After around two hours, the atmosphere in Room 161B of the Frankfurt Regional Court is more reminiscent of what is happening on the soccer field than of a legal dispute. The former top referee Manuel Gräfe and the German Football Association (DFB) are the combatants, and now the ex-referee reports again in detail how he was ousted last year – and the lawyer for the DFB then drives the really big guns on. Gräfe “threw dirt” here and told the “untruth,” he says, whereupon something like a verbal pack formation develops in the hall.
The presiding judge Wilhelm Wolf then does it like a good referee on the field; he doesn’t need yellow cards or loud words to end the dispute. But the differences in content do not change. The amicable agreement between the two parties that the Chamber is aiming for will come to nothing. Instead, the court wants to decide on January 18 in the matter.
In the previous year, Gräfe had filed a lawsuit against the DFB because he had been illegally booted out for reasons of age. From a purely formal point of view, the court is now dealing with an age limit of 47 for referees in German professional football, but in fact there is much more at stake: namely the state of the German refereeing system. It is the high point in the longstanding dispute between Gräfe and the DFB. The Berliner (268 appearances in Bundesliga games) was one of the best German referees for many years and was also unusually popular with players and coaches. At the same time, however, he repeatedly caused irritation internally because he criticized the system and its representatives, including publicly. And last year the association decided not to nominate Gräfe anymore. Gräfe’s accusation: The association took advantage of his age (47 at the time) to get rid of him as an uncomfortable spirit – although he still felt fit, wanted to continue and was undisputedly one of the best referees in the league.
Gräfe is demanding six-digit damages from the DFB
Graefe therefore now wants compensation of around 190,000 euros, but above all a statement that he was no longer nominated solely because of this age limit. This is also the reason why the amicable agreement sought by the chamber fails. Because the DFB does not want to get involved in such a formulation. According to him, not being nominated had nothing to do with age – and there is no age limit at all.
The age limit for referees in German football is such a thing. Purely statutory, as the association rightly points out, it is not stipulated anywhere. The association also expressly does not object when the judge proposes a very far-reaching formulation as the central point of his comparative approach. Accordingly, the two parties agree that there is no age limit, neither at 47 nor at any other age.
But it has actually been practice for more than two decades that referees who are older than 47 are no longer used in Germany – unlike in the Netherlands or England, for example, where Mike Dean was still playing games last year at the age of 54 directed. And a year and a half ago, the DFB published an interview it conducted itself with referee boss Lutz-Michael Fröhlich on its own website. Not only does Fröhlich express himself in it, but the question section also explicitly refers to an “age limit” of 47 years, as judge Wolf states several times.
In retrospect, this conversation now seems as if the DFB wanted to present an argument to the public as to why Gräfe would no longer be nominated. But at the same time, this approach gets him into legal difficulties. And the question arises: If it wasn’t age, then what were the reasons why Gräfe was no longer nominated as one of the best referees? Last but not least, the judge complained about how the referee selection at the DFB actually works. “In a company that deals with hefty sums of money, I would expect it to be listed in minute detail,” he says; instead it is “highly non-transparent”. At the same time, however, his contributions could also be understood to mean that it would be difficult to obtain the desired damages even if Gräfe were fundamentally right.
In any case, things could get very dirty in this dispute. It is possible that there will not be a decision on January 18, but witnesses will also be called; and it is likely that the proceedings will go to the next instance. The DFB and Gräfe give very different information about how the booting really went in the previous year, what was said in which meeting – and also how serious Gräfe is with this lawsuit at all, because he now works as an expert at ZDF . Gräfe said he was very “deeply relaxed” about the rest of the process: “Now it’s going to take even longer for the whole truth to come out.”