Our day in Paradise; what we learnt in Jena

It starts at the station of the same name, the road crosses the River Saale and runs alongside a big park. They call it Paradies, and after a kilometre or so part of it turns into a large sports complex, which includes the Ernst - Abbe Sportfield. It is the home of FC Carl Zeiss Jena, the most outwardly puzzling member of Roland Duchatelet’s network. And on a sunny day in early March I left the last snow in the Czech border mountains, and drove down to meet Alan Dryland, the big hearted Charlton fan who has embarked on a single handed project to extend the hand of friendship to Jena. He has brought with him a very special gift, one of the ceramic poppies from the Tower of London display; and he is expected, because he has introduced himself to the Jena club with a beautifully crafted letter describing the unity of Europe after two awful wars, and the shared hopes and dreams of the fans in the Network of clubs.

You can find an article and photos of the day on Charlton Life, but for Trust readers I hope to shed some light here on one of the big questions. Of all the clubs that Roland Duchatelet has bought, why Jena? All most of us knew was that “FCC” plays in the 4th division, which is regionalised and generally attracts gates of 2-3,000. To get out of that league it has to finish top, and since we have been tracking them they have consistently been around 3rd-5th, but never looking like taking the title. A very small club in East Germany...

They seemed to be at the bottom of the (presumed) network heirachy , but we had already seen photos of their “ultras” demonstrating against Roland Duchatelet; however we had not made any progress in finding out what exactly was so annoying them. A remarkable coincidence in Prague gave me a fan contact- a friend of a young neighbour in my street. He described a division within the fanbase; on the one hand the mayor of Jena, the club chairman and what he called Jena’s “high society”; and on the other hand the “ultras” who just want to support their club and not be taken in by “empty promises”. These promises seemed to focus on the building of a Sint-Truiden - style hotel complex around the arena. No mention though, was made of the network, player trading, or firing of popular coaches. I was still a bit mystified as to what it was all about, until after the game, when Christoph Range, the marketing manager, and Andreas Trautmann, the Press Officer spent some quality time with us, and shed a lot of light on Roland Duchatelet’s investment and possible goals.

Andreas and Christoph dressed like Jena fans but talked like smart professionals who know their job inside out. It turns out that both impressions are accurate; “Our players are full time professionals, but we don't get money from TV. So we have the responsibility for marketing and communication, to raise the revenue the Club needs .For me it is the 11th year in the club as an employee. First of all - I am a Fan of my club. And I will be a fan for all the time, for eternity.” said Andreas.

Some of you will have heard that Germany has the 50+1 rule; 51% of the club ownership must rest with its members (the fans). Even Red Bull had not been able to overturn that when they bought into a small Leipzig club, and so it is with FCC; RD only owns 49%. Andreas has met RD several times, and clearly likes and respects him; but he made it clear that RD is not his boss; he “cannot do what he likes”, and indeed nowhere does his name appear in the club programme. "Roland Duchatelet is an investor - and not the owner of the club. So there is a big difference between the situation in Charlton and Liege and the situation here in Jena. In Germany a majority shareholding in football is not allowed and not possible.” he explained."Decisions will be taken in Jena - but of course a partnership just makes sense, if both partners agree and share the same vision. And they do." The other important thing to emerge is that FCC do not own the stadium. The council does, and the council apparently is not much keen on football, even though the Mayor is one of the 3,500 members who control the 51% share.

So what is that RD wants to do? In this respect, my neighbour’s friend was right. A Sint-Truiden style hotel complex is what he would like to do, as part of a complete stadium upgrade. And to be honest, Alan and I looked round and thought, what’s not to like about that? The atmosphere in the current stadium is about as intimidating as Park View Road for the pre season friendly. The new plan would see new covered stands and the removal of the athletics track to a purpose built stadium across the main road; and as for the hotel, there is plenty of space for it, and for the ancilliary parking; and a tram line runs close by.

What is the fans’ problem, then? Andreas explained it; there is something deep in German fan culture that resents big business intruding on their football. Only four clubs in the top league have significant private investment; Hoffenheim, (the MK Dons of Germany), Bayer Leverkusen and VFL Wolfsburg (who basically are modern versions of our old “works” teams) and Bayern; yet even Bayern are still a member-owned club. Nevertheless they and RB Leipzig are reviled for letting Big Business intrude on the purity of German football. In this case it seems that RD’s only “crime” is to be a businessman. He is treated with suspicion by a large number of their fans, even though when it comes to the playing side, he does not seem to have interfered. Well he can’t. He’s not the owner!

This suspicion though was so sharp that the Ultras (probably 20 % of the average gate) actually boycotted the games. RD’s response was familiar to us; basically, they could do one, he wasn’t going to talk to them. But Andreas told us that the club management insisted that dialogue with the dissenters was essential; "I know, that Roland had bad experiences - especially in Liege with the hardcore ultra scene. Dialogue doesn't seem to help there anymore. But in Jena we have a  constructive atmosphere, open and honest dealings, and a high degree of transparency. For us, partnership with RD is a big chance. We want to take this opportunity.  Some of our fans were afraid, that the club could lose its identity. We have tried - over months - to diminish these fears empathetically. We told them, why we are convinced about the partnership with RD."

But why, I still wondered, did he come to Jena in the first place? Well he does have existing business interests not far away. This part of Germany is noted for its skills in microelectronics. However RD’s manufacturing unit is located nearer to the larger town of Erfurt, and it seems that Rot Weiss Erfurt was his first target. But that club did not have a minority share available in GmBH company form, while FCC did. Rot Weiss would seem to have been a better choice, being a division higher and in a larger town, but Andreas was careful to point out that Rot Weiss don’t have FCC’s pedigree; (”eternal No. 1 of Oberliga of the former GDR -FCC won 3 national championships, 4 national cups, 87 European cup matches (sem-final 1962, final 1981, several times quarterfinals”, Andreas informed his ignorant visitors).

The picture was emerging of RD wanting to use football to do more in the community in which he had located some of his existing business. To us, there did not seem anything but positives for FCC if his plans came to fruition. A nicer and probably much louder stadium; ancilliary commercial revenue to support the building of a better team; the building blocks to take them at least up to Bundesliga 2, where decent guaranteed TV revenue becomes available.

The stumbling block appears to be the council. It does not like football and it has a left wing character which probably reflects the working class roots of this East German city with a proud industrial heritage. As in Liege, RD has found himself in a city which is naturally suspicious of Big Businessmen.

But the interesting thing is that he is there, even though the aspect of his ownership that makes us at Charlton suspicious, isn’t possible. He can’t just fire the coach, nor dump a lot of Standard rejects on FCC (although Ajdarevic could run every game at this level without moving from the centre circle), because he’s a minority investor. If he wants to get FCC involved in the network, he will have to persuade the president and board of directors that its a good idea. And who does that board of directors report to? Yep. The fans.

But he seems to be OK with that. Andreas said that he was going to make sure RD saw not just the poppy, but Alan’s letter, because he was convinced that RD shares the values and sentiments Alan so movingly conveyed. Jena is a city that was bombed to bits by the Allies and then fell under the cloud of communism. It has been a long hard road back to the sunshine. But the renaissance of Thuringia is finally under way. New jobs are coming, which persuade the students who swell Jena from leaving to the west of Germany. RD is one of those people helping to make that happen. If I was him I too would feel inspired by and proud of that. Once again, I found myself thinking, maybe he really does mean well for all of his clubs. If only we could talk...