With only two games left to play, 180 minutes will determine the future of Hannover 96 in the German Bundesliga, the country's top major soccer league.
The club, which has a rich history, has played in the league since 2002 and competed in two international tournaments in 2011 and 2012. But it is now struggling to avoid being relegated to the second league.
The Bundesliga's leagues use a process of promotion and relegation, where top and bottom teams move between the two divisions at the end of the season. The two highest-placed teams in the second division are promoted to the first division, and the bottom two in the first division are relegated to the division below.
Hannover is ranked 16 in a line-up of 18 German professional soccer clubs. On Saturday, the team managed only a draw against Bremen. Its next two games against Augsburg and Freiburg are crucial.
It’s the financial side that has the core fan base in such an uproar.
But the poor performance on the field is only one of the team’s problems. Fans are upset over the club's ownership slipping from their hands into those of private investors.
They learned at the annual general meeting two weeks ago that the club association sold off the remaining 15.66 percent of the pro division to a group of investors led by the club’s president Martin Kind, organized as a commercial partnership limited by shares, known as a KGaA in Germany. The €3.25 million, or $3.63 million, price tag was based on the value of the players on the club’s books, but if actual market value was used, Mr. Kind would have spent many times that amount.
Mr. Kind, who makes his money with an hearing aid manufacturer, had been at the forefront of the battle to change the German Football League's (DFL) 50+1 rule in professional soccer. Under the old rule, fans maintained control of 50 percent of club shares, plus one.
Video: Hannover 96 YouTube channel trailer.
Under the revised rule, effective at the start of this year, a club member or group of members who have contributed a significant amount of money to the club over a period of 20 years can acquire a majority of club shares. Mr. Kind will meet those conditions in 2018.
It’s the financial side that has the core fan base in such an uproar. The nightmare scenario is a single person or entity controlling the fate of Hannover 96 and, in the worst-case scenario, in the second league to boot.
That’s led to the formation of a group of more than 100 key club members critical of management. They’re convinced “that Martin Kind and his investment partners have ripped off the club and its members by the forced sale of the KGaA shares,” said spokesperson Bernd Hettwer.
Among the critics are many of the owners of expensive season tickets. They were already unhappy when investors swallowed all rights to the club’s trademarks in 2008.
Through his Hannover 96 Sales & Service (S&S) GmbH & Co. KG, Mr. Kind has the option to take sole control the club’s voting shares in 2018. While he admits communications were not handled professionally, he insists the deal was a good one.
“The criticism is partially justified and I accept that,” Mr. Kind told Handelsblatt. “The negotiations over S&S took place back in the fall of 2014, but for years, I have always spoken openly about my strategy and presented it in detail. I have learned from that last incident. I only want the best for Hannover 96.”
Revenues raised by the sale will be funneled into construction of a new stadium and club grounds as well as a youth training center, he said, adding that these projects would be impossible without additional funding.
Mr. Kind is a businessman with many interests. He transformed his mother’s small hearing aid business into a global company. He operates a convention hotel and produces protective work gear. Armed with his millions, he led Hannover 96 out of the regional league upwards into the UEFA Europa League.
“Back then, the club was looking for somebody stupid to save Hannover 96 from insolvency,” said Mr. Kind, who isn’t a professed soccer fan. “And they found me.” That was almost 20 years ago.
The 71-year old, whose fortune is estimated to be more than half a billion euros, lives and works from Grossburgwedel, not far from Hanover. He successfully convinced six additional investors to join him in Hannover 96, including Dirk Rossman, the founder of the Rossmann drugstore chain and a regular tennis partner.
But it is Hannover 96's complicated and opaque structure that for years has generated the most criticism of Mr. Kind. The association is subdivided into various companies, all of them led by him.Together with his partners, he is involved in every deal and has fought long and hard to ensure S&S could gain full control of the club.
Mr. Kind isn’t alone in his vision. The DFL’s 50+1 rule, which is designed to limit investor influence on German professional clubs, has been under attack for years and is increasingly being watered down. Recently, first league team 1899 Hoffenheim skirted the rule in favor of SAP co-founder Dietmar Hopp.
Chemicals company Bayer in Leverkusen and carmaker Volkswagen in Wolfsburg have owned clubs for more than two decades. RB Leipzig is considered a marketing tool for its investor, Red Bull.
Heribert Bruchhage, executive chairman of Eintracht Frankfurt and a member of the DFL board, believes, however, that even with additional capital, clubs such as Hannover and Frankfurt will likely only swing back and forth between 7th and 14th place in the standings.
“The aspect of cash injection must have a long lasting component and also generate growth under its own power,” said Oliver Leki, managing director of financially weak SC Freiburg. Currently, he said, there is “no alternative course of action to bring in outside third parties as investors,” adding that such actions are not in accordance with the club’s philosophy.
Mr. Kind, who plans to step down as president and move to the supervisory board in 2018, already has begun the search for a successor.
Diana Fröhlich is a reporter for Handelsblatt. Martin Sonnleitner is a freelance journalist. To contact the author: [email protected]