How Bayern Munich fans fought their club over its Qatar commercial deal

How Bayern Munich fans fought their club over its Qatar commercial deal

1 month ago

After an explosive AGM last month, Bayern Munich fans are demanding their club ditches its Qatar Airways sponsorship deal

Ahead of the Bundesliga game with Freiburg last month, a large banner was unfurled on the Allianz Arena's Südkurve - the raucous match day home of Bayern Munich's most vocal support.

"For money, we wash everything clean," read the message scrawled across it in black lettering. Beneath appeared a cartoon drawing of two figures: Herbert Hainer, elected club president in 2019, and Oliver Khan, legendary Bayern goalkeeper-turned-director.

The two men were depicted standing either side of a washing machine. An open briefcase filled with money rested on top of it while blood dripped from its door. Hainer had a crumpled pile of blood-spattered clothing at his feet and held a vest - also blood-stained - in marigold-clad hands. Khan clutched another briefcase, also stuffed with dollar bills; in his other hand, he held aloft a clean robe bearing the name of Bayern sponsor, Qatar Airways.

A clear message had been sent to the club's hierarchy; a sign of what was to come.

Bayern signed a five-year sponsorship deal with state-owned Qatar Airways in 2018. As part of the arrangement, reportedly worth more than £8.5 million a year, the German champions carry the name of the airline on their shirt sleeves.

With the World Cup in Qatar now less than a year away, scrutiny of the country's human rights record has increased over the course of the last 12 months. Bayern supporters have consistently expressed their feelings about the club's ties to the state - objecting not only to the commercial deal with Qatar Airways but also the decision to hold regular winter training camps in the country since 2011. Recently, however, matters have intensified. The banner at the Freiburg game foreshadowed the chaotic scenes that were to follow at Bayern's explosive AGM at the end of November, where the bitter rift between the club's supporters and its hierarchy was abundantly clear.

"It was a heated atmosphere," Michael Ott, who has played a key role in the recent surge in fan opposition to Bayern's relationship with Qatar, tells JOE. He, like many other supporters of the six-times European champions, believes the deal is damaging the club's reputation.

"I think there are lots of problems in Qatar concerning human rights violations. Most of all it’s with migrant workers, but also with women’s rights, homosexual rights, freedom of speech and so on.

"With these sponsorship deals, we as a club don’t really help bring change. Our positive image fades. We are diluting the problems and not creating attention of the issues."

Ott, a lawyer by trade, does not class himself as an Ultra but says that he always admired the stance taken by those who have protested against the club's relationship with Qatar. He prides himself on being one of nearly 300,000 Bayern Munich members, a position which - theoretically, at least - holds a degree of power.

"We are a football club where the members can decide over the pingpong department and the chess department but not on the football department..."

As is the case with most German clubs, Bayern adhere to the 50+1 ownership rule, which prevents private investors from gaining a majority stake in a football club. In short, the rule states that half of the voting rights plus an additional share - the '+1' - must be held by the club - and, by extension, the fans. Bayern members such as Ott, therefore, can influence decisions taken by the club and are viewed as being more than merely paying customers.

"We really have some power and that’s important," he says. "To me, it makes a fundamental difference if I’m just a client or a member of the club. I have some influence. I think that’s very important for my feeling as a fan."

Under Bayern's ownership model, Ott was permitted to submit a motion which, had it been voted in at the AGM, would have blocked the club from renewing the existing Qatar Airways deal and prevented them from entering any similar deals with the state.

This, he claims, was ignored by Bayern's hierarchy, prompting him to seek an interim injunction by a Munich district court which would allow him to raise the motion at the meeting. This was rejected on technical grounds.

"In the end, the court interpreted our club statutes in a way that our assembly isn’t competent to take any decision concerning the football department," Ott says. "It was unfortunate. Of course you can have this [the court's] interpretation of our statutes but you can also have another.

"Now we are a football club where the members can decide over the pingpong department and the chess department but not on the football department, which is a horrible situation."

Undeterred by his setback in court, Ott went ahead and attempted to raise the motion at the AGM anyway. He had gained support from across the club's fanbase in the weeks leading up to the meeting and, having taken to the podium, was warmly applauded by the vast majority of the 800 members in the audience at Munich's Audi Dome. This was not reciprocated on stage, however, where a panel of senior Bayern figures appeared unmoved by his argument. Tempers quickly frayed.

Bayern vice president, Dieter Meyer, explained that the matter would be discussed later, prompting boos from the crowd. "You’re welcome to boo, I’m not going to allow us to vote on illegal motions here," he said, referring to the court’s previous decision.

Hainer later announced that the AGM had come to an end, triggering a furious reaction from the audience. "We are Bayern! You are not!" irate supporters chanted in the direction of Hainer, Khan and Bayern's other senior board members.

"It’s an exceptional situation," Ott says, reflecting on the AGM. "In other German football clubs this isn’t the way things go. We have to tackle this in the future and correct our club statutes."

Ott received a call from Hainer after the AGM. They discussed the meeting and agreed to speak again in greater length about their respective views about Qatar and its commercial links to the club.

"I can’t really say what I expect to come from it but it’s a good first step and I’m optimistic we might achieve something," Ott says.

Although on the surface he has failed in what he set out to achieve, the exposure his efforts have received across Germany and beyond means he, along with many others, remains confident that the overall objective will be met.

"Right now, I think the atmosphere is so critical towards Qatar that I can’t really imagine they will renew the contract after 2023. Maybe we didn’t oblige them legally but we sent a very strong message at the AGM and, in my opinion, it's not really realistic that they will renew it. I’m optimistic we might really have changed something."

While the 50+1 rule makes German football clubs better insulated than most from ruthless commercialisation, the cultural split at Bayern makes it hard not to draw parallels with the fallout from the doomed European Super League. The two are far from identical, but here is another case of supporters fighting to preserve the values of an institution they care deeply about, while the people at the top appear willing to overlook their concerns in the name of economic gain - irrespective of what that might mean for reputation.

Beyond Germany, it is difficult for supporters to have such an impact on their clubs without a 50+1 equivalent. Ott accepts this, but hopes that the noise already made by Bayern supporters could encourage others to use what power they have.

"I would really hope fans take a stand and criticise such deals - even if they can’t vote," he says.

"Bayern is a huge club on an international level. If we were to take such a decision and the Qatar deal is not renewed, it could be a signal to other clubs too that you can’t just ignore moral and human rights violations."

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