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

by Stephen Tall on August 17, 2013

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 Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and edited the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.