Fan protests, ultras, coronavirus and the ugly face of German football
In March, football in Germany was interrupted first by intense fan protests and then by the spread of the coronavirus. In both cases, reactions from key stakeholders within the game revealed where the ugly face of football really lies. German football expert Matt Ford investigates.

Karl-Heinz Rummenigge was still dripping wet when he faced the cameras. He was furious.

“I am deeply ashamed of these troublemakers; it’s time for the entire Bundesliga to take action against them,” he raged. “This was the ugly face of Bayern Munich, the ugly face of football.”

The Bayern chief executive had spent the previous ten minutes stood in the rain out on the pitch in Sinsheim, standing symbolically shoulder to shoulder with Dietmar Hopp as the Hoffenheim owner and benefactor was applauded by the home fans.

The targets of Rummenigge’s ire were the Bayern ultras in the away end who, half an hour earlier, had displayed banners referring to Hopp as a Hurensohn – a son of a whore – a distasteful but nevertheless common insult in German football grounds.

It wasn’t the first time that such messages had been aimed at Hopp, and it wouldn’t be the last on an infamous weekend in German football.

‘Now the chants will stop!’

Just off the A6 autobahn at junction 33B, Sinsheim-Süd, in south-western Germany, the ProZero Arena protrudes incongruously from the vineyards like an alien spaceship which has crash-landed in the countryside.

When Borussia Dortmund travelled there in 2011, the club’s ultras and other regular hardcore supporters were accompanied, as always, by Thilo Danielsmeyer, a social worker at the Dortmund Fan Project, a pedagogical organisation which works closely with young football fans.

Ahead of kick-off, Hoffenheim’s head of security approached Danielsmeyer in front of the away end and said: “I’ve got something great to show you!”

“He took me over to a strange machine, like an oversized ghetto blaster which emitted a sort of high-frequency siren,” recalls Danielsmeyer, speaking to the Dortmund-based podcast Football Was My First Love

“And he said to me: ‘Now the defamatory chants will stop!’”

Of all the hostility Dietmar Hopp has faced from opposition fans, those of Borussia Dortmund have been particularly consistent.

It was BVB fans who first displayed the now infamous motif of Hopp’s face in crosshairs at an under-17 cup final in June 2008, and who produced t-shirts with the slogan “Tradition schlägt jeden Trend!” – tradition beats any trend – when the two clubs met in the Bundesliga for the first time three months later. 

Fixtures between the two since then have generally been sound tracked by Hurensohn chants, which the ghetto blaster was now supposed to drown out.

Hopp, the co-founder and owner of software company SAP, is one of Germany’s richest men with an estimated personal wealth of almost 13 billion euros. The 79-year-old is a popular philanthropist in his native Rhine-Neckar region near Mannheim, where he has invested an estimated €800m in local businesses and charitable organisations. 

But his investment in local football club TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, bankrolling the team’s rise from the village leagues to the Bundesliga between 1990 and 2008 to the tune of over €350m, has seen him become a poster-boy villain for many German football fans, a symbol of the over-commercialisation of the sport.

In 2015, he was granted an exemption from the 50+1 ownership rule but, in the eyes of the fans, and some club bosses, it doesn’t alter the fact that a club had been given an artificial boost up the pyramid using money that it couldn’t ordinarily have raised by itself.

“I think it’s a shame that such a team is taking away one of the 36 Bundesliga places,” opined former Mainz and Schalke sporting director Christian Heidel back in 2007, leading Hopp to officially request that the German FA (DFB) treat such “discrimination” as seriously as racism.

The disproportionate response was a sign of things to come. As the Dortmund ultras would soon discover, there is a much less tolerant side to Dietmar Hopp.

Hoffenheim insist that the siren-emitting machines were installed by security staff without the knowledge of the club or Hopp, but they will have been very much aware of the high-resolution cameras and directional microphones installed in the away end in January 2018 and used to identify fans 30 Borussia Dortmund fans in May 2018.

The fans were found guilty of defamation and handed fines equivalent to 70 days’ salary, but their lawyers voiced criticism of the entire process in which 20 official objections were either dismissed or not permitted at all, while Hopp himself couldn’t be called to the stand because the authorities couldn’t produce a valid address to which to issue a summons.

“It was a procedure without precedent in terms of the disregard for basic rights in German case law,” said defence attorney Stefan Witte, adding that the use of such precise monitoring equipment could also constitute a potential breach of privacy.

The DFB also acted, collectively banning all Dortmund fans from away games in Hoffenheim, suspended until further a repeat offence. When banners were again displayed in Hoffenheim in December 2019, including one reading “Hopp, we couldn’t give a f*** about your money or the next few years!”, the ban was implemented, opening up another can of worms.

Broken promises 

photo credit: Archie Rhind-Tutt

Hurensöhne insult a Hurensohn and are punished by Hurensöhnen – scrap collective punishments now!” 

The banner displayed by Borussia Mönchengladbach’s Sottocultura ultras against Hoffenheim on 22nd February was more than just a useful case study in German noun endings. And although complemented by the now customary image of Dietmar Hopp in a crosshair, it was more than just a protest against Hoffenheim’s ownership model. 

The highlighting of the word Hurensohn in yellow (referring to Dortmund), blue (meaning Hoffenheim) and green (the DFB) made it clear that the Sottocultura weren’t particularly keen on any of the parties involved, yet it was the demand to “scrap collective punishments” which really got to the heart of the issue.

This was a message of solidarity, and it kick-started the latest dispute between Germany's footballing authorities and its active supporters.

In August 2017, following a series of meetings with fan representatives, the DFB had agreed to scrap so-called “collective punishments” such as travel bans, block closures, games behind closed doors or personalised tickets which punish thousands of fans for the indiscretions of a few, and which are banned under German civil and criminal law.

At the time, the concession was welcomed as a sign that the authorities were willing to listen and enter into a dialogue with supporters’ groups. When Dortmund fans were collectively banned from Hoffenheim, it was this broken promise which angered fans the most, and was the common denominator in the protests which followed.

“Promises broken because of a Hurensohn,” read a banner in Cologne. “Collective punishments scrapped in 2017, now courting Hopp and taking two steps back,” was the message at Union Berlin. 

Both were a reaction to events in Hoffenheim, where the travelling Bayern ultras had unveiled a banner reading: “Same old, same old. The DFB breaks its promise and Hopp remains a Hurensohn.”

It was this incident which had so angered Rummenigge and which had prompted the match officials to active UEFA’s three-step anti-discrimination protocol for the first time in Germany. 

Play was suspended, announcements were made, the players left the pitch and, when they returned, they ran down the final 13 minutes by passing the ball between them while Rummenigge attempted to hold Hopp’s hand on the touchline.

Double standards

Three weeks earlier, with four minutes of the DFB Pokal last-16 tie between Schalke and Hertha Berlin still to play, Hertha defender Jordan Torunarigha broke down in tears.

“Jordan told me racist insults had come from the stands,” said Hertha captain Niklas Stark, while Schalke’s Benito Raman confirmed that Torunarigha had “cried and wanted to stop.”

But the cup tie continued into extra time where, in the 100th minute, a visibly upset Torunarigha picked up and threw a drinks holder on the side-line after being fouled. Instead of the three-step protocol, he was shown a second yellow card and sent off.

The contrasting responses to the racial abuse of a young player and an insult aimed at a billionaire club owner did not go unnoticed, and the DFB quickly faced accusations of double standards. Even the DFB’s own diversity manager, Claudia Krobitzsch, was forced to admit to a parliamentary sports panel that “the protocol was developed for racism and discrimination, not for personal insults like this.”

For many fans, the implementation of the protocol and the issuing of a collective punishment under such circumstances, coupled with the sight of Rummenigge theatrically siding with Hopp and publicly berating Bayern Munich’s hardcore supporters, has made it clear where German football’s priorities lie.

When Borussia Dortmund played away in Mönchengladbach, BVB ultras placed red noses on images of Hopp, Rummenigge and DFB President Fritz Keller and labelled them: “The ugly mugs of football.”

Meanwhile, in the home end, Gladbach’s Sottocultura criticised the German media, including broadcaster Sky and local tabloid “Express” for their coverage, which had been characterised in many quarters by sensationalist generalisations and a shocking ignorance of the fan culture in the stadiums they report from each week.

“They are concerned about damaging the product they are trying to sell,” says Michael Gabriel, head of the Koordinationsstelle Fanprojekte in Frankfurt, which oversees the work of Fan Projects across Germany.

“And yet a bit of expertise regarding fan culture would actually enrich their broadcasting. Not just showing choreographies or banners but actually explaining the issues or topics behind them. It would make their reporting much more comprehensive.”

Most problematic of all were the direct parallels drawn with the far-right terrorist attack in Hanau in February which left 11 people dead, including the perpetrator. The suggestion was that, by depicting Hopp’s face in a crosshair, the ultras were encouraging violence or even inciting murder.

“The day will come when racism will run riot on terraces dominated by violent neo-Nazis,” wrote Kicker magazine on the 2nd March. It’s hard to imagine a more calamitous misunderstanding of German fan culture over the last two decades.

Well into the 1990s, German stadia were a fertile breeding ground for right-wing extremists, and it’s largely thanks to the emergence of the more left-leaning ultra movement in the 2000s that that is generally no longer the case. “It ignores and devalues the engagement of football fans over the last 20 years,” fan project chief Gabriel tells COPA90.

The ugly face of football

The ultras are far from perfect. Their choice of language and means of expression aren’t always helpful and their military-style organisation can put people off. Drums, capos and synchronised clapping are also a stylistic matter of taste.

But the ultras play a fundamental role in preserving some of German football’s best qualities: affordable tickets, standing terraces, sociable kick-off times, raucous atmospheres, anti-racism and inclusivity – not to mention the retention of the 50+1 rule, which makes democratic participation in a football club possible in the first place.

Even with the Bundesliga suspended due to the spread of the coronavirus, the ultras’ social awareness and engagement has again come to the fore. 

With the number of infections increasing by hundreds every day, hand-painted banners have appeared outside hospitals across the country, conveying messages of thanks and solidarity, and demanding better remuneration for medical staff and supermarket employees.

In many cities, ultra groups have issued public offers of help for those most at risk of contracting Covid-19, volunteering to go shopping and run errands for the elderly and vulnerable.

And while the German Football League was initially hesitant to suspend the Bundesliga on financial grounds, it had been organised supporters’ groups who had spoken with one, clear voice, demanding an immediate postponement of matches.

Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, on the other hand, preferred to address another equally pressing reality for the bloated monster which is modern football.

“Professional football is also a question of finances,” he had reasoned, citing the existential economic threat faced by clubs in the absence of astronomical TV rights payments.

Having signed off on contract after contract to pay exorbitant wages and agents’ fees and “open up new markets” for ever greater financial gain at whatever price, the game now finds itself unable to go more than one weekend without its television money.

The ugly face of football, indeed.

Follow writer Matt Ford on Twitter @matt_4d

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