A move by club present Peter Fischer to stop neo-nazis attending Eintracht Frankfurt matches has prompted a wider debate about political neutrality in German football
6 April ~ One positive side-effect of watching football in an age of image cultivation and international branding is that thankfully few top-level European clubs are still prepared to tolerate neo-Nazi cells among their fans. Most German clubs, for example, continuously monitor supporters for signs of right-wing extremism, whose occasional cancerous presence stands out as a rude paradox to the Bundesliga’s multi-ethnic teams and increasingly broad fanbase. But can an individual club also turn away members of a political party with almost 100 democratically elected representatives in the German parliament?
That party would be the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which took 13 per cent of the vote in last September’s national election. The same party whose leader Alexander Gauland said in 2016 that while Bayern Munich and Germany central defender Jérôme Boateng might be a good football player, “you wouldn’t want him moving in next door”. The club who would rather not see the likes of Gauland moving into the seat next to you on matchday are Eintracht Frankfurt, whose president, Peter Fischer, declared to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung over Christmas: “No one can be a member of our club who voted for this party with its racist and inhuman tendencies.”
The AfD’s party chiefs in Hessen were most put out. Fischer had strayed “democratically offside”, they claimed, and immediately applied for club membership so that they could oppose and defy him. Its parliamentary chairperson Alice Weidel tweeted that it was “funny how the third-class proletarians of a football club choose to express themselves”. This only stiffened Fischer’s resolve to exclude them. “I’m ashamed for the 13 per cent who voted AfD,” he said. “I won’t give them an inch.” At Eintracht there was “no room for the brown brood. As long as I’m here, there won’t be any Nazis at Eintracht Frankfurt.”
The AfD then announced it would sue Fischer for defamation (naturally they claim not to be Nazis), while fans debated the rights and wrongs of exclusion. While a lot of fans were delighted to see the club’s president take such a clear stance, many more were uneasy at the idea of banning fans on the basis of their political opinions, however much they agreed with his sentiments. Besides, how were Eintracht going to monitor an individual supporter’s beliefs? Would they have to pass a political exam when applying for membership?
Frankfurt midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng (Jérôme’s half-brother), an ardent campaigner on anti-racist issues, was unequivocal. “I stand behind him [Fischer] as I stand behind everyone who fights against racism,” he told Frankfurt journalists. Referring to the “painful” racist abuse aimed at Juventus’ French midfielder Blaise Matuidi, he added: “Every day there’s stuff like this. We can’t close our eyes to it. We have to fight against it. Enough is enough.”
Other Bundesliga clubs were supportive – up to a point. None would go as far as Fischer, and most responded to a survey by the daily Frankfurter Rundschau by citing their own charters. All backed the idea of inclusiveness and diversity, and actively opposed discrimination (to quote Schalke) “on the grounds of nationality, ethnic background, religion, gender, sexual orientation or disability”. But, as all were at pains to point out, they were also politically and religiously neutral. TSG Hoffenheim’s president, Peter Hofmann, went so far as to say that whatever you might think of the AfD’s ideology, “it’s a party represented in German parliament due to the results of democratically held elections”.
The most explicit statement of support came, unsurprisingly, from second division St Pauli. Their president, Oke Göttlich, told the Rundschau: “It’s painted on the walls of our stadium: No Football for Fascists. All further questions are superfluous.” Expressed like that, the debate seems a lot clearer without the fudge of “political neutrality”.
Is Fischer trying to align Frankfurt more closely to a club such as St Pauli, whose left-wing approach to football is a key part of their identity? He knows that you cannot politically vet every individual who applies for club membership, and that you cannot prevent AfD voters from coming to the stadium. Yet he has sent out a signal as clear as the message on St Pauli’s stadium walls. In our house, watching our diverse team of multiple nationalities, we will not tolerate any expression of your lies, your hatred or your historical distortion.
On January 28, Fischer’s stance was put to the test when he came up for re-election. The AfD had urged sympathisers to join the club and vote him out, unaware that you needed to be a member for at least six months before you could vote. Of 654 members present at the meeting, only six voted against Fischer. He was re-elected with 99 per cent of the vote and, after reiterating his stance against the AfD, was rewarded with enthusiastic applause and a partial standing ovation. A message loud and clear to racists and their apologists – you have been kicked out, now stay away. Ian Plenderleith
This article first appeared in WSC 373, March 2018