This weekend the headlines have been dominated by the chants and banners aimed at Hoffenheim benefactor Dietmar Hopp, in developments that must seem a bit bizarre from over the Channel. I've seen a few articles in English papers already, but none seem to tell the full story. I'll try to give you the inside track.
At the weekend, numerous matches in Germany were stopped while offensive banners aimed at TSG Hoffenheim's billionaire owner Dietmar Hopp were taken down. Most referred to him as a "Hürensohn" ("son of a *****"). Some went further and depicted his face in a gun's target. When banners were unfurled by Bayern fans at Hoffenheim (minus the targets), the players stopped playing and simply passed the ball among themselves for the last 15 minutes (although it should be noted that Bayern were already 6-0 up at this time, so hardly had anything to lose). Players up and down the country refused to play until the banners came down, and engaged in a public show of solidarity with the billionaire.
So who is Dietmar Hopp, why does he stir such strong feelings and what brought this all on in the first place?
Dietmar Hopp is the co-founder of SAP, one of the world's biggest software companies, and is a very rich man. He often puts his money into charities, local sport, and in particular youth sport. He invested in his village club TSG Hoffenheim in 1989. At that time they played in the Kreisliga A, the eighth level of German football (as the German pyramid is heavily regionalised from the fourth level onwards, this is lower than the Northern Premier League in England. Think Nottinghamshire Alliance). The investment was modest at first, but the big money started to come out from about 2005, when Hoffenheim was in the then third-level Regionalliga. After Hopp tried and failed to merge Hoffenheim with two other local clubs and move them 20 miles to Heidelberg, he decided to financially dope the village team instead and get it into the Bundesliga - which he achieved in 2008. Just months later, Hoffenheim (population 4,000) had a brand new stadium next to the motorway with a capacity of 30,000.
OK, the idea of a billionaire taking, say, Bingham into the Premier League is a bit bizarre. But what has that got to do with all the insults?
In Germany there is something called the 50+1 rule - a majority share of each club must be owned by its members (50% plus one). While this makes German clubs less attractive to investors, it does mean that the fans' voice is heard. Hoffenheim, who were transparently Hopp's plaything, drove a coach and horses through this rule. The rule was recently weakened to the extent that individuals or companies that sponsor a club for more than 20 years can own more than 50% of the shares, but not before Hoffenheim had gained an unfair advantage.
This riled fans before they reached the Bundesliga, but from 2008 Hoffenheim were national news. In 2011, Borussia Dortmund were visiting. The away fans decided to sing a few songs goading Hopp, and for their trouble they were subjected to an "acoustic attack" - to drown out the songs, a Hoffenheim employee played a high-frequency noise on the loudspeaker system at a frequency that could cause hearing damage. Naturally this didn't have the desired effect of stopping Dortmund's songs and banners about Hopp and, a couple of weeks ago, the German FA banned Dortmund's fans from attending their team's fixtures at Hoffenheim for the next two seasons. Hence uproar in Germany's fan scenes and "Hürensohn" banners out of solidarity up and down the country.
In my view the banners with Hopp in the target are tasteless and have to go. The "Hürensohn" banners are crass and insulting (I'd prefer a more creative and witty protest, but many ultras struggle with that). But does that on its own justify bans? At Saturday's match I insulted every single Kaiserslautern player before kick-off, I insulted everyone who lives there, I insulted the referee and the linesmen in two languages and I was pretty harsh with two of the home team's players too. I'm sure there were plenty of away fans questioning my parentage too. That's hard to justify in a normal social context, but if we hit ordinary insults with the ban hammer, where does it end? "The referee's a chap who's made a few unfortunate decisions"?
This goes deeper too. A couple of weeks ago, a Schalke player was racially abused - he reacted furiously, and for his troubles was shown a second yellow card and sent off. This was not front page news, there were no public expressions of solidarity from clubs or the German FA - and the furore over the insults aimed at Hopp is showing that the football authorities take rude words aimed at a white billionaire more seriously than racism. I've followed the walk-offs and abandonments in England as a result of racist abuse. In Germany, this solidarity seems to be limited to rich club owners, and that sends out a pretty damning message.