What Indian sports can learn from German football revival

An IPL-like football league designed after English football may bring commercial success but is unlikely to benefit the sport in India.

Sopan Joshi | July 12, 2014


Administrators will do better to consider the resurgence of German football for ideas and inspiration
Rudi D Noetzold/ flickr

Come September, the Indian Super League (ISL) will take flight. Its promoters – large corporations like Reliance, IMG and Star India – say this will give a much-needed fillip to football. India stands at 154 in FIFA’s ranking of 207. Former cricketing great Sachin Tendulkar, joint owner of an ISL team, has said the league will be a great platform for young Indian footballers.

ISL has already entered an agreement to bring the best practices of the English Premier League (EPL) here. Press statements from ISL partners promised this was a great kick-start for football here. IMG-Reliance chairperson Nita Ambani was quoted in the press as saying: “Partnering with the Premier League brings credence to ISL and to our vision of popularising the sport in India. I am confident the tie-up will immensely help in nurturing and establishing ISL with good governance and best practices. The alliance also presents a great opportunity of partnership and cross promotions between the ISL Partners and Premier League Clubs.”

ISL will have eight franchisees (no sports clubs for us, please, we’re Indians). The All India Football Federation has given its passive blessing to this brave effort to promote Indian football – the federation is weighed under a Rs 700-crore deal over marketing rights with Reliance-IMG. Several EPL football stars of yesteryears have signed up already to play in the ISL, an effort to shore up retirement funds.

EPL, a runaway marketing success

The English league’s worldwide popularity is unprecedented, and business schools have included it in their syllabus as a model for success in marketing. EPL’s website says it is the most-watched football league in the world, broadcast in 212 territories to 643 million homes and a potential TV audience of 4.7 billion people. TV rights are sold for billions of pounds. No football league in the world generates as much revenue as EPL.

Yet the English league is not the most profitable in the world. Since 2010, the greatest profits from league football have been made in Germany’s Bundesliga. Why didn’t the ISL look to collaborate with the Bundesliga? In fact, there is a far bigger motive than profits to learn from German football: Germany has a far better national football team than England, both in terms of success and in terms of the quality of their performances.

This came into sharp focus four years ago at the World Cup in South Africa, where it overhauled England 4-1 in the round of 16 and then Argentina 4-0 in the quarter-final. The world stood up and noticed: something very impressive was happening in German football. Which went against its hackneyed image.

It is commonly held that Latin American teams play fluent football, especially Brazil, with its beautiful game. The Italians are ultra-defensive. The English play a physical, bustling game. The Germans, however, are well organised and methodical like a machine; successful and boring.

That’s the football world carved up into tidy little clichés. From lunch-break conversations along dusty school playgrounds, to people who actually take sports quite seriously, this football shorthand pervades all reaches of popular culture. It is impervious to actual football games.
For the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Brazil sent a dour and defensive squad, which was spectacularly underwhelming. Germany, however, wowed everybody with fluent and attacking football that impressed not only neutrals but even the press of their competing countries. It was the youngest squad in the competition. The best young player of the tournament was the 20-year-old German attacking-midfielder Thomas Muller.

The English team that went to Brazil for this World Cup was an even greater disappointment than four years ago. England’s rich superstars got knocked out in the first round after two losses and one draw – not one victory, standing at the bottom of its group. Germany, on the other hand, topped its group with two wins and a draw.

Even in the European Championships in 2012, Germany did better than England.

So let’s recap: football in Germany is more profitable than in England, it produces more successful players who are more attractive to watch for neutrals. While several big-ticket German players play in England, it is not easy to spot English players in the Bundesliga.
There is something very good about German football that English football lacks. This something, moreover, is important to know in India, where the lack of sporting excellence (and its resultant lack of success) becomes a story on the occasion of each high-profile sports event like the Olympics or the football World Cup. At the hockey world cup in the Netherlands last month, India stood ninth.
How German football got its groove back has now become a fable, which requires us to backtrack three decades.

The rise, fall and rise
After losing to Argentina in the final of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, Germany won the next edition in Italy in 1990, defeating Argentina. An era of success followed in Europe and at the World Cups (see box). This ended with a 3-0 quarterfinal loss to Croatia in the 1998 World Cup. The real low came two years later, in 2000, at the European Championships. Germany failed to win a single game in the group stage, scored only one goal (against Romania), and not only failed to qualify for the knockout stage but stood last in the group.

There was an upheaval in Germany, a cry to produce quality players. The German football association, DFB, which governs football in the country, did not jerk its knee – the focus was to transform how youth football was managed. This meant DFB had to work closely with the 16 clubs in Germany’s premier football league, Bundesliga, and another 16 clubs in the second division.

A new system was rolled out in 2003. To remain in the league and play competitive football, each club had to create and maintain football academies. The running of these football nurseries, though, wasn’t left to the clubs. DFB created a centralised system of supplying them with trained, full-time coaches. Scouts brought in ideas from the famed youth academies of Ajax in Amsterdam, perhaps the greatest youth training system that has influenced, among others, the rise of Barcelona and Spain.

Unlike English football where rich clubs hold the Football Association to ransom, DFB created a financial system to help poor football clubs run top-of-the-line facilities and academies. Besides, the association has a parallel, centralised system that reaches out to thousands of young boys and girls.

Hosting the 2006 World Cup in Germany became a part of this restructuring. The millions of euros that went into renovation of stadiums resulted in packed games during the World Cup, bringing revenues back into football – revenues that were put back into preparing young players.

All the money that came to the football clubs as assistance was tied to some conditions. One in particular: each batch of young recruits needed to include at least 12 players who were eligible to play for Germany. |

The young German team that enchanted the world in 2010 was full of young players who had come through the youth system, who had been selected and coached at a young age. Several clubs help in the school education of young boys and girls – if not specialised staff, then football coaches help young footballers to get through homework assignments. They are aware that only a small percentage will make professional footballers. The ones who don’t cut it have a school education and vocational training to set them up for college or for gainful employment. So the drive to discover talent and fast-track its development is not at the cost of the majority that does not make it in the top bracket.

Operating in this manner requires a great amount of confidence and cooperation between the football clubs and DFB. One way to discern that trust is to see who heads these bodies. Mattias Sammer, a legendary defensive midfielder who came from the erstwhile East Germany, led his country and club teams to several titles in the 1990s. He became the manager of the club Borussia Dortmund in 2000 and then moved to Vfb Stuttgart, also a top-flight club.

In 2006, Sammer was appointed the technical director of DFB. After six successful years in charge, he joined the club Bayern Munich as its sporting director. He was replaced in 2012 by Robin Dutt. In 2013, the Bundesliga club Werder Bremen wanted to hire Dutt as its coach. It approached DFB and asked them for permission; the association responded by releasing Dutt to join as their manager. When Dutt quit DFB, he said in interviews that the association was doing so well that he did not find the job challenging enough.

The top leadership of DFB and the clubs overlaps, so it is easy for them to work in sync. The association invests liberally in the clubs, knowing well that if the clubs do well, German football will do well. Yet money has not been allowed to govern how the sport is administered. Perhaps the greatest example of this is the ownership of football clubs.

The big difference: club ownership
Even before DFB introduced the new youth training programme, in 2001 it introduced a rule called ‘50% plus one’. It requires that each Bundesliga club must have a controlling ownership of 51% with its members – local people who support the club. This means corporations and foreign benefactors can sponsor clubs, but they cannot own them. The ownership rests with the community. This literally means the supporters own the club, and have a definite say in its operations. Which ensure that clubs remain loyal to their roots, to their local ethos. More than 80% of the ownership of Bayern Munich, Germany’s superclub that counts among the richest clubs in the world, is with its 1,30,000 members.

Compare this to English football, which thrives on foreign investors. Roman Abramovich, Russian magnate and owner of the London club Chelsea, is famous for hiring and firing managers according to his whim. The club has almost no local players in its first eleven. Foreign investors own a majority of top-flight clubs in England, including Blackburn Rovers that was bought in 2010 by Indian chicken company Venky’s. Manchester United, the best marketed club in the world, is owned by an American investment and holding company owned by the Glazer family, which has drowned the club in debt financing.

Abramovich or Venky’s or the Glazers cannot hope to own and run a football club in Germany. Not just foreigners, even German corporations cannot own the football clubs, which must be necessarily supporter-owned. (The only exceptions to this are Wolfsburg, a club created along with the town by the automobile giant Volkswagen, and Bayer Leverkusen, which, similarly, was created as a club for the workers of the chemicals giant Bayer. Again, the corporations created the clubs for their workers and manage them as trustees.)

This limits the amount of money German clubs have, which reigns stardom, sky-high salaries and superlative transfer fees. Bundesliga is the only one among the five top leagues in Europe which does not make a majority of its revenue from broadcast deals – because its clubs maintain financial health and are not drowning in debt.

That, along with the well-oiled youth academies, brings the focus back on to local talent. A chunk of the young boys and girls in these clubs are from families that have supported or even owned the club. So the club becomes an inherent part of the culture of a region.

Cheap tickets, full stadiums

This ensures that ticket prices for watching the games are affordable. In fact, Germany is among the rare countries that still allow cheap tickets to stand and watch the games. Which means local supporters throng the games: German clubs consistently record the highest attendance in games in all of Europe. When it comes to changing the ticket prices or introducing safety features in stadiums for spectators, the members have to look in both directions: towards the members and towards the management.

English football, meanwhile, thrives on foreign money and foreign players. EPL teams have a glut of foreign stars signed on ridiculously high transfer fees. When the clubs invest so much money into putting together star footballers into a team, they expect returns. So ticket prices are several times higher than they are in Germany.

The English football association (FA) has left the youth programme largely to the clubs, which have driven out local players and local supporters, because clubs like Manchester United and Chelsea are global brands with global revenues. So the youth development programmes in England are a joke compared to Germany. The Guardian of London reported that in 2013, according to Union of European Football Associations, Germany had more than 28,400 trained coaches for the primary level (compared to England’s 1,759); at the intermediate level Germany had 5,500 coaches (England: 895); and 1,070 coaches with the highest qualification of a professional coaching licence (England had 115).

The country that invented the sport of football has become a hub of commercial and marketing success. Its impact on local football comes through only when England sends out its national football team, shorn of foreign stars and foreign investment. In Germany business has been left to business and sport has been nurtured like a sport. The state of the German economy is well known; the state of sports – football, particularly, the most popular sport in the country – is also heartening.

Indian sports: choices and values
India’s cricket board BCCI is the richest governing body in the sport by a distance. The brand value of the Indian Premier League – obviously inspired by the marketing success of EPL – is estimated at $3 billion. Twenty20 cricket’s runaway success in India and the monomania that cricket commands here, however, do not guarantee success. India’s important victories tend to come largely on conducive subcontinental pitches. Indian cricketers haven’t been the best travellers. Remember the 4-0 whitewash in England in 2011 and the 4-0 whitewash in Australia in 2012?

That sounds eerily like English football. Could it just be that BCCI is inspired by the wrong football league – and the wrong motive? Could it be that this culture is now raring to make money from football? Will that promote football in the country or extend business opportunities?
No easy answers. Sweeping comparisons never hold – especially not across continents and in different sports. The circumstances differ way too much for neat inferences to be drawn. Yet the revival of German football does throw out ideas for sports administrators everywhere – nay for all administrators.

The future is German
1990    winners of the World Cup
1992    runners-up at the European Championship. Lost final to Denmark
1994    Lost in World Cup quarter-finals to a resurgent Bulgaria
1996    winners of the European Championship

1998    Lost 0-3 to Croatia in the quarter-final of the World Cup
2000    Last in its group, eliminated after scoring only once
2002    runners-up at the World Cup due to the heroics of Oliver Kahn, the only goalkeeper to win the Golden Ball
2004    exited in the group stage of the European Championships

2006    third place in the World Cup. Semi-final loss to Italy
2008    runners-up at the European Championships. Lost final to Spain
2010    third place in the World Cup. Lost semi-final to Spain 
2012    third place. Lost semi-final to Italy

(This was first published in July 1-15, 2014 issue of Governance Now.)

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