Dietmar Hopp is not a popular man in Germany. The 1899 Hoffenheim owner was subject to further remonstrations by football fans in this weekend’s Bundesliga games.
The actions of a section of the travelling Bayern Munich support at the Rhein-Neckar-Arena, in the direction of the billionaire, prompted the match to be concluded with a unique non-competitive kick-around between the two sides’ players, after the game was halted for 20minutes as the protests tried to be dissipated.
With Munich 6-0 ahead, a section of Munich’s ultra fans unveiled a large banner reading "Dietmar Hopp remains a son of a bitch." Similar banners targeting Hopp appeared during Union Berlin’s game versus Wolfsburg the next day, and Borussia Dortmund against Freiburg.
It is the treatment of Dortmund fans that have increased the ire towards Hopp from fan groups across Germany and the position of the German Football Association, the Deutscher Fußball-Bund (DFB) in supporting him by taking increasingly aggressive measures to combat the protests.
During a game at Borussia Dortmund in May 2019, a large banner featuring Hopp’s face with a red crosshair over it and the words “Hasta la vista, Hopp!” was unveiled. Five BVB fans were subsequently sued by Hopp and his lawyers as the predominant figures to have instigated the protests, which reflect their opposition to Hopp’s ownership and bankrolling a team to success - something that is seen in direct contrast to the traditional ethics of football in Germany.
Borussia Dortmund fans have also now been banned from Hoffenheim for two years, and fined €50,000. It is the insistence of the DFB’s backing of collective punishments and the position of an aggrieved billionaire that has illuminated the disparity between clubs and fans positions in Germany.
"I am deeply ashamed for the behaviour of these people. That is inexcusable. It is the ugly face of football," Bayern Munich SEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, who walked out onto the pitch alongside Hopp in the aftermath, told the German media afterwards. "I have apologised to Dietmar Hopp. We have filmed everything and these people will be held accountable."
"I'd stress that this whole thing isn't really about Hopp,” Berlin-based Lewis Ambrose of Onefootball, told The Sportsman, “Dortmund fans were punished for something they said about Hopp and other fan groups are now defending their right to freedom of speech and protests, he's just become the target because it's their way of showing solidarity with the Dortmund fans who were initially punished.”
2ï¸â£ Match almost abandoned.
3ï¸â£ 13 minutes of uncontested football.
4ï¸â£ Show of solidarity at full-time.
An explanation of exactly what happened in a surreal Bundesliga clash between Bayern and Hoffenheim...
Dortmund supporters have long taken exception to Hopp’s ownership. Under Hopp, Hoffenheim rose from the fifth division of German football to the top tier Bundesliga. Furthermore, in July 2015, Hopp was allowed to bypass the sacred ‘50+1’ rule adopted in Germany. The rule was imposed to ensure that fans will always hold majority ownership of a club, literally slightly more than 50% of the total shares.
“German football has been seen to stand for fan ownership,” says Ambrose, “It's inherent to their identity, the fans are the most important thing and the club can never be taken away from them, like Roman Abramovich at Chelsea or Sheikh Mansour [Manchester City] or the Glazers [Manchester United] in England. The fans are the club. So for the likes of Leipzig to fly in the face of that and spend fortunes, that's hated. It isn't football to German fans, it's purely business and it shouldn't be allowed to exist."
The animosity towards Hoffenheim owner Dietmar Hopp increases with each attempted stifling of fans’ discontent.
“Hopp's had a history of this before, it's not out of the blue,” says Ambrose, “More than 10 years ago he complained that comments against him (then-Mainz manager Christian Heidel said Hoffenheim didn’t deserve a place in the Bundesliga, and that they're robbing it from a legitimate team) should be treated as seriously as racism. He's a billionaire in the software industry and has pumped money into Hoffenheim to take them to where they are. They were in the fifth tier in 2003 and the Bundesliga by 2008.
“Hoffenheim stands out alongside RB Leipzig and, to a lesser extent, Wolfsburg and Leverkusen. But the rule doesn't apply to 'workers clubs' - Wolfsburg were set up by Volkswagen, Leverkusen by [pharmaceutical company] Bayer. RB Leipzig have explored a different loophole of their own by not allowing members to join, so technically the club is owned by fans but it actually isn't, it's a very small group of people holding all the power. At Hoffenheim, members voted allowing Hopp to take control and was then ratified by the DFB.”
There’s also the further implications for what was observed at Hoffenheim, and the stance of solidarity with Hopp when racist abuse has struggled to be combatted across the continent. The extreme measures taken on Saturday are yet to be witnessed for xenophobia. “The fact this has never happened for a player to suffer racist abuse, but a billionaire is insulted, basically just called a son of a bitch, and this was the reaction, looks completely disproportionate to most,” argues Ambrose.
This time the Union Berlin ð Wolfsburg match has been stopped due to a banner in the home end.
Protests against the German Football Association and Dietmar Hopp continue...
Other clubs are simply defending their right to protest. In a statement on Sunday, Bayern Ultra groups specifically said this isn't about Hopp at all, it's about the DFB reversing their stance on collective punishments and the extreme and vulgar nature of their banner wording was imperative to conveying their message.
“The DFB has broken its word to refrain from collective punishments in the future,” read the statement, “Even if the punishment does not concern us and the topic of Hopp is not so relevant to us, we see this as an attack on fan rights in general. It is a topic that we cannot leave unanswered.
"You do not have to approve of the wording, but there was no alternative for us, as this is the only way to get the necessary attention."
How this conflict and gulf between dedicated fans group and the hierarchy of German football will be resolved is anyone’s guess, but the likelihood is that Saturday’s scenes and the rhetoric used by both sides won’t be the end to it.
“I find it very difficult to see a resolution,” says Ambrose, “The Ultras are in a terrible place now - if they stop protesting, the DFB have successfully silenced them. If they continue, games will be cancelled and fellow fans will turn on them as the team deducts points.
“I fear we're moving towards bans for Ultra groups, and that would be hideous - the majority of them at the majority of clubs do incredible social work for equality, anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-homophobia, not to mention the atmosphere they create.
“It would be the end of German football as we know it and it will be worrying to see who steps into that power vacuum where Ultras currently stand at even the biggest clubs.”