Bayern Munich’s general assembly was chaotic on Thursday. Some of the supporters who are members of the club are calling for the end of a partnership with Qatar Airways, due to human rights violations in the country. The board of directors remains inflexible.
“We are Bayern, and not you!” It is almost midnight, Thursday, November 25, when chaos erupts in the Audi Dome where the general assembly of Bayern Munich was taking place. The session was abruptly interrupted, five hours after its start, by club president Herbert Hainer following a heated debate over a partnership with Qatar.
“We are the fans you don’t want”, answered the 800 or so socios present, indignant before finally chanting to demand the departure of the president: “Hainer out!”. Scenes far from the usually muffled images of general assemblies. Even the very popular honorary president, Uli Hoeness, preferred to slip away without saying a word and without support for the one who crystallized popular anger.
“The night brings advice. In my memory, it is the worst general assembly Bayern Munich”, he simply commented.
Last tweet from me for tonight: According to Kicker, Uli Hoeneß has described the club’s 2021 AGM as “the worst event I’ve ever been to at Bayern Munich.”#FCBJHV
– Felix Tamsut (@ftamsut) November 26, 2021
In theory, supporters have a say in all major club decisions. This is the meaning of the so-called 50 + 1 rule (majority plus one), introduced in 1998: it stipulates that the members of each club must always keep the majority of the votes during the general assembly, thus preventing a private investor to own more than 49% of the shares of a club. At Bayern Munich, these “socios” are 290,000 registered, which makes it the largest fan club in the world and a pride of the “Rekordmeister”.
A partnership of 20 million euros
At Bayern Munich, the crisis has been brewing for several weeks. The problem is not the sporting results: the Bavarian club are as usual at the top of the Bundesliga and also easily qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League. The unease stems from a sling of supporters demanding the non-renewal of sponsorship agreements with the airline Qatar Airways, which run until 2023.
Currently, the airline spends 20 million euros per year to be displayed on the sleeve of Bayern shirts, a trifle compared to the four major sponsor-shareholders Allianz, Audi, Adidas and Telekom. But with the approach of the World Cup-2022 in the gas emirate, the continuation of this partnership is debated in a club that has always advocated humanism and sports ethics.
At the head of the protest, a young lawyer: Michael Ott, 28 years old. He has been said to be a Bayern fan since 2002 and a great admirer of the extraordinary parades of Oliver Kahn, the emblematic ex-captain of the club and the Mannschaft. The same Oliver Kahn, now president of the sports holding company, which he now opposes to end all sponsorship contracts with Qatar as soon as possible. This is the meaning of his motion tabled Thursday evening.
A country that does not respect human rights
“We want to obtain preventive measures, to avoid a renewal of the contract”, assures Michel Ott, their spokesperson. “Qatar is guilty of massive human rights violations, and there are heavy suspicions of corruption in sport.”
The protesters are based on reports from NGOs which accuse Qatar of exploiting foreign workers, especially in the construction of stadiums for the next World Cup. They also blame Doha for its law banning homosexuality. The country vigorously rejects these criticisms, stressing that it has reformed its labor law and introduced a minimum wage. He also promises that LGBT supporters will be welcome at the World Cup.
But the opponents do not disarm: “Cooperating with a state enterprise helps to deflect the attention of grievances and to diffuse an image of the modern country and open to the world”, they accuse.
During the last home game, millions of viewers saw the banner unfurled in the popular stand of the Allianz Arena: Herbert Hainer and Oliver Kahn, the two club bosses, are caricatured there with a washing machine, a bloodied Qatar jersey and two suitcases of dollars, under the slogan “For money, everything is laundered”.
Michael Ott, however, did not have the opportunity to present his motion to the general assembly. While he had asked a Munich court to order FC Bayern to submit his proposal to the vote of the assembly, the court ruled inadmissible.
Climbing throughout the evening
A decision that prompted the first round of boos when Herbert Hainer alluded to Michael Ott’s proposal in his introductory speech. “As a club we are open to all talk … But criticism should always be factual and have a solid foundation.”
The tension only mounted as the evening progressed, especially when the club began to discuss the spontaneous proposals. The vote on one of them, proposing that the club define itself in the future as in accordance with “human rights as recognized everywhere at the international level” illustrated the division between the protesters and the ‘institution. The motion was passed with the support of 77.8% of the membership, but with opposition from the entire Board of Directors.
The interruption was prompted by a speech by Gregor Weinreich, president of Club Nr. 12, a supporters’ club. Speaking of the partnership with Qatar Airways, he said he did not understand the club’s position: “Where was the dialogue? Why didn’t the club just accept the best sponsorship offer after Qatar Airways?”
His intervention provoked a standing ovation of several minutes from the members present. Herbert Hainer did try to mitigate the damage by saying the decision to continue with Qatar was not yet made. He finally interrupted the general assembly, causing the events mentioned above.
An important sponsor against the nouveau riche
The club bosses are caught in the crossfire. According to the popular daily Bild, several star players, including captain Manuel Neuer, have also asked their leaders not to renew the contract. The links with Qatar are far from new, however, the Bavarians have been on a winter tour there since 2011.
But giving up sponsorship income would be very painful. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, the former strongman of the club who negotiated the partnership in 2018, defends his choice of the time by the desire to remain competitive in Europe against rivals with almost unlimited resources.
“We now have clubs like Manchester City with Abu Dhabi, Paris SG with Qatar, Chelsea with billionaire (Roman) Abramovich and Manchester United with US billionaires,” he said in a recent podcast. “If we stay in Germany with a completely different culture (…), I must honestly say that we will slowly have to worry about the Bundesliga and its clubs.”
The sponsorship money is all the more important as the Covid-19 pandemic has dried up the finances of football clubs. In fiscal year 2020-2021, the turnover of the Bavarian giant fell by more than 100 million euros, from 750.4 to 643.9 million. The group’s after-tax profits also plunged from $ 52.5 million to $ 1.9 million.
The club leaders’ argument is that it is easier to influence state policy through cooperation than through outright withdrawal. “I remain firmly convinced that dialogue is the best way to bring people together,” Herbert Hainer said unconvincingly to the assembly.