2 March ~ The ban on pyrotechnics on the terraces and the increasing visibility of ultra-style groups in the Bundesliga have been major issues in German football for some time now. Whereas 20 years ago, the sight of flares and banners in packed stadiums was greeted as a sign of the spread of Italian-style football culture, now it is widely regarded as being a sign of impending hooligan violence. Recent pictures of Rostock fans launching fireworks into the away end during their match again St. Pauli have done little to dispel this image.
The German football association are content to tar all fans with the same brush, and stated in a joint statement with the German Football League in November that “legalising pyrotechnics is out of the question". Meanwhile, €300,000 in fines have been levied on clubs from the top two divisions. They are attempting to pass on these costs to any fans who can be identified as being responsible for bringing flares into the stadiums.
In Norway and Austria, tentative steps have been taken towards a solution. In both countries, fan groups can apply for a license to use flares (but not rockets) in specified areas of the stadium. Currently, the application must be made before every game and requires the approval of the fire brigade, clubs and the football federations. But plans are afoot to simplify this process. It is not an ideal proposal – many fans feel that even this compromise restricts their creative freedom to support their clubs as they wish – but it shows that the application of common sense can lead to some sort of resolution.
Recent events suggest that the tendency of the German association and the clubs to oversimplify the issue and equate pyrotechnics directly with hooliganism is leaving the door open for a more worrying trend, as the right-wing political scene appears to be making its presence felt in and around German stadiums. This was once viewed as a problem particular to the former East German states, but many are realising that football supporters on the extreme right are not restricted to Cottbus and Chemnitz.
This was made painfully clear last Sunday at an extra training session ordered by Kaiserslautern's trainer Marco Kurz, after his team's 4-0 derby defeat in Mainz. Many of the 300 spectators were there to vent their frustration at the players, but ten men were seen performing the Nazi salute and hurling anti-semitic abuse at Itay Schechter, Kaiserslautern's Israeli striker.
Police officers in attendance did not forcibly remove these men, preferring instead to “concentrate on a de-escalation of the situation". The president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany declared that: “Anyone displaying anti-semitic behaviour should be in prison, not a football stadium."
The head of Kaiserslautern's fan representative group is convinced that the Sunday's events did not come out of the blue. "Almost all clubs now have a small group of right-wing fans," said Erwin Ress. But these supporters are still very much in the minority, as the thousands of messages of support for Schechter received by the club have shown.
However, the DFB's reaction to this issue has been criticised by many as being far slower than when someone is spotted carrying fireworks. Performing the Nazi salute is a crime in Germany and both the football association and Kaiserslautern must work with the police to identify those involved in Sunday's incident, if their public statements about kicking anti-semitism out of football are to be taken seriously. John Van Laer