Someone’s got a bad case of the Mondays. So far in the German Bundesliga, we’ve had three Monday matches—and three corresponding protests from home and away fans. You see, Monday Night is really really not popular in Germany.
For the first time ever, Monday night football is being played in the Bundesliga this season, at least in limited edition. So far, only three Monday matches have been played, but each has generated big protests, social media flurries, and consternation over the heart of German football. Monday night football has been part of Germany’s second division since 1993, but until now the DFL was viewed avoiding Monday matches for the top flight as a scheduling sacred cow.
The decision was innocent enough: the DFL figured that German clubs in the Europa League (originally Hoffenheim, Hertha Berlin, and 1.FC Köln then Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig) could use an extra day of recovery from Thursday night European matches. Thus, Eintracht Frankfurt hosted RB Leipzig in the first Monday night fixture, while Dortmund hosted FC Augsburg in the second, and Werder Bremen hosted Köln in the most recent.
In all three matches, both home and away fans protested Monday night football. Eintracht Frankfurt’s famed supporters flooded the bustling and loud Commerzbank Arena with banners, some angry and some ironic, decrying and mocking the league’s decision to play Monday night games (e.g. “Vallah! Montag ist haram”). During the match, Eintracht supporters unleashed toilet paper, tennis balls, and shrill whistling. These protests delayed the match start and stopped match play once.
A week later, Borussia Dortmund’s ultras took a very different approach. Many simply decided to boycott the match, leaving the iconic Yellow Wall half empty during the BVB-FCA match. Consequently, the match atmosphere was dramatically tempered, as the mostly quieter seated fans remained. The drained atmosphere seemingly affected the BVB squad, who only drew 1-1 against a tough Augsburg side.
Finally, two weeks ago, Werder Bremen (another Traditionsverein in Germany) dismantled relegation-threatened Köln 3-1 in a match protested with various banners, but especially shrill whistling. At a couple points, the painfully high-pitched whistling was so bad that the Weserstadion announcer ordered the fans to stop. Even after these warnings, the whistling continued in pockets throughout the whole match.
Aside from the fans at these three matches, the German public is heavily opposed to Monday night football, according to polling data. On social media, the #KeinMontagsSpiel hashtag has trended during these matches, and presumably will continue to do so.
Of course U.S. sports fans used to the NFL’s Monday Night Football and other TV-friendly sporting schedules, might be wondering why the German supporters are making such a big stink about the five Monday night fixtures that will be played this season. Even Premier League supporters would be puzzled, given England’s proclivities for not just Monday night games, but more games period. So what’s the big deal in Germany?
The reasons for the protests are varied, but can be unpacked like Russian Matryoshkas. The most obvious reason for the protests is the damage Monday night games cause to Germany’s legendary away-support fan culture. More so than any other major European football league, away support is hugely significant in Germany, so much so that when Monday night games were first suggested in 2015, the public reaction was swift and harsh. The logic is that away supporters, too, are people with jobs and families, who simply can’t afford to take Monday trips. (Many Frankfurt banners alluded to this problem.)
Unpack another layer, and the issue revolves around criticism directed at the DFL’s own argument for Monday night matches (i.e. giving Europa League an extra rest day). This argument seemed pretty ludicrous by the time Monday matches rolled around and Hoffenheim, Hertha, and Köln were already knocked out of the Europa League with BVB and RB Leipzig only fortuitously qualifying after disappointing Champions League campaigns. Anyhow, as this critique points out, it’s not as if the Bundesliga’s Europa League clubs have suffered in previous seasons without that extra day of rest. In other words, the extra rest just isn’t needed. Here, the hunch is that the DFL’s flimsy logic masks a deeper motive for the Monday night matches.
These deeper motives emerge once the next layer of the issue is unpacked. Here, the critique is that money is the real reason behind the Monday matches, specifically TV money. In the Bundesliga’s last round of TV rights negotiations, the league was able to win a much more lucrative TV money deal; however, one reason the deal was higher is … take a guess … the league granted five Monday night games a season to the Eurosport Network. The inclusion of these matches for Eurosport in the rights bidding, added more competitive goods to the mix, helping to drive up the TV rights bidding. In the eyes of supporters, this fact reveals the DFL’s true motives: higher league status in the European pecking order for the Bundesliga, and more purchasing power for German top flight clubs. Supporters rightfully feel left behind and marginalized by the DFL’s decision to schedule Monday night matches. Thus, the Monday night protests have reinserted supporters into the discourse over the fate of German football, because, as a commonplace in German football runs, there really isn’t football without fans.
Philosophically, these fans are absolutely correct. Professional football is a dramatic spectacle played in front of a participating public, who is integrally involved during matches (at least in Germany). This relationship between the game itself and crowd mirrors a similar point made by Hans-Georg Gadamer in his Truth and Method: cultural events involving “play” (e.g. sport, the theater, music, art, etc.) necessarily involve both the performer and crowd in an inseparable relationship. Both parties are interdependent. The two create a closed circle of meaning and significance. Gadamer’s model applies perfectly to modern football, which is more dramatic liturgy than innocent sport. The fans’ protests demand that sporting organizations acknowledge the symbiotic relationship between club and fans.
Finally, at the heart of our Matryoshka of an issue, lies the most significant point: for Bundesliga supporters, it’s simply been too many changes too soon to their beloved game. The Monday night matches is merely the latest of a series of reforms that have been hugely unpopular with German supporters. Video-Assisted Refereeing has also been present all season in the Bundesliga, and has become to unpopular the DFL is considering whether to continue it next season. For supporters, VAR symbolizes modern football’s money-protecting technocratic impulses, as well as interrupting the beautifully chaotic and dynamic flow of a football match. As if this change wasn’t enough, German football is still reeling from “the RB Leipzig question,” as the successful club is viewed as a mere advertising board for Red Bull, and has made a mockery of the 50+1 rule. Oh, and don’t forget the challenges raised to the league’s famed 50+1 rule this season, as both Hoffenheim and Hannover 96’s “owners” seek to circumvent the rule, while other clubs’ brass are ready to strike down the rule.
Basically, for a league that’s been advertised as the “most supporter friendly” in the world, it’s been a hellish season, as supporters fear that too much is being changed too quickly. While the supporters’ impulse is conservative, it’s easy to empathize with it. German football has sold itself on a specific identity for a solid decade now. Although the extent to which that identity is a myth/illusion is debatable, the real living “facts” of Bundesliga football matches are inescapable: the average match atmosphere is stunning with its noise, choreography, intensity, and supporter participation. This match day reality is what is at stake for the supporters.
However, an even deeper irony permeates everything. These protests take place in arenas named after and draped in corporate logos, sponsorships, and big money. For example, there’s the irony that Eintracht’s protest happened in its own Commerzbank-Arena, or that Borussia Dortmund, site of the second protest, is a publicly-traded stock in Germany. Ever since German football professionalized in 1963 with the formation of the Bundesliga, these deeper ironies were inevitable and inescapable. For decades, German football has existed in a fragile ecosystem in which the supporter cultures, symbolized by the 50+1 Rule, stayed strongly intact, next to the league’s slow professionalization in terms of corporate sponsorship, apparel deals, and especially TV money. During this period, the German Bundesliga was the place were both entities existed simultaneously and in relative harmony.
Yet this fragile footballing ecosystem is being upended from within by the increasing desire for “bigger and better,” as the league reaches after the goal of greater European success through means of TV money and an increasing openness to foreign investors. Crucially, this goal and these means run cross-purposed to Germany’s fabled supporter cultures. Increasingly, as the league navigates these cross-pressured times, it appears that the old fragile balance between supporter cultures and club professionalization just isn’t possible anymore.
German football is recasting its values. More than anything else, this task has been forced by the vigilance of its supporters, who demand to be included in the project. Ironically, the DFL is to blamed for the current turbulence. By changing too much too soon, the governing body unintentionally energized and mobilized Germany’s extensive supporter cultures. Despite the fundamental ironies of deep-rooted supporter cultures trying to coexist next to the flow of global capital and multinational corporations in Germany, the supporters are helping to at least clarify the sides and key issues. What happens next is anyone’s guess. Meanwhile, don’t expect Germany’s supporter cultures go quietly into the season’s night.