LibLink: Paul Marshall – England should run football the German way

A football groundToday is the first day of competitive action in the Premiership. To mark the occasion, The Times has published an article by Paul Marshall, ‘England should run football the German way’.

Paul is well-known in Lib Dem circles as chair of the liberal CentreForum think-tank and co-editor of The Orange Book. He’s also a passionate Manchester United supporter and was one of the so-called ‘Red Knights’ who fought for a supporter-based buy-out of the club. And his article sets out what English football needs to learn from the Germans — namely to get local.

First, he sets out the problem. At the local level England “is blessed with a huge hinterland of village and small town teams — as many as 7,000, in 140 leagues and 480 divisions (you could call them football’s small and medium-sized enterprises)”, and yet “most professional football clubs struggle to make ends meet”. The England national team is still well off the international pace and none of our club teams progressed beyond the quarter-finals in the European Champions League — the final of which was contested by two German sides.

And then Paul turns to the alternative:

In football, just as in the wider economy, the Germans seem to provide the model that works. Germany has more than 26,000 football clubs, while the German Football Association has 6.6 million individual members (roughly 8 per cent of the population). Unlike England, Germany has harnessed this spirit of engagement and protected it through a framework that ensures that every club, large or small, remains anchored in its local community.

Under the rules of the German FA, all clubs must be majority owned by their local community. Ticket prices are significantly lower than in the Premier League, but attendances are higher. German clubs make up for the lack of a “sugar daddy” by working harder to build their commercial revenues — last year Bayern Munich topped the Deloitte Football Money League for commercial revenue (beating Manchester United, Barcelona and Real Madrid).

In contrast to Germany’s “Big Society” approach to football, the Premiership has relied on a “benefactor model”. While there is no doubt that this adds to the short term entertainment value it is increasingly disconnecting the game from its roots. …

Just as David Cameron’s honourable vision of a Big Society has failed to find traction so England’s football clubs have failed to invest in home grown talent. The problem is not foreign investment — we should welcome the influx of new funds in all walks of life. But as host for these investments we should be strategic and strong enough to set the conditions under which the funds are invested. In that way they can bring genuine benefit to the community at large, rather than being just another vanity project for deracinated billionaires.

You can read Paul’s article in full here (£). And if you can’t access the paper’s paywall, you can read the CentreForum report Paul Marshall co-authored with Sam Tomlin in 2011 here: Football and the Big Society.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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12 Comments

  • peter tyzack 17th Aug '13 - 10:23am

    Not a natural sportsperson, but the game of soccer really detached from me when despite having a local name the teams were made up of anyone from anywhere, with no local connection, big investors, advertising, expensive shirts, and in some cases even the pitch was moved away from the place the team was supposed to ‘represent’! The ‘sport’ became about everything but the game, the oddest thing is that the masses went along with it..

  • If you asked the people who run the supporters groups of clubs up and down the land, people who were probably watching football back in the dark days of the 1980s, there would be overwhelming support for the German model of football.

    But if you asked the many thousands who have come to football, particularly the EPL, since the mid 90s, they would see no problem with the status quo.

    Therein lies the football. The powers in football – by which I mean the top half dozen or so clubs – know that their model is extraordinarily successful in pulling in huge numbers of supporters and sponsors. The fact that the EPL is highly predictable, that admission prices are extortionate, that crowds have begun to dip, that the English national team remains underachieving, and that a few supporters groups grumble about the whole shabby set-up – that matters not a jot to the ‘powers’ while the top clubs get richer and ever more dominant in the major competitions.

    Even when there is a ‘crisis’ in English football, such as the 2010 World Cup flop, it is usually turned to the benefit of the powerful clubs, as illustrated by the grossly unfair Elite Player Performance Plan. The EPL itself, of course, was supposedly created to ‘improve’ the national team.

    So it is hard to imagine how the current English football system will ever change, let alone be replaced by the German model. The powerful clubs that now run the game think only of their own interests. That, perhaps, illustrates the difference between the two countries; in England, the individual’s needs tend to dominate, in Germany, there is more consideration for the wider community.

  • Ed Shepherd 17th Aug '13 - 1:02pm

    An interesting proposal and I would like to see all businesses in England run in the way proposed. Maybe then we would be as successful as the Germans at manufacturing.

  • Stuart Mitchell 17th Aug '13 - 1:25pm

    “He’s also a passionate Manchester United supporter… And his article sets out what English football needs to learn from the Germans — namely to get local.”

    Just out of curiosity – what is Marshall’s connection with Manchester? (Or rather, Trafford.) I’ve scoured the web for biographical details but can find nothing north of Watford.

  • Not saying there isn’t room for improvement, but England have reached the last 16 of the world cup for the last four competitions in succession. The other countries (Brazil, Mexico, Germany) which have done this have much higher populations. Yes it’s true we haven’t had a decent run in the knockout stages for a while but they are a bit of a lottery anyway, particularly with penalty shootouts. There is a reason why national champions are not decided by a knockout forrmat.

  • John Carlisle 18th Aug '13 - 9:13am

    Paul’s comment: “In football, just as in the wider economy, the Germans seem to provide the model that works. ” is most significant. Our paradigm of business, like that of our football, is command and control – and devil take the hindmost. And yet, this is the country that pioneered the co-operative and is leading the western economic thinking on employee ownership forms. So, what happened?
    Well, our biggest co-op is in real trouble, and it is no coincidence that it has adopted the unhealthy practices of performance bonuses for the directors, and targets. The top executive earned over a million last year. In Spain, the biggest co-op, Mondragon, is healthy and successful, employing about 90,000 people. The top salaries are pegged to 6x the lowest in the retail and production sectors and 13x in the. So, if it were the Co-op Bank the lowest full-timer would be earning over £70,000. Now wouldn’t that be nice?
    I think we are still too much in thrall to “winning” and unhealthy competitiveness, and to wealth and celebrity. This needs to change, and the LibDems could lead the way here.
    Back to football: Richard S, we may be equivalent to Brazil, Germany and Mexico with their bigger populations; but not as good as Spain, with its smaller population. It is no coincidence that the two most successful clubs are owned by the fans who can get the cheapest season tickets for £177( Real Madrid) and £172 (Barcelona). Arsenal costs £985, Chelsea £595 and Man U. £532. So much for looking after the customer in English league!

  • @John Carlisle

    So if the cheapest season ticket at old Trafford cost 200 pounds, then by what mechanism would the England team get better?

  • John Carlisle 18th Aug '13 - 10:12am

    Richard,
    I have no idea.

  • Stuart Mitchell 18th Aug '13 - 11:31am

    @Richard S
    I don’t think you can say the international competitions are a “lottery”, given that several teams have performed consistently well in them. England’s record of one major final, now 47 years past, is diabolical and requires an explanation.

    There were signs that things were improving during the Bobby Robson era (QF in ’86, SF in ’90) but the combination of Murdoch money and abolition of the three-foreigner rule gave us the foreigner-dominated top flight league we have today. Fans seem happy enough to put up with this, unfortunately, as they know that only a foreign-owned team of expensive foreigners will enable them to compete with all the other foreign-owned teams of expensive foreigners. I’m the same – I loathe the way the modern game is run, but as a Man City fan I thank Allah for giving us Sheikh Mansour. (My conscience is assuaged a little by the knowledge that Mansour is at least investing hundreds of millions in to the local community, building things like new education and sports facilities in one of the most deprived parts of Manchester; something it’s difficult to imagine the likes of Abramovich or Glazer doing.)

    Going back to the national team, I don’t actually bother to support them, the reason being I object to the fact they play all their home internationals in the same place. Other countries don’t do that. I think it’s scandalous that the great footballing cities of the North and the Midlands never get to see their “national” team play. The final straw for me was Euro ’96 when the fixtures were arranged so that England would have played every single match (including the final had they reached it) at Wembley. This doesn’t seem to do the England team any good either – Wembley is a notoriously atmosphere-free venue that seldom seems to bring the best out of the players.

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