The suits at the Deutsche Fußball Bund (DFB – the German FA), Deutsche Fußball Liga (DFL – the representative of Bundesliga clubs) and the German interior ministry left Tuesday’s Sicherheitsgipfel, or security summit, firmly of the belief that the new code of conduct will bring about a paradigm shift in Germany’s football stadia, but the truth is that all they have succeeded in doing is proving how out of touch they are with ultras and “regular” football fans alike.
The Code of Conduct is the DFB and DFL’s five-point plan to eliminate violence from football stadiums across the country. No form of violence will be tolerated, nor will the use of pyrotechnics in stadia. Stadium regulations must be enforced and sanctions must be consistent. The 54 members of the Bundesliga, 2. Bundesliga and 3. Liga were invited to sign and pledge their commitment to the code of conduct. With the sole exception of FC Union Berlin, all did so.
The roots of this entire issue go back to the 2010/11 season. At the beginning of the season, ultras and other fans from all over the country used the international break in September to join forces and protest for the preservation of fan culture. All rivalries were forgotten for one day as 40,000 fans, mainly ultras, marched through Berlin. The protest attracted international attention and issues included fan-friendly kick-off times, the abolition of stadium bans and the legalisation of pyrotechnics.
Following on from the successful protest, a lobby group was formed by the name of Pyrotechnik legalisieren! Emotionen respektieren! – legalise pyrotechnics, respect emotions – with the aim of decriminalising what many fans see as a major part of German fan culture and paving the way for pilot projects to test out the controlled use of pyrotechnics in stadia. The initiative laid down clear regulations for they saw as the safe use of pyrotechnics: Flares should be lit by nominated, registered people at defined points in time and in specific areas of the stadium – no firecrackers, no fireworks and absolutely no throwing.
The group soon gathered support far and wide – not simply from ultra groups or fan representatives, but also from clubs themselves. The campaign was naturally supported by a large number of the banned pyrotechnic displays up and down the country, with ultras deliberately and consciously complying with the regulations put forward by the Pyrotechnik legalisieren initiative. The message from the ultras to the DFB was clear: Let’s sit down and talk about this, because searches at the turnstiles won’t stop us.
The breakthrough came in January 2011 – DFB safety office Helmut Spahn announced that the DFB would “take a serious look at what is possible and what isn’t.” The DFB entered into negotiations with the Pyrotechnik legalisieren initiative regarding pilot projects to test the safety of pyrotechnics in stadia. Explosive experts, the local authorities, and representatives of the police and fire brigade would all be involved. It appeared as though the DFB had finally acknowledged the willingness of the ultra groups to engage in real dialogue.
In response to this move, ultra groups held their promise of no pyrotechnics over the first three matchdays. This was seen to be a response to the pledge from the DFB that if ultras demonstrated how disciplined they could be, they would give then the chance to test out flares in a controlled environment. The anticipation grew and grew – ultras were tantalisingly close to a reality where lighting a flare did not automatically lead to a three-year stadium ban.
Suddenly, at the start of the 2011/12 season, the DFB announced that expert reports had proven that pyrotechnics in stadia posed a significant threat to the health and safety of all football fans. Although not officially released by the DFB, the Pyrotechnik legalisieren initiative managed to get hold of said expert reports and saw that the opposite had actually been concluded: Pyrotechnics would pose no additional threat to football fans provided they were used correctly and within a controlled framework. The disappointment was huge. After months of negotiations, the DFB had simply said Nein. Pro-pyro fans felt they had been duped.
This dismissal of the issue on the part of the DFB did little to solve the actual problems, but it did draw attention to the subject amongst the wider public. However, this may have done more harm than good, as several high-profile cases throughout the season led your average person on the street to see pyrotechnics as a sign of violence and ultras as violent gangs hell-bent on causing destruction wherever their team happened to be playing. The list of punishments for pyrotechnics and fan misbehaviour soon grew: Dynamo Dresden, Union Berlin, Hertha BSC, MSV Duisburg, Eintracht Frankfurt, Fortuna Düsseldorf and 1860 München were all handed hefty fines. The DFB wanted to implement their no-tolerance approach and soon moved on to ordering matches to be played behind closed doors or without away fans: Dynamo Dresden fans were banned from their away match in Frankfurt and Eintracht Frankfurt fans were later banned from attending their club’s match at Union Berlin. On both occasions, hundreds of “banned” fans gained entry into the respective stadia. When Dynamo were ordered to play a home match against Ingolstadt behind closed doors for poor fan behaviour, they ended up selling over 40,000 “tickets” raising thousands of euros for the club.
But the crowning moment of the season, a scene that will remain etched on every German fan’s memory, was the Bundesliga promotion/relegation playoff match between Hertha BSC and Fortuna Düsseldorf. In the dying seconds of the match, Fortuna fans invaded the pitch thinking that the final whistle had been blown. The scenes were incredible, people digging up parts of the pitch, climbing on the goalposts – before the match had even finished. In the media, the pitch invasion was portrayed as violence. Hertha players were said to have “feared for their lives”, it was a “new generation of violence”. Minor celebrities were lining up to appear on the German equivalents of The Wright Stuff and Loose Women to broadcast their nonsensical, ill-informed opinions about “so-called football fans”, complete with live flare tests using burning mannequins. In one particularly poisonous “talk” show, ultras were referred to as “the Taliban of football”. What almost every single commentator seemed to miss was the fact that what happened that evening in Düsseldorf was exactly what football is supposed to be about – absolute pure, undiluted emotion. The flare-throwing from fans of both teams that night is not something that can be endorsed and was a direct breach of the regulations set down by the pro-pyro movement. But didn’t that evening epitomise why we freeze our arses off on a terrace in Meppen, Aldershot, Stenhousemuir or wherever every Saturday? Fortuna Düsseldorf – a club with a rich history who hadn’t been in the Bundesliga since 1997 – had finally got back to where the fans felt they belong. Let’s not forget, the DFB introduced the playoff system to increase the excitement of the season. It worked.
The thing is, this media reaction and subsequent public outcry has forced the DFB’s hand. They have to be seen to be acting against this new plague of pyro-fuelled violence, otherwise they appear weak. And so we come to this security summit and a code of conduct to be signed by all professional clubs. The talk beforehand had been of the removal of fan privileges, whatever that is supposed to mean, and terracing being banned. What we did see is the maximum stadium ban period being increased from three years to five, reversing the move made in 2007. In the end, the DFB didn’t even invite the Fanprojekte – organisations at each club that take care of fans and fan issues at each club which is partially financed by the DFL and even the local government. One club, 1. FC Union Berlin, chose to not attend the conference. President Dirk Zingler cited the club’s policy of intensive dialogue with fans and the fact that the Code of Conduct had been received a mere 20 hours prior to the actual summit as reasons for staying away. The club has attracted a great deal of praise from fan groups and will have been a source of great embarrassment to the DFB.
When will the DFB learn that this top-down, no-tolerance approach simply does not work? Harder penalties do not necessarily mean a reduction in “violence”. And what about the figures that show that crime in relation to football matches has been decreasing for years? Even in cases where violence is committed, the draconian punishments simply foster a feeling of injustice. Our justice systems realised long, long ago that simply putting people under lock and key does not address the issues underpinning why people commit crime. Some clubs have implemented schemes where fans with stadium bans can volunteer at the club as a form of community service to reduce the length of their bans, something that the DFB has been praising for months. Instead of showing foresight and a willingness to listen to the people that make the game they govern so successful, they have resorted to treating ultras and pyrotechnics with the same techniques used 20 years ago to fight hooliganism. It’s about time they learned the difference.