Fan the flames

wsc300 Karsten Blaas explains how indecision over fireworks at German football matches has caused fights between ultras and police on the terraces

For their live coverage of the second round of the German cup, played in late October, the TV station ZDF chose Borussia Dortmund’s encounter with Dynamo Dresden, east Germany’s best supported team, who are now back in the second tier after a decade of decline. What happened on the pitch was as dull as had been expected. Dortmund won a lacklustre game 2-0. The events on the terraces and outside the ground, however, had a long-term impact, raising questions about police tactics and the role of the ultra movement in German football.

The match started 15 minutes late because Dresden supporters had allegedly attacked police with stones and bottles outside Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park stadium – 15 people were injured. The game was stopped three times by the referee because flares were thrown onto the pitch from the Dresden end. The German football association (DFB) has since suspended Dynamo from next season’s cup. The club considered the penalty harsh, but the court took into account that this was the 28th time Dresden had been punished for their supporters’ behaviour since 2002.

The television cameras made this the most spectacular event of its kind this season. But it is by no means the only example of ultras and police clashing. The day after the Dresden match, eight people were injured when Kaiserslautern supporters clashed with police in Frankfurt. In November, Hansa Rostock issued a statement saying: “Despite all taking all precautions, the club is unable to prevent the use of violence and pyrotechnics.” Among other things, Hansa fans had fired flares into the away end during their home match against their arch-rivals St Pauli.

Politicians and police representatives called for a harsher approach, such as banning alcohol in grounds and on public transport on match-days, banning away fans at potentially risky matches and introducing an extra fee to be paid by the clubs to cover police costs. The minister of the interior, Hans-Peter Friedrich, scheduled a crisis summit to deal with the matter. He invited the police, the football association, the clubs and social workers. Fans’ representatives complained that they were not on the list.

Given the scale of the excesses, the cause seems fairly minor. The police won’t allow the use of fireworks. “Legalise pyros – respect emotions” is the slogan of a nationwide campaign launched last year by the ultras of most top division clubs. Ultras have dominated Germany’s standing terraces in recent years with their choreography and have got on many peoples’ nerves with their monotonous chants. One might wonder whether firecrackers are a spontaneous expression of emotion, but according to the campaigners they represent “a traditional feature of fan culture”.

The use of explosive devices in dense crowds is obviously prohibited. The DFB and the German football league, however, were apparently willing to make concessions. According to the news magazine Der Spiegel, the organisations promised a semi-legalisation during a meeting in June. It is claimed that the creation of specified pyro-zones on the terraces was proposed to the ultras. The association and league immediately denied this, stating that a decision on the use of fireworks was beyond their control. The ultras, on the other hand, felt they had been cheated.

So, it is left to the police to intervene if flares are lit, which makes them the main target of the ultras’ anger. Bernhard Witthaut, the head of Germany’s largest police union, said: “The ultras pick quarrels with the police. They go to matches to attack us.” The ultras leave no doubt what they think of the security forces: “Fuck you, police pigs” read a 50-foot long banner in Hanover’s ultra block earlier this season. It was the most drastic of many anti-police statements in recent times.

Since 2004, the police presence at football matches has increased massively. The idea was to teach them how to deal with football crowds as a preparation for the 2006 World Cup, but the number of police kept rising after the tournament. This doesn’t necessarily lead to improved safety. After the events in Dortmund, Dynamo officials stated that “the confused and provocative demeanour of the stewards and the police” had contributed to the escalation. Witthaut concedes: “Colleagues called in for football matches on 40 weekends a year are hardly given the time to recuperate.”

In this difficult situation, the crisis summit convened by the interior minister, surprisingly, resisted a tit-for-tat response. At the meeting in November, they performed a trick popular in German politics and installed a committee to “analyse the situation in detail and develop appropriate measures”. This sounds helpless, but it is the first time that one side in the conflict has not claimed to be entirely in the right. It is a start.

From WSC 300 February 2012