By Peter Weis@PeterVicey

Kicker Interview: Local lawyer seeks to steer Bayern away from Qatar sponsorship

A banner unfurled in the Bayern Südkurve on Saturday took direct aim at Bayern's new chief executive Oliver Kahn and club President Herbert Hainer over the club's sponsorship deal with Qatar Airways.

Many Bayern fans feel as if the recent leadership change that saw Kahn take over from Karl-Heinz Rummenigge constitutes the perfect chance to steer the club in a different direction insofar as the sponsorship deal is concerned.

Kicker journalist Jörn Petersen sat down with FCB member and lawyer Michael Ott for an interview about his attempt to influence the club's thinking through a motion tabled at the October general meeting.

Bulinews' Peter Vice supplies the translation.
For the first time since the onset of the global pandemic, German footballing giants FC Bayern München welcomed a full house of 75,000 fans back to the Allianz Arena this past Saturday. The return of Bundesliga fans naturally means the return of protest banners. In this particular case the Bayern ultras of the Südkurve unfurled an enormous banner criticizing their club's sponsorship agreement with Qatar Airways.

The banner featured caricatures of new sporting CEO Oliver Kahn and club president Herbert Hainer pulling Bayern jerseys out of a washing machine. With an explicit reference to dirty money laundering, the banner read "Für Geld waschen wir alles rein." ("For money, we'll whitewash anything")

The message Bayern ultras wished to convey concerned what is, for the German public, an important reference to the human rights violations perpetrated by the Qatari regime. In particular, the number of migrant workers who have lost their lives building stadiums in the Emirate for the upcoming World Cup (6,000-8,000 by various estimates) carries with it particular resonance among the German public.

Bayern have had a direct sponsorship deal with Qatar's state-run airline since 2016. The team's January training camp is also hosted at facilities provided by the state company in Doha. Former Bayern chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge has been repeatedly asked about his moral feelings on the arrangement.

In the past, Rummenigge has called the sponsorship deal "necessary to maintain Bayern's competitiveness". The long-time club administrator has also spoken of Bayern's attempts to "exert some sociopolitical influence" by having summit meetings with Qatari officials and NGOs.

"It has to be said that of all the Arab states, Qatar has made the greatest improvements in terms of human rights and labour rights," Rummenigge said in recent comments to German footballing magazine Kicker, "The fact that they don't have a comparable standard to Europe is well known, but one also must not forget that it took Germany 100 years to achieve this standard. I'm not a Pharisee"

For FCB member and trained lawyer Michael Ott, some private discussions between Rummenigge and Qatari dignitaries doesn't go nearly far enough. In an interview appearing in the Thursday print edition of footballing magazine Kicker, Ott explained that "to claim that we're exerting influence with power brokers behind the scenes amounts to pure lip service."

Ott has submitted an application at the latest Bayern general assembly meeting in mid-October. The motion calls for the club members themselves to vote on the status of the sponsorship. Ott's petition doesn't call for ending the sponsorship immediately and even refrains from touching upon the club's training camp locale.

As the 28-year-old lawyer himself explained in the interview, he believes that he's found a way to get the club members to eventually convince the club functionaries to let the deal expire.

The following translation of Kicker journalist Jörn Petersen's interview with Ott does purposefully keep some of German footballing legalese in it. The decision to include this language was governed by the fact that some may be interested in the intricacies of how member-owned German clubs operate.

[Journalist] Petersen: Mr. Ott, you've been a Bayern fan since you were a child. Do you own one of the current jerseys?

[club member] Ott: No, I intentionally do not. My last tricot was from 2009 or thereabouts, back when Bayern made it to the Champions' League Final. I haven't bought a jersey in recent years because I don't want one with a Qatar advertisement on it.

Petersen: The fact that Bayern, among other things, advertises for "Qatar Airways" on its jersey sleeve is a thorn in your side. You now wish to  persuade your club to end its sponsorship with a motion at the general meeting. How does this work?

Ott: I submitted the motion in mid October. It's difficult to directly influence business directly at the FC Bayern AG, to which the professional club belongs. That was also a problem in the past when other applications were not submitted in a manner which was legally viable. I've given the matter intensive study and believe that I've found a way to utilize one of the few viable channels the club has for influence.

The application does not call for the cancellation of this agreement. That would be difficult and I wouldn't find it sensible either, because FC Bayern is supposed to be a serious contractual partner that honors its agreements. The point is to guard against something like the Qatar sponsorship from happening in the future. There are various avenues by which this can be accomplished.

Straight legal implementation isn't relevant. If the members can decide with a convincing majority that this sponsorship should be rejected, then I can't believe that the AG board will refuse them, even if they're not legally bound to.

Petersen: Bayern has had Qatar sponsorship since 2016. When and how did the idea for this application come about?

Ott: The sponsorship always bothered me. I'm not the most active in the fan-scene, but I've always been aware of the choreos with which the Südkurve protested the Qatar sponsorship. But those didn't move the club to action.

The straw that broke the camel's back for me was when a fan club organized a panel discussion in Qatar in January 2020. They invited migrant workers, a human rights activists, and FC Bayern. The club were the only ones not to show up. I found that unbelievable and was really ashamed of my club.

That's when I said to myself: Things can't go on like this. Things can't go on like this. You have to take more concrete measures that protest choreos. Then, during the Corona break, I had a little more time to work on the matter and do more detailed research.

Petersen: Your application focuses specifically on the Qatar sponsorship and not the winter training camp in Doha. What, for you, is the difference?

Ott: The difference is that this sponsorship transmits a one-dimensional marketing message in favor of Qatar. In every respect, this prevents the possibility of being critical about Qatar. It negates the very possibility of criticism because it totally conceals it. Without the press and the fans--if you only followed the club-owned media--you wouldn't know about it.

By contrast, one can actually do something on site at the training camp: Have an exchange with the local population, organize activities to raise awareness, perhaps also invite human rights activists. A pair of experts have confirmed to me that in Qatar--as is the case in the Gulf region in general--only public pressure can bring about change.

Given the context, to claim that we're exerting pressure on power-brokers behind the scenes amounts to pure lip-service that can't be taken seriously.

Petersen: On the topic of Qatar, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge has spoken of "change through engagement". He's also stated that "football can't save the whole world."

Ott: Football absolutely doesn't need to "save the whole world". But when you get involved with a country like this, one under such criticism, one should arrive at a clear stance and express it.

Petersen: It's not even clear yet if the executive committee will even permit the application to be tabled. How do you rate your prospects?

Ott: Thus far I haven't heard anything from the club. I imagine that they're likely not very enthused about the application. I nevertheless put a great deal of thought into formulating the application in such a way that it cannot be rejected. I am thus very positive about the prospects of it being put up to a vote.

Petersen: How has the response to your motion been thus far?

Ott: Overwhelmingly positive. I've received many e-mails not only from Germany, but also from Denmark and France. Naturally, there have been detracting e-mails too, but they've been less than ten percent of them.

Petersen: What do you say to critics that would point out that, [under your position] Bayern shouldn't be allowed to advertise for [German companies] Volkswagen or Siemens because they are also under Qatari influence?

Ott: That's a straw-man argument. The point here is that we have a direct contractual relationship with the Emirate of Qatar. Qatar Airways is a one percent state-owned company. You can't compare that.

Petersen: Parallel to the application to end Qatari sponsorship, you've also submitted a second motion to amend the club's basic statutes. What do those concern?

Ott: I've actually submitted two motions to amend the basic statutes. The second has not yet been made public. The one you are referring to simply aims to preserve legal recourse for influencing the AG. Currently, legal leverage depends on the club holding at least 75 percent of the shares in the AG. This is what is currently holds. But if Bayern were to sell further shares, it could reduce the stake to 70 percent without consulting the members.

This regulation is completely arbitrary, because whether you fall below the 70 percent limit is completely irrelevant. For me, it's a matter of course that you must hear the members before selling the crown jewels.

Petersen: And the second amendment?

Ott: This is a counter-motion to FC Bayern, which has itself submitted an amendment to the basic statutes. In the future, Bayern wants to allow the Honorary Council to have discretion over whether motions are submitted. The general member assembly can still approve rejected motions with a two-thirds majority, but that doesn't make any sense if a motion only needs a simple majority to be passed.

That's why I tabled a motion to amend the basic statutes; because clear criteria are needed as to when motions can and cannot be rejected, and that certainly doesn't belong in the hands of any one of the councils.

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