Pyros, Punishments, the DFB, and the Slippery Slope to “Modern Football”

The Hessenderby between Eintracht Frankfurt and Darmstadt 98 was one of my favorite Hinrunde matches.

Eintracht hosted the long-dormant derby on matchday 15 (December 6th), and while the 0-1 scoreline in favor of visiting die Lilien underscored the match’s lack of final product and technical proficiency, the rowdy play and tempers on the pitch plus the loud and tense atmospherics were anything but deficient. The derby rocked.

So when I saw small fires burning from the Eintracht ultras’ end in final 10 minutes, I wasn’t really surprised.

My first thought, after explaining to my six year old why white and blue banners were burning, was Oh crap, Eintracht’s gonna get punished bad for this one. Of course, the burning banners were only one of other derby-related incidents. This short clip surveys the drama (the burning banners are about 20 seconds into the clip):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AzhmbVtH_9Y

For a longer clip of the burning banners, see this one. During the burning, the match was stopped for 3 minutes while crews tended the flames. Furthermore, the derby spilled out of the stadium into the city, as derbies are sometimes wont to do.

And get punished they did. Last Thursday, the DFB announced its punishment for Eintracht Frankfurt and its ultras. The punishment is comprehensive, ranging from fines to supporter bans:

  • 75,000 € fine for the Eintracht, which will be used for anti-stadium violence initiatives.
  • 3 match ban for Eintracht ultras involved.
  • All home and away choreos and banners banned for Eintracht supporters for remainder of season.
  • A terrace section of Commerzbank arena will be closed for an early February match.
  • Eintracht supporters banned from Hessenderby away match in Darmstadt in April; Eintracht must pay Darmstadt funds to reimburse away-supporters’ ticket revenue.

Whoa. Quite a list. The dw.de piece I linked to above mentioned Eintracht’s supporters also being punished for a Pokal match stunt against Ergebirge Aue in November, so Eintracht is really being punished for two matches.

Still, I can’t help but think the punishment exceeds the crime in this case. Look, even if this sort of punishment is usually meted out for this sort of crime, then I’m skeptical about the wider juridical framework arbitrating these situations. I don’t have a logical line of defense to make here, rather a vague sense of proportion, like something St. Thomas Aquinas would craft in scholastic form.

Back to Eintracht’s punishment, a small cynical voice in my head wonders if this punishment isn’t really about the Hessenderby and Pokal match against Aue at all, but is really about deterrence – warning both Eintracht supporters and supporters of other Bundesliga clubs to cut all this ultra beef out. Is it any wonder I didn’t have a simple reaction to the DFB’s punishment for Eintracht?

I’ll quickly get to my main point: I’m of two minds about Eintracht’s punishment. Disclaimer: I am totally neutral regarding these two clubs, so I have no supporter stake in this issue.

I’ll share my two minds. On the one hand, I support the decision to punish Eintracht for its supporters’ stunt(s) – not because I believe in any transcendental authority that justifies the punishment (the DFB certainly isn’t!), but simply because this is just what happens in these situations. Mein Gott, you can’t just do nothing if you’re the governing authority.

Punishing supporter stunts is typical, given the possibility and actuality of violence, ugly political statements (typically right-wing extremism), and match interruptions. 21st century mores dictate that we “just say no” to violence, hate speech, anarchy, etc. That is, all reasonable people oppose violence at matches and believe it should be punished. Let’s call this the “standard view” in responding to disruptive incidents involving supporters.

However, on the other hand, I’m worried about the effect punishments like these have on the vibrancy and meaning of the broader supporter culture in Germany. That is, choreos, banners, chants, songs, flags, and even pyros are all vital elements animating the meaning of supporting a club. Aside from creating and sustaining meaning for the supporters involved, these items also contribute to the atmospherics that are so valued inside Bundesliga grounds each matchday – e.g. Frankfurt is famed across Europe for its matchday environment. Finally and politically, supporters using these items can sometimes work as pockets of resistance to the utterly commodified, commercialized, globalized, sanitizedneoliberal product many people derisively call “modern football.”

I know I’m tight-roping on a very thin line here. I’ll try not to topple.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not “for” violence at matches, nor am I “for” antagonizing opponents’ ultras, nor am I “for” the content of rightwing extremist banners, nor am I “for” ultras clashing with police. No, no, no, and no.

But I want to acknowledge that much of what makes a Bundesliga matchday special depends on ultras and other supporter groups with their choreos, banners, flags, singing, and chanting. And sometimes this energized collective expresses conflict with opponents and modern football itself. Collective energies need antagonists. And not the “fake” kinds like we largely have in American sports. Face it, if you want atmosphere in the Bundesliga, you need the ultras and other supporter groups doing what they do.

What, you think you can have your cake and eat it too? Silly, silly you.

Eintracht Frankfurt just got robbed of its atmospherics for Rückrunde, basically. Sure, my choice of robbed here is a little problematic, but you hopefully you get my point.

Which is why you shouldn’t have simple surface-level reactions to events like this if you care about football.

In the case of the Eintracht incident, the easy way out is to huff ‘n puff then bitch n’ moan if you’re an Eintracht supporter, because – you know – supporters are supposed to do these things, damnit, or in a just as unreflective of a manner you blindly condemn the violent perpetrators.

After all, the likes of famed philosopher Slavoj Zizek argues, especially in his work Violence, that it’s too easy to be shocked by and condemn individual acts of violence, while ignoring the larger contexual and systemic issues that produce such violence. In this case, supporter violence is condemned simply because it’s violence, and violence is bad because, well, it’s violence.

I find the circularity by which we condemn violent acts to be worrisome, not because I’m “for” violence, but because of how an unreflective anti-violence stance can be easily co-opted by other forces, like the very “modern football” with its neoliberal market logic that we otherwise oppose. Of course, from a Zizekian point of view, you can consider the system against which ultras and other supporters groups lash out in violence.

But again, I’m of two minds about all this. I mean, of course Eintracht deserved a punishment, given what’s viewed as impermissible for fan behavior. Not many people want the return of 80s or early 90s German hooliganism. Put another way, from an ethical perspective of applying laws, rules, etc. along with the nitty-gritty of what happened in Eintracht – or any similar event involving football supporters – the punishment was required.

However, from a broader moral perspective, I’m troubled by the logic and reasoning presumably used by the DFB to justify the punishment. That is, the justifications are not pure. How can they be? “Modern football” is the air we’re forced to breathe in big European football. For example, the lesson we’ve learned through other case studies about curtailing fan violence is that security is really just a means toward the end of market efficiency, like in Moacir P. De Sá Pereira’s Paris is Earning series from The Classical in 2012.

I could have written this piece about almost any similar incident or supporter culture element endangered by the authorities, but the Hessenderby in Frankfurt just happened to pull together strands of thoughts I’ve been wanting to articulate. Again, it’s not that I disagree with the DFB’s particular ruling in this case, even if I believe the punishment is excessive.

These thoughts cohere around this final insight: the Eintracht punishment represents part of a slippery slope draining the Bundesliga slowly of the meaning sustaining its supporter culture. Bit by bit, fine by fine, or rule change by rule change, the meaning of supporting a football club as one of our culture’s seemingly final frontiers of communal experience is flattened out.

I find this fate worth reversing. Do you?

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. He writes for Howler magazine's website, as well as The Short Pass where he covers the USL and other topics. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and sports are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, and his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

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