Unless your favorite EPL club is Liverpool or Manchester City, then your team either is stumbling around drunk in the dark, lost in a sea of nightmares of clowns, or one step away from destroying all your hopes. So, may I suggest you look at another footballing nation for some type of hope for something more than tears and hugging the porcelain throne after your team crushes your dreams of glory? You can get your hopes up and crushed by having an affair with a team in the German Bundesliga. Some of you may be rolling your eyes just thinking about the idea of German football. There are those who call it a farmers’ league (Dippy and I thought that applied to just France). Others have thrown their hands up as if trying to escape a shark attack or a Girl Scout selling cookies yelling that there is only one good club (Bayern Munich) and a bunch of clumpy cat litter box teams. Let me give you a few reasons why you should give a Bundesliga club a chance especially when your team barely escapes losing to a League One team in the Battery Acid Energy Drink Cup.
First, German Bundesliga clubs are clubs. They are clubs that also run as businesses. As businesses, they do attempt to make a profit. However, supporters can decide to become members of the club. In the case of the Bundesliga clubs, as a member, you are an interactive member of the club. Members provide feedback to the club and are a part of the decision-making process of the club (i.e. electing presidents, approving budgets, improving the fan experience, and agreeing upon ticket and merchandise prices). You can purchase a membership in Manchester United or Abu Dhabi City, but it only gives you a box of free goodies, discounts to buy tickets and/or merchandise, and possibly preferential treatment when it comes to getting tickets to matches. For example, I purchased a “membership” to Manchester United. After a couple of weeks, I received a red tin box containing the following:
Voucher to get a yearbook in Manchester (that helps me living in Georgia);
Snood (might be useful in Moscow or in Atlanta during vampire season);
Manchester United pin (this broke in half when I dropped it on the floor);
Wireless earbuds (the sound is great if you want your music sounding like its coming through a tin can a mile away);
An ink pen.
I doubt that if I got a membership to Crystal Palace or Tottenham that I would get a tin box with anything better. Dippy the Pirate Bear wanted to get a membership to Abu Dhabi City but decided not to get it because it did not contain a touchline worn sweater from Pep Guardiola. With a membership to a German Bundesliga club, you not only get a kit of free stuff you become a part of the club and not just a fan with a number and a full wallet. Fans want to be a part of something. They desire to be in a social group that provides a deep connection to something. There are other countries where you can be a member of a football club, however, Germany has a special advantage.
The “50 plus 1 Rule” was introduced in German football by the DFL in 1998 when private ownership was first approved. Prior to 1998, the clubs were primarily non-profit member-run organizations. The rule basically states that the club and its members maintain 50% “plus one” of the voting rights of the club. This means that private commercial investors or whole countries cannot take majority control of a club and make decisions primarily for profit-making against the wishes of the club members (fans). For the record, I am not opposed to profit-making, but to do so while mocking or ignoring the fans of the club is against the long-term rational self-interest of the club. This rule has been one of the primary reasons why German Bundesliga clubs have been able to both make a profit and to set reasonable prices for tickets, concessions, and merchandising. In turn, this makes the fan experience at Bundesliga stadiums one of the best in world football. A side effect of the 50 plus one rule in the Bundesliga is that it also improves the leagues overall competitive balance leading to greater parity. It is abundantly clear that there are clubs that outspend others in the league, however, without giant commercial investments as seen in England there is less of a gap from the top to the bottom. There is not the same cash infused arms race in the Bundesliga as in the EPL. As a result, the top Bundesliga clubs absolutely cannot take even the clubs in the relegation zone lightly especially when traveling to their stadiums. Just ask Dortmund who traveled to recently promoted Union Berlin and promptly lost 3-1. It should be noted that there are two clubs that have exemptions to the 50 plus one rule and one club, to be discussed later, that are using legal loopholes around it to their advantage.
As discussed, the fan experience at German Bundesliga stadiums is nothing short of extraordinary. Ticket prices for matches are the lowest of any of the major European leagues, which has enabled the most fervent of fans continued access to matches. The energy that these fans bring to matches is second to none. Borussia Dortmund, for example, is one of the best teams in Germany and plays in the with a capacity for over 81,000 fans. It boasts a south terrace, which fits 25,000 standing fans. England, for example, no longer allows (and for good reason) for the use of large terraces at football stadiums. Commonly known as the Yellow Wall, it is the most intense and intimidating crowd in all European football. The ultra group, the 3252, of the MLS’s Los Angeles Football Club, were invited to Dortmund to learn about its community engrossing and electric culture for them to attempt to emulate it in L.A.
Another reason to take a glance at the Bundesliga is that it has become a breeding ground for young extremely talented players. The DFL started a project in the mid-2000s which required all their major clubs to have youth academies. This was part of a larger framework to drum up better home-grown talent all over Germany to feed onto their national team. This plan worked as Germany won the World Cup in 2014 only to see the plan copied elsewhere (France adopted a similar system and won in 2018). These academies became available to young talent from other countries such as the US and England. Christian Pulisic started at the Borussia Dortmund youth academy when he was 15, for example. The Bundesliga also features several young foreign players such as Jadon Sancho, Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Zach Steffan, Andre Silva, Reece Oxford, Josh Sargent, and Lewis Baker who are getting much-needed experience. Young American players, in particular, have used the Bundesliga as a place to obtain much needed top-flight experience.
The German order of things is under threat. The same level of threat that Dippy feels when he checks his phone for messages from the husbands of his clients and goes to the grocery store. RB Leipzig, owned by an energy drink company that tastes a lot like battery acid mixed with sugar, sits near the top of the table. Their rise to near top of the league has been remarkable in its speed and how much German football fans hate it. Red Bull had been in search for a club in Germany to either invest in or simply take over. They had a portfolio of other teams in the U.S. (N.Y. Red Bull), Austria (RB Salzburg), Brazil (RB Brasil), and Ghana (RB Ghana). They bought the license of a fifth-tier German club in order to not fall under DFB rules. They re-named the team RasenBallsport Leipzig e.V. (German rules disallowed the Red Bull re-branding attempt) in 2009 and began the meteoric rise fueled by energy drink money rather than oil. A company rather than a country.
The catch is that Red Bull owns 99% of the club.
Yes, 99%. So, what about the 50 plus one rule as mentioned earlier? This is how they have worked the loophole. Red Bull “owns”49% of the club under DFB rules. The rest of the club is owned by its “members.” Its members, 17 from what I could count, are all executives within the company. Bayern Munich has over 290,000 members. Borussia Dortmund and Schalke 04 have just over 150,000 members. Through the exploitation of several legal loopholes (Dippy wants this club’s lawyers), Red Bull have managed to have total control of the club and yet, still fall within DFB rules. This has expectedly drawn the ire of all German football fans. For example, Union Berlin hosted RB Leipzig in their very first Bundesliga home match. Their ultra-group protested the first fifteen minutes of the match by staying completely silent as they resented having their club playing such a corporate club. The race for the coveted crown of the most hated team is close between this club and Bayern, but for different reasons. RB Leipzig has been successful in the Bundesliga so far as they qualified in 2017-18 for their first Champions League and are competing in that tournament this season as well. This season, they are one of three teams in the running to capture the title in the Bundesliga and if they were to win, it would result in the end of German football’s traditional value system and what makes it so special for its supporters. Luckily, the league is no longer a one club sprint to the death Running Man style.
Bayern Munich has won 643 Bundesliga titles and 725 DFB Cups in their history. They have more of everything in German football. Whatever it is they have more of it. They have more titles, money, members, cat litter boxes, aliens at Area 51, hamster cages, and poisonous spiders than any German football club. They play in a red donut. Their motto, “mia san mia,” means essentially “we are what we are.” This motto is a middle finger to the world stating we are better than you and look at all these pretty cat litter boxes that prove it. Their own self-proclaimed arrogance was most recently personified by their President, Uli Hoeness, who stated that if Bayern’s goalie was displaced as the national team’s top goalie, then he would pull all of Bayern’s players from playing on the national team. If you love Gordon Gekko or Bernie Madoff, then you love Bayern or RB Leipzig.
This leaves us with Ballspielverin Borussia 09 e.V. Dortmund, or Borussia Dortmund and unless you like greedy unethical Wall Street types or red donuts full of trophies and cat litter boxes, they should be your fave Bundesliga club. As stated, Dortmund is one of the best clubs in Germany and is in the running again this season. They have won eight Bundesliga titles, four German Cups, and one UEFA Champions League. Their history has been a roller coaster ride of human boom and bust events. They have had years of financial mismanagement in the chase for titles, which led to a trophy (or two), but also near bankruptcy. At one point, they got bailed out by Bayern Munich just to keep the doors open. The HR violation waiting to happen, Jurgen Klopp, managed Dortmund back to glory using his exciting gegenpressing style, which led to Dortmund’s last league title at the start of this decade. Then he went on to commit more violations in England. So why should you, the new Bundesliga fan, support Dortmund?
There are a few very strong reasons.
First, as stated, the fan experience is arguably the best in world football by a mile. The Westfalenstadion (fans do not call their stadium by its corporate name) has a capacity of 81,365 and it is full every match. Dortmund currently has the highest average attendance in world football. This is more than Bayern, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Milan, Paris, and Old Trafford, teams with a much larger trophy count. The stadium boasts the standing terrace south stand otherwise known as the Yellow Wall. The stand is 328 feet long and 131 feet high and fits well over 20,000 people. On match day, with the singing, flag-waving, and unleashing of epic tifos, it is the most imposing stadium in all of world football. This is the case regardless of how well the club is doing on the pitch. It should be on the bucket list of all football fans.
Secondly, in conjunction with the fan experience, the club’s motto and living essence of it makes being in the Borussia Dortmund family uniquely special. “Echte Liebe” translates to “real love” in English. It stands at the heart of what the club is about. It speaks to the genuine authenticity of the club and those who support it. It speaks to the connection between club and fan regardless of results. It speaks to the interconnectedness of supporters no matter what background, nationality, class, race, gender, or orientation. Many supporters have been attracted to the fact that the spirit of ‘echte liebe’ is that no matter what is happening, no matter where you are, or no matter who “you never walk alone.” As I mentioned in an earlier column, I went to a watch party for the official Borussia Dortmund Fan Club of Atlanta. I have been to several at an inviting spacious mid-town Atlanta Irish bar. It has been, by far, the best fan group experience that I have had so far. From the moment I walked into the first meeting I knew that I was at home because everyone was incredibly inviting and open to having a new member join them whose only qualification was a desire to cheer for Dortmund. The fan club has people from literally all walks of life. We all have one bond that holds us closely together, our connection no matter how loose, to Borussia Dortmund. It does not hurt that we all get free shots for every Dortmund goal. Sure, there are other fan clubs for other teams and most all of them offer the same experiences. This fan club and other fan club members from other Dortmund groups have all shown and indicated that the quality of the interconnectedness, the diversity, the links with the club, and the joy experienced is at a higher level than any other team they have followed. This is a part, not all, of the essence of the ‘echte liebe’ spirit.
There are other aspects of this spirit that are important to note. As fans and supporters of Borussia Dortmund, we do not feel like we are customers or consumers of the club. We feel a part of the fabric of what makes it live and breathe. This truer connectedness leads to a higher passion for the club and greater commitment to the cause. This is a major defining aspect of following German football. It is one that is in danger when a team that is 99% owned by a corporation finds immediate success and now is a major contender for a league trophy. This aspect has managed to survive the fact that one team has dominated the league for decades, but it is feared that RB Leipzig is the blueprint and the slippery slope that has befallen other leagues. Dortmund fans and supporters do not feel like costumers and have outright resisted any attempt to be treated like them.
Another example of the spirit is its fight against far-right fans, Borussia Dortmund recently won the UEFA award for fighting racism in the sport. Dortmund has been at the forefront of multiple efforts to eradicate overt racism from their own ranks, the Bundesliga, and the sport in general. They have been transparent that inappropriate fans have been part of the club, however, they have taken real steps to remove them and their influence. They have opened their club and their stadium to complete diversity. Fans have mentioned multiple times how they can be chanting and jumping in the Yellow Wall with other people from all walks of life. Everyone is welcome. Even Dippy the Pirate Bear is welcome despite his “occupation” as the gigolo of the 14th floor of a beachfront hotel in Virginia.
The third major reason for a fling with Dortmund is that it has a chance to win. Dippy’s favorite German team is Bayern Munich. He loves them because he is only interested in trophies. He hunts glory like a house cat in heat in Boston. He sees Dortmund as a legitimate threat to the throne. Last year, they held a significant lead in the Bundesliga for most of the season and saw an insane run by Bayern along with a return to the mean dwindle their lead. In the last weeks of the season, a disastrous trip to the red donut stadium in Munich ended their title hopes figuratively and later, literally. The club made some changes (bringing Mat Hummels back from purgatory, transferring in Julian Brandt and Thorgan Hazard, and transferring out Christian Pulisic) and made the determined statement of buying rather than selling. With a team of vibrant, young, and dynamic players (Jadon Sancho, Paco Alcacer (he is 26 and looks 30), Marco Reus (he is 30 and looks 26), and Julian Weigl) they were the sexy pick for winning the league. Marco Reus is a solid player on the front line and is their captain. He is the traditionalist football captain and the face of the team. He also has the best hair in German football.
As of late, Dortmund has struggled to close out matches they should win and have dropped much-needed points. Questions have arisen about their mentality and about their coach’s ability to get them over the line. However, the talent is there to make a solid run again this season. They are also in a difficult group in the Champions League but have a reasonable chance to get past the group stage again. RB Leipzig dropped a crucial match this past weekend against a resurgent Schalke 04 club (a bitter rival of Dortmund) and dropped to second, but they also have the players and coaching needed to continue to contend for the title. Bayern is Bayern. They sit in first and feel that their seat on the throne is theirs by right…their victory is a relief for them. As always, they have all the tools in place and the hottest manager in Germany to defend their throne at all costs – literally. It is shaping up to be an epic three club race in Germany, which is well worth the effort especially when your English, Spanish, or American team loses to a fourth-tier league team in a cup match in the woods. So live like Dippy, live on the football wild side with a fling in the Bundesliga – with Dortmund.
Author: Keith Lisenbee, mental health professional, writer, and soccer enthusiast is from Atlanta, Georgia by way of Virginia. I was in love with soccer until Agüero destroyed my soul and Manchester United's title hopes in 2012. I came back for the World Cup in 2014 and through the use of DVR, I am back with the force of orange Tic Tacs and IPAs covering the EPL, Bundesliga, MLS, and La Liga. You can follow me on Twitter @keith_lisenbee and Instagram @lisenbeekeith got more random soccer thoughts.