Interview – Professor Harald Lange on the dark side of German football supporter culture

With racist chanting, neo-Nazi slogans, rioting at the Leipzig derby and threats made to professional footballers including Köln’s Kevin Pezzoni all occurring recently, German football is dealing with some tough issues at the moment. Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk (MDR) spoke to fan culture researcher Professor Harald Lange (Institute of Sports Science, University of Würzburg) about some of the current problems. He offers his opinions on a variety of challenging issues in German football, including violence, behind-closed-doors matches and the controversial pyrotechnics debate.

MDR: Herr Lange, looking at the current news stories, can fans go to football at all without having to fear for their safety?

Harald Lange: Actually, going to a match is, speaking purely statistically, safer than ever. Last season around 800 people were injured at matches, taking into account the first and second Bundesliga, as well as the 3. Liga. In relation to the total audience, there have never been so few injured. 800 people are injured at each day of the Oktoberfest in München, and nobody would say that the Oktoberfest is dangerous. However, the issue of fans has been, a lot of the time through statements by politicians, noticeably moved into the public eye in the last two years. So on a subjective level it seems to have become more dangerous.

MDR: When we’re thinking about violence, is there a difference between east and west?

Lange: Such a view is readily propagated, but the research indicates this not to be the case. Every town and every club has its own problems. But there is no east-west problem.

MDR: A hot topic here in central Germany is the club Rasenballsport Leipzig, supported by Red Bull. The people of Leipzig have embraced the club, as the attendances show. But many fans in the region have rejected the club. Why are emotions running so high?

Lange: When talking about fan culture, we can use this as a very good example. Traditionally-minded fans have shunned RB Leipzig because they see the club as a pure embodiment of commercialisation. RB are a little like modern football’s house brand, which brings criticism whether it’s justified or not. The Ultras-movement, Red Bull’s biggest critic, stands for completely different values. Crudely put, it stands for tradition, participation, the club emblem, the stadium name and the origins of the players, not for an artificially-assembled team. Nor does it like the idea of the fan as a consumer, spending their Saturday afternoon by the motto “Let me entertain you”. Red Bull is the epitome of commercialisation.

MDR: “Cyberbullying” is a new problem for football. Who engages in this sort of behaviour?

Lange: Cowards do these things. They use the anonymity of the internet to voice their opinions because the internet offers them that opportunity. This is a development we have to live with for now. If a user were to be forced to provide their name, then they’d think much more about what they were saying.

MDR: At 1. FC Köln, after a 2-0 defeat at Aue, the player Kevin Pezzoni was threatened not only on the internet, but also in front of his house. At 1. FC Magdeburg there was a similar case at the end of last year, when Daniel Bauer was threatened on his doorstep. How should clubs deal with incidents like these?

Lange: We must not give these people any room for manoeuvre, and we must not give into their demands. Even though there were grey areas to the Pezzoni case, the club caved in easily. This cannot happen under any circumstances. Victims of internet bullying must be protected. Here, we have to take a clear position and say: “There is no place for that at our club, and we will mercilessly take action against those who do it”. This is incredibly important for our game.

MDR: Let’s talk about punishments for clubs after rioting. Are behind-closed-doors matches a good solution?

Lange: No. This is the worst possible solution. A “no-go”. People should always think of ways of getting audiences into the stadium. There is a very original idea in Turkey. At the Fenerbahçe league games in 2011 and 2012 which had been designated as behind-closed-doors matches, they had the idea of inviting only women and children under the age of 12 to attend. On one occasion, 41,000 spectators were in attendance and it made for a very special atmosphere. This did have a slightly educational impact, but the idea didn’t quite meet with full force.

MDR: The ban of pyrotechnics seems to have deeply offended the fan community. How do you evaluate this development?

Lange: This is a particularly delicate topic and an extremely difficult one. Legally, the matter is clear. It’s dangerous and forbidden, end of discussion. Attempts were made until autumn 2011 to establish rules with Ultras groups, and they were on the right path to finding a common code of conduct. Shortly before the DFB-Pokal match between Borussia Dortmund and Dynamo Dresden [October 2011], these talks broke down. A stubborn policy of “enough is enough” has been adopted since then, which has heightened the anger of Ultras groups. Since then, the use of pyrotechnics has risen. And now the whole thing has become highly symbolic. Psychologically and sociologically, I say that even though the foundations have been cracked, the dialogue should be restarted. The crux of the issue is the question: should fans be just consumers? Or are they allowed their say? Are they at least right to be critical, and are they taken seriously? And I think this critical impulse at football matches is inalienable, of course without violence.

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Jonathan Lines

Jonathan is a teacher and football writer based in the UK. He writes mostly about German football, with a particular interest in clubs from eastern Germany, past and present. Follow him on twitter @JDL_1989

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