maybe not in my lifetime - but I genuinely believe it will happen," said McKenna.

Simon Chadwick, professor of sport business strategy and marketing at Coventry University, goes as far to suggest a link between German fans' desire for collective action and Germany's success in reaching the semi-finals in the 2010 World Cup.


"The Germans have a sharp sense of democracy and of the rights of people to openly express their views," said Chadwick.

"Dortmund fans, rather than feeling embarrassed or that they should not express opposing or confrontational views, are likely to have taken the view that it is their entitlement to take this form of action.

"Interestingly too, despite German 'openness' and democracy, ultimately, German society operates on the basis of consensus rather than unilateral action.

"As a footnote to this, I don't think British people have the same notion of consensus or collective action that the Germans do.

"I guess, in many ways, what happened in the summer at the World Cup is a microcosm of the differences between Germany and England.

"The group, the team, is always more important than a series of individuals. Moreover, I don't think the British, as a society, have the same strongly defined sense or acceptance of direct action as the Germans."

Boyle also suggests that it's not just clubs that are guilty of non-engagement - the Football Association is equally unconcerned about listening to supporters' concerns.

"There are 10 million football fans in England and over 100 FA councillors, but there is only one FA councillor who represents fans' concerns, despite Lord Burns' recommendation that there should be three," he added.

"The FA is public property, yet fans are not allowed a voice. I've got more ability to influence the House of Lords than I have the FA."


The incredible story behind the Kop

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see also
Hicks to target Liverpool buyout
17 Sep 10 |  Liverpool
Liverpool defend seat price rise
08 Jun 10 |  Liverpool
Moores calls for Liverpool sale
26 May 10 |  Liverpool
United defend season ticket sales
02 Sep 10 |  Manchester
Man Utd not for sale, say Glazers
28 May 10 |  Business
What the Burns report says
12 Aug 05 |  Football

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