16 March ~ German football fans have enjoyed a largely positive press for the past 20 years thanks to a number of well co-ordinated campaigns. Among other things, these have helped to retain standing areas, affordable tickets and a reasonable number of Saturday afternoon kick-offs. And it's thanks to the concerted efforts of fan groups that the atmosphere in stadiums makes for a loud and boisterous match day. Although some people might find the idea of a "conductor" with a megaphone at the front of the terrace leading the chants as a little less than spontaneous, it's certainly preferable to a mute support restricted to either cheering goals or moaning.
So the scenes following Hertha Berlin's last-minute home defeat to Nuremberg on Saturday have come as something of a shock to the German public, if perhaps less so to those paying attention. The 2-1 loss pretty much condemned last-placed Hertha, who finished fourth last season, to relegation and this was too much to stomach for around 100 ultras, who jumped the fence at the final whistle, picked up anything to hand and began to generally rampage around, causing the players to scram for the tunnel. Around 30 arrests were made and no one was injured, but the pictures made for good shock-value television and various Hertha team officials lined up to condemn the fans and promise that measures would be taken to endure that it didn't happen again.
But this is by no means an isolated incident. There have been countless violent fan clashes in the lower divisions in recent years, in particular in the eastern part of the country where, to take just one example, fans of third-division Dynamo Dresden have made themselves a particular reputation for thuggery. But stuck out in the east, these incidents rarely make national news. Meanwhile, earlier this season a youth game between Dortmund and Schalke was abandoned after ultras from both teams arranged to meet at the game and face off. Cologne fans in Bochum injured two stewards last November. Eintracht Frankfurt's ultras also seem intent on cultivating a bad name for themselves – they've clashed with their Nuremberg counterparts this season and earlier this month launched a raid on the premises of the Karlsruhe Fan Project, causing both injuries and damage.
There seems to be an uneasy relationship between the Fan Projects (BAG) and the ultras. The Fan Projects are usually funded by a combination of grants from the city, state and the club itself. As well as being supporters' clubs and addressing fan issues, the projects also partner social and educational workers to offer guidance to young fans. They also work in partnership with the ultras on campaigns but after the Karlsruhe incident, BAG spokesperson Ralf Busch called that partnership into question. "You get the impression," he said, "that the ultras are in no way interested in a positive, co-operative evolution of fan culture". Any ultras who failed to condemn such violence were, he added, forfeiting their claim to represent the "heart of the game".
The ultras are independent organisations and in most cases work well with clubs who are grateful for the enhanced atmosphere from the fans' impressive choreography and lively chanting, and who are eager to maintain the Bundesliga's healthy attendance records. However, the Ultras' policy of "policing from within" is coming under close scrutiny. Fan representatives of Bundesliga clubs last week sent an open letter to supporters appealing for common sense in reaction to increasing violence and some fairly brainless behaviour with pyrotechnics – eight Nuremberg fans were injured in Bochum last month, some of them seriously, after fans set fire to magnesium powder.
That incident prompted Social Democrat politician Karsten Rudolph to demand body scanners at football grounds. An expensive, inconvenient and impractical solution, but that kind of reaction should serve as a loud warning to any fans who might be tempted to dismiss the violent ultras as just a moronic minority. The freedoms German fans have fought hard for since the 1980s can easily be taken away by politicians who love to be seen taking action against public offenders. The police in the Olympic Stadium on Saturday initially stood back because they said they didn't want to escalate the situation. But you can be sure that if fighting and pitch invasions become a more regular sight on TV screens, tougher policing and a severe crackdown won't be far behind. Ian Plenderleith