Frankfurt fans' tennis ball protest shows concern over German football future

Even Eintracht Frankfurt supporters did not know what to expect as they headed to the Waldstadion for their club's clash with RB Leipzig, the first of the Bundesliga's five Monday night matches guaranteed by the new TV contract. They knew there would be protests, though they could not ever have imagined how successful they would be.

This season, for the first time, the league made six different kickoff times possible, stating that Monday kickoffs would guarantee more rest for those involved in the Europa League and also leave supporters time to attend or even play in lower-league matches at the weekend.

Yet, influential fan groups have not bought into the German Football League's (DFL) argument. They are not happy with what the league is becoming and launched peaceful protests within the inner zone of the Frankfurt stadium on Monday, while also throwing tennis balls onto the pitch.

Kickoff was delayed twice as players and match officials calmly waited for the protests to disperse. "It's OK. They won't harm us," Leipzig captain Willi Orban reportedly told referee Felix Zwayer as they waited for the fans who had entered the inner zone to retreat back to the stands. Even when the match did kick off, the first two minutes were played with protesters near the touchline.

Those fans soon returned to the stands, where large banners against the Monday night games were on display throughout the 90 minutes and, to make themselves heard, there were load whistles whenever Leipzig were in possession of the ball.

Then, ahead of the second half, tennis balls descended onto the pitch. Wave after wave landed and social media was soon filled with pictures showcasing the supporters' frustrations with the new kickoff time.

In the end, after an exciting game, Frankfurt held on to a 2-1 win against their competitors to move into the Champions League spots as Jean-Kevin Augustin put the visitors ahead, before Timmy Chandler netted an equaliser and former Tottenham and Portsmouth midfielder Kevin Prince-Boateng struck the winner.

But while the result may help Frankfurt push for a place in Europe next season, what happened off the pitch was an example of one of the Bundesliga's biggest assets: the fans' never-ending creativity and their urge to vent their frustration by making themselves heard.

"We knew there would be protests, and if we do not channel, discuss and allow or accept them, then they will go into a direction that is not good for football," Frankfurt executive Axel Hellmann said after the match.

As a club, Frankfurt knew that they must allow the protests to happen. They were aware they needed to trust the fans to vent their anger without violence and allow them an outlet for their displeasure.

The DFL continues to report revenue records every year, and this month, the Bundesliga announced its 13th consecutive increase as the 36 top clubs of the upper two tiers posted a combined revenue exceeding €4 billion.

However, while growth has been ensured -- and the league will continue to be one of the biggest in Europe in the upcoming years -- fans have felt increasingly disenchanted in recent seasons because of the digitalisation of the matchday experience. The debate over the introduction of video assistant referees (VAR) among them.

Some factions, including clubs' Ultra groups, have also voiced their fears of being pushed out because of the seemingly eventual failure of the 50+1 rule. That rule, established by the DFL in 1998, is meant to guarantee fan ownership by making sure that more than 50 percent of the club's shares remain with the club itself.

"Clearly, the league and the clubs are prepared to sacrifice our interests for the smallest of financial gains," the umbrella group Nordwestkurve Frankfurt wrote in a statement before the match. "As long as they have a few more euros in their pockets, they couldn't care less how many days of vacation we need to take to attend an away game. Marketing is their highest priority."

Fans in Germany will not be able to stop any of this. Football has become a global market, and everyone is well aware of that. Yet, fans believe that casting a global eye on protests through nonviolent, highly visible and marketable measures -- such as throwing tennis balls -- will help German football take a step back and question certain decisions rather than doubling down and capitalising what is left of the game's culture.

When Borussia Dortmund take on Augsburg next Monday, the famous Sudtribune, one of the Bundesliga's unique selling points with its 25,000 standing capacity, will not be packed. Several fan groups have announced they will not attend the match. And again, people will be left wondering what is wrong in German football.

While the good old days will not come back, the traditionalists hope to slow progress by asking questions and making themselves heard. That's why Frankfurt's tennis ball protests have shown that it is OK to listen to fans.

"The protests were peaceful," Frankfurt head coach Niko Kovac said after the 2-1 win. "There was no violence and I think the fans' message came across."

German fans may be fighting for a lost cause, but they have once again shown that they will fight for their rights and the clubs accepted their voice must be heard. While many were unhappy about the staging of the first Monday night match of its kind, it may have turned into a good night for the future of German football.