The sanitised Premiership fan experience is increasingly an exception around Europe. Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger expalins why German clubs have insisted on keeping terraces open
He looked like somebody out of an American movie about college nerds: the thick spectacles, the greasy hair, the slight speech defect and the frail body. Still, he was a pretty good long-distance runner, and that’s how my brother had come to know him. He was always standing right behind us at games, next to that bunch of bikers who called themselves The Ghostriders.
His name was Didi and he always showed up with his best friend in tow. Or maybe he was his best enemy, because they were constantly arguing – usually over the question of whether Andreas Möller was a genius or a charlatan. I sometimes suspected Didi and his pal actually lived at the ground, since over the course of roughly 15 years, no matter how early I took my place, they were already there. And while I tended to miss the odd match now and then, they apparently never did.
Then, in either 1993 or 1994, the opening game of the season was already under way when I noticed Didi and his sidekick weren’t there. When I asked my brother, he lowered his voice and said: “They are now sitting.” The people around us nodded their heads in that sad, knowing way, and I understood. Didi was as good as dead.
Because that’s the way things are at Dortmund. Not standing means you’re an outsider whose existence is only grudgingly acknowledged, practically in the same class as an opposing fan. If you think that’s an exaggeration, go to a game and listen to the people on the terrace insult the seating areas. The reason for their annoyance may be a song the sitters can’t relate to or the other stands’ failure to participate in the Mexican wave. In response to such taunts, fans in the main stands will rise from their seats and give the finger (some are known to show their bums) to the terraces. Minutes may pass before the quarrelling parties, who are, after all, wearing the same colours, calm down again and turn their attention back to the game.
Dortmund is, admittedly, an extreme case. When the club rebuilt their stadium three years ago, they ignored all modern trends by actually enlarging the main standing area, the South Stand, to a capacity of 25,000 – which means it is now the largest terrace in Europe. However, other German clubs also feel the same way. Even the spanking, shiny new dome being built by Schalke 04 will have standing room for some 17,000 people. “We asked the fans,” explains Schalke’s business manager Rudi Assauer. “They wanted us to preserve terracing, so that’s what we’ll do.”
Currently, there is only one all-seater ground in the Bundesliga, and that’s Berlin’s Olympic Stadium. (That dubious honour is often awarded Bayer Leverkusen’s posh “BayArena”, but in fact the club can remove some seats to create a small standing area, increasing the capacity from 22,500 to 25,050.) Everywhere else, clubs didn’t even seriously contemplate abolishing the terraces. When cash-strapped Freiburg enlarged their ground last year, the club asked the fans who used to stand along the touchline to consider moving behind one of the goals. The club could earn more money, they said, if the new seats were on the side. That was the point at issue – doing away with the terrace never was.
There was a brief period, five years ago, when it appeared FIFA might force German clubs to go all-seater. Dissent, however, was widespread. Many fan clubs, groups and magazines joined forces to form BAFF, the Alliance of Active Football Fans (formerly the extremely German “Alliance of Anti-Fascist Football Fans”). BAFF’s aim was to fight the commercialisation of the game in general and its worst side-effect in particular – the end of terracing. “Seating is for bums” said BAFF’s slogan, and the alliance even threatened to undermine Germany’s campaign for the 2006 World Cup because it feared the bid entailed all-seater grounds.
One might have expected the clubs to jump at the chance to increase revenue by going all-seater, but in reality most sympathised with BAFF’s argument. Some, like Kaiserslautern and Karlsruhe, even actively supported the movement. It’s not as though German clubs are run by benevolent benefactors of mankind, but in a country in which the idea of privately owned clubs and plcs running football is still a revolutionary concept, it’s still widely accepted that making money is nice, but not the ultimate goal.
None of BAFF’s arguments – that all-seater stadiums would price out many fans, kill the atmosphere and drive the younger generation towards cheaper pastimes – was really contested. The only problem was FIFA’s ruling and the reluctance of the DFB (German FA) to cross their path – the World Cup bid, you remember. Then, however, even UEFA’s Lennart Johannsson was quoted as saying: “FIFA should reconsider the all-seater rule. Some of the points brought forth by pro-terracing groups are valid.”
When the German clubs came up with the plan to install removable seats, the Bundesliga was allowed a period of grace. Today, the end of the terraces is no longer a topic. Partly that’s due to the fact that there have been no safety problems whatsoever. The other reason is that in the current climate, nobody dares to voice ideas that could be perceived as running counter to the interests of the fans. The last few months have seen a plethora of polls, discussions and debates on the question of what should be done to stop the process of alienating football supporters. It was all started by another fans’ alliance, called “pro 15:30”, which demanded that Bundesliga games should kick off at the traditional time (Saturdays at 3.30) instead of being spread all over the weekend.
In most other countries, clubs would probably have gone into fits of laughter about this. But Germany is suffering from declining attendance figures in the top three divisions and – much worse – rapidly diminishing TV ratings. It’s also the only European country where utter indifference to the Champions League is widespread. Until the Arsenal match, Bayern Munich’s average attendance for European games was a paltry 25,000, compared to 47,000 for the Bundesliga.
My personal view is that these figures only mirror the quality of football on display, but everybody else says it’s because the game is moving away from its fans. So no one is even contemplating taking away people’s right to stand. Does this sound bizarre to an English reader? Perhaps. But it sounds equally bizarre to a German fan that the English, who invented football culture, seem to have given up an integral part of that culture without putting up much of a fight.
Of course, Germans are not burdened with the psychological baggage that is Heysel and Hillsborough. We have never had had a major disaster that was directly linked to terracing. Who knows, one serious incident on Dortmund’s South Stand could change everything. Yet it still seems peculiar that Britain’s Football Licensing Authority is dispatching delegations to Germany in order to find out the secret formula behind the technological mystery that is so-called “Kombi” seating.
You don’t need rocket scientists to figure out how to convert a standing area. At some grounds, permanent seats are used within the crush barriers and the option is simply to fold them up or not. At other places, seats are stored outside the stand and are mounted for international games. It’s a nuts and bolts affair, that’s all. Those seats may not be pretty, but they’re easy to install. Apart from that, I can’t say anything about them: whenever I have been to a ground where they had been put into place, people were standing anyway. An exception was the elderly couple sitting right in front of me during the 1997 European Cup final in Munich. When I expressed pity at their not being able to see the game, the man smiled and said: “That’s OK. We came here because of the atmosphere.”
From WSC 171 May 2001. What was happening this month