First, two visuals are needed to kick off this piece:
On December 12th, a certain conversation continues in Germany. The Guardian’s David Conn reports:
New proposals to improve security at Bundesliga grounds, aimed particularly at eliminating flares, which are already anyway illegal, are to be discussed by all the clubs on 12 December, hence the 12/12 protest. Supporters groups have interpreted the suggestions, which include searching supporters at “high-risk” games and bans for those who break the rules, as a means by stealth to sedate German football’s raucous, standing fan culture, an intention the Bundesliga emphatically denies
What’s at stake, in the guise of eliminating terrace seating, is “watching football quietly” – a malaise that already inflicts much of the vaunted English Premier League, where fans shell out big bucks to become individual spectators sitting in their expensive individual seats. Terrace seating = atmosphere, thanks to the incessant singing, banner/flag waving, and other visual pyrotechnics (something Bengalo-sparked one, too!). One reason the Bundesliga is famed for its atmospheres is presence of terraces, the most famous of which, arguably, is Dormund’s “Yellow Wall.”
Watch the intimidating Yellow Wall comes to life at the 12:12 mark in this clip from last week’s home match against Fortuna Duesseldorf:
Viscerally, the 12:12 protests’ purpose demonstrates just how quiet Bundesliga crowds would be if the supporter filled terraces were shut down. For the first 12:12, the crowd is quiet. So quiet you’d think you’re watching Arsenal play at Emirates. There is a reason the Bundesliga is the highest attending (per game) football league in Europe: “atmosphere.” Of course, the big attendance numbers reinforce “atmosphere,” which in turns increases attendance. A positive feedback loop.
In Germany, the recent controversy was sparked by crowd control issues in the recent Derby match between Dortmund and Schalke at the former’s intimidating home grounds. Politicians are putting pressure on clubs to eliminate the standing terrace seating for security reasons, since these sections tend to house the rowdy ultras (or supporter groups).
Of course, the issue is always already an economic one. Why? Terrace seating is cheap. Very cheap by European standards. So cheap that most 20 somethings in Dortmund, for example, can afford season tickets at 190 Euros for the WHOLE season. As an American, I am already sick with envy. (Although I shouldn’t be one to complain, since the Sounders keep ticket prices down to fill up the C-Link for home games.) Contrast Dortmund’s ticket prices with the big clubs in England, whose prices keep out those who can’t shell out the big bucks. Anyhow, English Premier League tickets have become a global tourism bauble for the wealthy – a sign of conspicuous consumption for the well-coifed global elite, who don’t hesitate to flock to chic West London and take their plush seats at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge. Supporters are replaced with spectacle.
So tampering with terrace seating is tampering not just with the now legendary atmospheres of the Bundesliga (come on, you know the league has the best atmosphere, on average, than any other league in Europe – easily), but is also tampering with affordable tickets.
Already, the Bundesliga is at odds with the neoliberal (especially security for the sake of the progress of the market; capitalism and the security state) values that drive football in Europe and elsewhere. For one, Bundesliga clubs (except for Leverkusen and Wolfsburg) are community owned – see the Bundesliga’s 50 + 1 rule. Shared ownership means that a greater diversity of values (e.g. community building, community legacy, local identity, etc.) drives a club’s operating philosophy, as opposed to the ubiquitous value of “profit” or market-shares so common elsewhere. In Germany, club (i.e. verein) ”fussball” is one of the remaining localities of community association left, a place of intense local meaning and history. The club’s meaning is continually infused with life, because of the 50+1 rules, since the locals have a real stake in the club. A stake that cannot simply be bought out by oil money from Russia or Qatar, for example.
Furthermore, terrace seating itself runs afoul of neoliberalism for the simple reason that this type of seating is risky and sometimes even dangerous: i.e. a security threat that could disrupt the market. Hence the precedent to replace terrace seating with more expensive individual seating that has conquered the rest of the Europe. Moacir P. de Sa Pereira’s 5 part series on the transformation of PSG in The Classical is required reading if you want to see a fairly recent example of this “neoliberalization” at work in changing a football club in Europe.
As Dormund’s chairman Hans Joachim Watzke explains, Bundesliga clubs don’t want to become the rest of Europe, or in this context, the English Premier League. Besides, Watzke especially will argue there’s a strong correlation between the 50+1 ownership model, fan atmospheres, and the rise of young soccer talent in Germany. How? The ownership model mostly prevents Bundesliga clubs from driving up salary debts to buy big name players on the transfer. Instead, the clubs must devote great attention to growing players through their development system. And the German talent pipeline has never looked better, as Dortmund can attest with Mario Götze, Kevin Grosskreutz, and others.
For now, at least, the Bundesliga itself can be held up as a pocket of resistance to neoliberalism. After 12/12? Who knows.
Article originally published on, along with other great sports stories, on the great Sport is Our Story blog.
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