last weekend, thousands of German football fans made their long-awaited return to Bundesliga stadiums.
While grounds still cannot be used to their full capacity, and while most ultra groups in the Bundesliga still stayed away, the mood on the opening day of the season was positive among players, clubs and officials alike.
“After the pandemic destroyed the stadium experience for fans for a long time, it felt like the atmosphere had imploded this weekend,” the German Football League’s (DFL) official website said.
Fan culture is one of the Bundesliga’s unique selling points, with supporters from all over the world often flying to Germany to get a taste of the atmosphere.
The reputation football fans enjoy within Germany, however, is often rather different, especially when it comes to those fans who are chiefly responsible for creating that atmosphere: the organized fan groups and the ultras.
Frequently demonized as “criminals,” “hooligans” or “so-called fans” by media, police and politicians, an image is cultivated of a lawless element of society which needs to be controlled, leading to infringements of fans’ civil rights.
Fans in police databases
According to German football magazine Kicker, the authorities in the state of Bavaria have been keeping a large-scale record of organized football supporters in the state.
As of June 15, the details of 1,644 fans are saved in the database, called “EASy Violence and Sports,” which have been collected since January 2020.
Among the fans included in the database are active supporters of Bayern Munich, second-division side Nuremberg and third-division side 1860 Munich.
Entry into the database, according to Kicker, is not determined on the basis of a crime committed by an individual, nor even suspicion based on evidence, but rather on “individual evaluation” by police.
In some cases, the information held in the database includes the games attended by the individual and the people with whom they came into contact during the game.
According to the state government of Bavaria, the database is used by the authorities for the initiation of “targeted police operations” in connection with football games. The people listed in the database are not proactively informed about their addition to it.
This is not the only database the German authorities keep on football fans. The controversial Gewalttäter Sport database (literally: violent perpetrators, sports), in which football fans are classified by police as “potentially violent” or “actively seeking violence,” continues to be in operation, with an investigation against an individual often being sufficient to be entered into it regardless of the investigation’s outcome.
Being listed in the Gewalttäter Sport database can have repercussions on the individual’s freedom of travel, as well as their personal and professional life.
A recent inquiry in Germany’s parliament found that more than 1,000 names were added to the database between March and December 2020, despite the fact fans were largely unable to attend football games during that period due to the pandemic.
According to the German government, the additions to the database came as a result of “disruptions connected to the so-called ghost games, as well as incidents which took place at third locations” – a reference to the practise by football hooligans of meeting at deserted locations to fight each other.
‘Fan rights = civil rights’: Dynamo Dresden supporters protesting against new police laws in Saxony
Supporters and civil rights protests
As a result of their frequent clashes with the law, organized fans in Germany have recently become active in political circles in demand of more civil rights.
In June, a demonstration took place in the city of Düsseldorf against a planned assembly law by the German state of North Rhine Westphalia. Among the demonstrators were organized supporter and ultra groups from Fortuna Düsseldorf and FC Cologne, local rivals on the pitch but united behind a common cause off it.
Organized fans took part in similar demonstrations in other states, too. In Bavaria in 2018, some of Bayern Munich’s fan and ultra groups were among those who attended a protest against a new law giving police more extensive measures. Elsewhere, Dynamo Dresden’s ultras were among the most vocal critics of a similar law in the state of Saxony in 2019.
Football criminality in decline
While violent incidents in connection with football games do occur from time to time, and with hooliganism still present in German football, police statistics actually show football violence to be the exception rather than the rule.
According to statistics compiled by the German police’s Central Information Center for Sporting Operations (ZiS), the number of criminal proceedings opened in connection with football matches in Germany’s top two divisions reached a ten-year low in 2018/19, the last season with full capacities before the pandemic (4,750).
The number of investigations into grievous bodily harm was 1,126, the lowest since the 2007/08 season. The same trend also applies to other offenses such as vandalism (down to 303) and disorderly conduct (135).
For context, the number of spectators in Germany’s top two divisions was just short of 19 million that season.
The tendencies revealed by the statistics also resulted in some voices from within Germany’s political system taking the case of the criminalization of football fans into their own hands.
In recent years, several politicians from Germany’s Green Party have become more vocal in scrutinizing police treatment of football fans and the various databases in which their details are kept, even without being found guilty of any crime.
Legal aid for fans bears fruit
The authorities’ treatment of football fans is often legally challenged bylegal aid groups known as the Fanhilfen, with frequent success.
This week, a regional court in Cologne ruled that the practice of constantly filming football supporters without any suspicion is illegal and should be stopped. The practice has become common at football stadiums across Germany, and is supposed to deter fans from setting of pyrotechnics.
“What you see on such recordings are mostly topless men who sing, shout and bang drums. These are, depending on one’s personal preferences, perhaps slightly tasteless and strange forms of leisure activities, but in no way does it suggest any sort of criminal activity,” said the court’s decision.
In another case, a policeman was fined €9,000 ($10,500) in compensation for breaking a Borussia Dortmund fan’s jaw during an operation at Dortmund’s main railway station after the away derby against schalke in 2019. Footage of the operation showed a police officer kicking a fan while the latter lay on the ground.
Be it through databases or legal challenges, the tense relations between organized football supporters and the authorities in Germany aren’t expected to relax anytime soon.