Going to a soccer game on a Saturday at a German soccer stadium is a ritual for at least 10 million fans. For 90 minutes they enjoy the company of their friends and family, cheering for their favorite team, booing at the referees for making a wrong call, singing and supporting their team with slogans and fan waving, and when their favorite team scores the winning goal, they race to the entrance of the locker room, cheering and congratulating the team on a job well done.
Yet looking at soccer in Germany this year, the scene presents a rather different story. Instead of cheering for their team, fans are taunting them even if they lose, throwing firecrackers and smoke bombs in the stands and on the field. Fights are breaking out between the fans of both teams, while some are chasing the fan bus, throwing stones at the windows and harassing the driver. And the most climatic event to signal the end of Premier League Play was on 16 May in the relegation play between Hertha BSC Berlin and Fortuna Duesseldorf, when thousands of fans stormed the soccer field to celebrate Duesseldorf’s promotion to the top flight league and Berlin’s relegation to the second tier league- but with two minutes left in regulation! It took 20 minutes to bring the fans back to their seats before the game could continue, which had contain so much chaos, and as a consequence, involved the German government afterwards. While the team from Hertha filed a complaint and demanded that the game be replayed, it fell on deaf ears on the part of the German Soccer Federation (DFB) and the DFB Supreme Court. Still, it is a cause for alarm in Germany as the problem with fans, the team and even the law enforcement has reached a point where tougher measures will have to be made before the start of the 2012/13 season.
Normally one will see such fan behavior in American sports, as millions of viewers have seen some events that have led to questions about the role of fans and athletes. The best example can be found in the event on 19 November, 2004 at a basketball game between the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons, where a brawl among the players gave a fan an incentive to throw an object at Ron Artest, who raced into the stands to beat him up. Other fans and players jumped in and a minute later, the court was loaded with people throwing punches and kicking each other. The game was called off with less than a minute left. Artest and at least 10 other players other received suspensions of up to a year; the fan instigating the attack was banned from attending any professional basketball games at the place where the brawl took place- Detroit-for life.
In Germany, many people take pride in the country’s sports, whether it is handball or basketball. While watching a game in each sport in the last two years- a basketball game in Bayreuth (Bavaria) and a handball game in Flensburg, the mood of the fans was spectacular, as there was cheering and jeering, people meeting new people, and there were no firecrackers thrown in the sporting complexes, let alone fans running onto the court to hinder a game. Even the cheerleaders and the DJs managed to involve the fans and provide them with a spectacular show, to make the trip to the game worthwhile. An example of such sportsmanship between the fans and the players, were found in a game between SG Flensburg-Handewitt and Gummersbach on 27 April, 2011, a game which Flensburg won in a seesaw match 29-25.
Yet the fan problem in German soccer has become so dire that the DFB, German soccer leagues, the federal government, police and its labor unions, and other parties are coming together this summer to discuss ways to crack down on fan violence. Already conclusive is the fact that fines and sanctions against teams, whose fans instigated the violence, have had very little effect on curbing the violence. Banning fans from attending any soccer games, as has been stressed by German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich after the disastrous game between Duesseldorf and Berlin may not be the most effective as fans can find creative ways of entering the soccer stadium masquerading as someone else and causing trouble there as well. The police and its union have strongly recommended that each of the 54 top flight teams and the DFB provide security fees and take points off the standings for teams instigating the violence. Yet many teams may not afford high fees for security, and for some who are cutting costs in order to compete, security is one of those aspects that has been on the chopping block.
The most viable solution to the increase in fan violence is to combine all the variants and add a five-year ban from competing on the national and international level, leaving them stuck in the Regionalliga (the fourth league) to set an example for other teams to clean up their act and be square with their fans, while at the same time, demand that each team entering the top three leagues to have strict security measures in place for every game and tournament. This includes taking finger prints and facial scans from each fan entering a sports stadium and having a database for them so that they can be tracked, scanning them for all forms of firecrackers and any materials that could potentially cause a fire, and even involving the German military at places where violence is the norm at the soccer games. In the case of the 2012 season so far, that would mean cities like Frankfurt and the surrounding areas, Cologne, Berlin, Dresden and Karlsruhe, where reports of violence have been recorded the most, would have military presence. A record of the violence during the 2011/12 soccer season can be found here. The last part is a common practice in regions prone to violence, like the Middle East and Africa, yet it seems like the trend has arrived here, which makes more law enforcement through the police and army a necessary and not a luxury. Should teams not afford strict security measures, they would not be allowed to compete in the top three leagues.
In the event that violence breaks out during or even after the soccer game, a “Three Strikes and You’re Out” rule should be enforced on all teams, keeping track of the record of violence committed by fans of the teams as well as scrutinizing the teams that are unable to control them. First strike means fines in the six digits and three points taken off, second strike means doubling of fines and six points taken off and the third strike means automatic relegation one league lower. If the event happens the fourth time, a five-year ban should be imposed. This rule is based on a law in the US dealing with drunk driving that was passed in the 1990s, which exists in most of the states- first strike meaning heavy fines, second strike meaning revoking the driving license and the third strike meaning jail time, in some cases, permanently. Yet its origins come from America’s favorite past time sport, baseball. A ban from attending any soccer game for those committing the violence should be enforced, but the responsibility of keeping order at a soccer game lies solely with the two teams competing with each other. Therefore, one should consider the punishment for each insubordination a punishment for all involved. While these measures are probably the harshest and it may contrabate the Constitutional Laws, resulting in the involvement of the Supreme Court in Karlsruhe on many occasions, but given the sophistication of the violence committed at German Soccer games, if even the German government is stepping up pressure for action, then the situation is at the point where inaction is no longer an option.
If there is a silver lining to all the violence, especially at the end of the season, it is fortunate that there have been no deaths or severe injuries reported. But it takes a tragedy to change that. It may not be the one similar to the infamous soccer stadium fire at Bradford City (in the UK) 0n 11 May, 1985, but one death will change the way we think about the game of soccer in Germany. We have already seen that in other places, as one can see with the violence at a soccer game at Port Said in Egypt on 1 February of this year, where over 70 people were killed. Unfortunately, Germany has taken one step closer to the danger zone and should the violence persist by the time the whistle blows to start the next season, we could see our first casualty recorded, regardless of which league game it is. When that happens, it will change the face of German soccer forever to a point where if there is a soccer game, the only way we will see it is on TV…….. as a virtual computer game!
Flensburg Files Fast Fact
Thestadium fire at Bradford City was (supposedly) caused by someone dropping a cigarette into the wooden bleachers full of rubbish, causing a fire that engulfed the stadium in less than five minutes. 56 people died in the fire and over 260 were injured. The fortunate part was the fact that no barriers to the soccer field were in place, like it is in today’s soccer stadiums in general, which allowed most of the fans to escape through the soccer field. It was a tragic end to the team’s promotion to the second tier of the British Premier League. The stadium was rebuilt in several phases (finishing in 2001), including replacing the wooden bleachers with steel and concrete. Since the fire, a ban of wooden bleachers have been enforced both in Britain as well as the rest of Europe.
Flensburg Files’ Fragen Forum:
After reading this article and watching the clips, here are a couple questions for you to mull over and discuss with other readers:
1. How would you approach the problem of fan violence in soccer stadium? Which measures are the most effective in your opinion: fines and other sanctions against teams, finger print scanning and keeping a database of the fans, point reduction in the football standings, banning teams with fan trouble from competing in certain leagues, or a combination of some of the measures? If none of the suggestions work, what would you suggest?
2. Do you think handball and basketball will surpass soccer in Germany in terms of popularity? Or will soccer remain a household name, like America has its household name sports of American football, basketball, baseball and ice hockey?
3. Do you think fan violence is a universal problem in sports or is it focused on selective sports?
Please submit your answers in the Comment section, which is here after this article. Thanks and looking forward to hearing from you readers!