The problematic timing of the Bayern-Hoffenheim player protest

Contrast these two scenes. No 1: two weekends ago in Portugal, FC Porto's Malian international Moussa Marega  walked off the field during his team's league game at Vitoria Guimaraes after racist taunts from the crowd. Marega, who was rightly furious at the intimidation, received a yellow card for his trouble from the referee (for leaving the field without permission), while players from both teams tried to persuade Marega to play on.

Scene No. 2: TSG Hoffenheim vs. FC Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga this past Saturday. With Bayern ahead, 6-0, the two teams spent the last 13 minutes of the game in a united protest against defamatory banners displayed by the Bayern ultra fan groups against Hoffenheim's benefactor and owner Dietmar Hopp. They kicked the ball around at walking pace in the tradition of Germany vs. Austria at the 1982 World Cup.

Well, credit to the players of both teams for taking a stance on something, I suppose. In defense of vulnerable millionaires, perhaps. It's true that the messages on the banners were insulting and threatening, and have no place in a soccer stadium. The sudden outbreak of collective political action under the players, however, is worthy of further examination and not quite the act of timely heroism it's being hailed as in some sections of the German media.

The background to the banners is this. Borussia Dortmund fans have been banned by the German soccer federation (DFB) from attending games in Hoffenheim for the next two seasons, exactly because they've been displaying banners against Hopp, regarded by certain fan groups as the embodiment of all that's evil about modern, commercialized soccer. This ban contradicts the DFB's own policy of having ended collective fan punishments. The Bayern fans, especially those connected to the ultra group Schickeria (a group that has persistently opposed Bayern's close ties with the state of Qatar, and which received an award from the DFB in 2014 for its anti-racist activism), were on Saturday -- in a crude and vicious way -- expressing solidarity with their rivals in Dortmund.

Bayern's chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge reacted with fury to the banners of his own team's fans. "I urgently recommend that everyone in the Bundesliga agrees on this [taking action against fans]. Many are worried about the atmosphere [in the stadiums]. But I say, better to have a shit atmosphere, I'd rather have boredom in the stadium." Which is, by the way, directly at odds with the Bundesliga's international campaign to promote its league as the most "authentic," driven by the apparent passion of its noisy and demonstrative supporters.

Rummenigge was backed by voices from across German soccer, including DFB President Fritz Keller ("We've reached our lowest point"). Again, it's all well and good to hold those strong principles against defamation. Where, though, was this kind of solidarity when Hertha Berlin's Jordan Torunarigha was subject to racial taunts during a German Cup game against Schalke 04 last month? Why didn't both sets of players refuse to play on, or start tapping the ball back and forth to each other? You can ask the same question about the numerous similar incidents of racism in English, Spanish, French and Italian stadiums in recent months. The customary excuse is that, 'The referee didn't hear it, so officially it didn't happen.' Never mind that it's unfair and unrealistic to add the responsibility of hearing racists in a mass crowd to the referee's already onerous duties.

"Is this the soccer that we want?" tweeted Bayern's Thomas Müller after the game. "NO! Don't give a chance to witch-hunts, racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and all other forms of hostility. Out of love for the game! For more tolerance in our society!"

It was well-meaning of Müller to make the link between the targeting of the wealthy Hopp and the vile abuse of players because of their ethnic background, skin color or sexuality. It just seems a very odd incident to have suddenly triggered the sentiment that 'Enough is enough!' Stop insulting our black and gay players, but most of all, leave millionaire club owners alone. Oh, and Bayern was 6-0 up at the time, so a premature termination of the game at the referee's behest would have meant them losing all three points. It's also worth asking what the players would have done had the scores been close or level at the time.

There was an incident last month in the German third division that should serve as a better model for reacting to slander in stadiums. Leroy Kwadwo of Würzburg Kickers alerted referee Katrin Rafalski to a follower of the home team, Preußen Münster, making ape noises directed at him. She stopped the game, and while Münster players and team officials consoled Kwadwo, home fans identified the offender, who was arrested and charged with incitement. Münster fans chanted 'Nazis out!' and the game continued.

I see the the anti-Hopp protests as divisive, offensive and, given the commercial nature of all top-flight soccer in Europe, somewhat hypocritical. Calling someone a 'son of a whore' and showing his head in the crosslines of a weapon do no favors for those campaigning for fans' rights. Hopp's crime is to have invested his money in his boyhood hometown club, and to have taken it all the way to the Bundesliga. What a shame, though, that it took insults against this very wealthy white man to finally provoke the players into a collective political protest action in support of equal rights for all.

4 comments about "The problematic timing of the Bayern-Hoffenheim player protest".
  1. R2 Dad, March 2, 2020 at 11:35 a.m.

    Thank you for this column, pointing out the inconsistencies with the German FA--there is more work to be done in that regard. Let's see if the players and officials have the stomach to act against racism if it's Europa or Champions League matches at stake.

    I do think the exceptions to the 50+1 rule  (Hoffenheim, Leverkuzen, Wolfsburg, and if you count RB Leipzig) have created more fan dissatisfaction and disruption than anything else recently. Is there a way through all this?

  2. Ian Plenderleith replied, March 3, 2020 at 1:26 a.m.

    @R2Dad - the exceptions to 50+1 really are problematic. Wolfsburg and Leverkusen are historically grandfathered in, while Hopp had been backing Hoffenheim for over 20 years when they adjusted the rules allowing for such long term exceptions. None of those three clubs are really flooded by corporate money, though - Volkswagen (backing Wolfsburg), for example, have scaled back soccer funding since being hit by the diesel scandal, and who knows how the switch to more environmentally conscious forms of transport may affect their backing in the future. Hoffenheim focus on developing youth talent and selling it on, rather than making big money signings. Leipzig is the most problematic case with their extremely dubious avoidance of 50+1 by only having 17 club members (Bayern, by contrast, has 293,000), all of them part of the Red Bull set-up. I think that is something the DFB could legislate on by stipulating a minimum number of members for top-flight clubs (say, 50,000) to ensure that they're not being controlled by a single corporation, especially pertinent in Red Bull's all-consuming case of rampant ambition backed by unlimited cash. On the other hand, the western clubs ravaged the post-communist clubs of their best players at knockdown prices after the fall of the Berlin Wall, so there's a part of me that quite likes seeing a successful team in Leipzig. 

  3. beautiful game, March 2, 2020 at 12:23 p.m.

    FIFA cash-cow Infantino has no stomach to address this issue with global federations. His main concern is making money and nothing else matters.

  4. Guy Walling, March 5, 2020 at 9:53 a.m.

    This is why we need to keep all our homegrown players playing in the best country in the world and eventually the best league in the world where we have established laws and established league policies to help fight this type of evil racist behavior!! 

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