“That’s the sort of clientele we have to deal with,” police director, and the head of the National Board of Sport and Security, Bernd Heinen said as he stormed onto the stage of Fankongress 2014 in Berlin on Saturday.
Heinen was one of two police officials -- along with fan representatives, fan liaison officers and sociologists -- taking the stage to discuss the future of German football with some 700 football fans from 80 clubs across all divisions who had gathered in the old Kosmos cinema in Berlin. But before he could say his piece, the Fankongress was hit by the news of riots ahead of a friendly in Cologne between FC Koln and Schalke, which left one man in critical condition, and the event close to termination.
The clash of some 150 hooligans -- and at least three fan groups, with FC Koln and Borussia Dortmund supporters on one side and Schalke 04 supporters on the other -- in Cologne’s city centre, could not have come at a worse time for supporters of the Fankongress, whose efforts to make their voice heard were instantly diminished by the breaking news from western Germany.
In the capital, fans and police were trying to keep the dialogue open, but the incidents in Cologne played into the hands of the populist opinion-makers in the German media, politics and police unions.
“We are shocked,” Jakob Falk, one of the organizers of the event, said on Sunday. “Those are the people we can’t reach, and who don’t want to be reached. We want to reach out to the young people and offer them alternatives.”
Fankongress 2014 was headlined: “Fan-friendly stadium experience: How fans want their football.” It referenced the “Safe Stadium Experience” paper that was put together by the German Football League and led to nationwide protests by football fans throughout the country in late 2012.
The congress, organised by the two nationwide fan groups, Unsere Kurve and Pro Fans, was not only attended by fans and law enforcers but also by several high-ranking German football executives, the most prominent being German Football League executive Andreas Rettig.
“It’s a real shame that Cologne overshadows the congress,” Rettig said. “We will not reach those people. Neither the fans, nor the associations.”
The state of German media coverage -- with some papers on Sunday dedicating an entire page to the Cologne riots and not even a single line to the Fankongress -- plays its part, but that is the modern world. Cologne had not been the first incident of fan riots in recent months, but it was the first time that a fight between fans had left someone in a critical condition [the victim has since recovered somewhat after emergency surgery.]
"It was pure luck that we didn't have to mourn the first dead," Arnold Plickert, police union head in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia where Cologne is located, told DPA.
The cases involving Schalke fans attacked by police in their own stadium during a Champions League qualifier and Borussia Dortmund supporters firing flares into adjacent fan blocks and onto the pitch during the derby in Gelsenkirchen, as well as Dynamo Dresden fan groups clashing with police ahead of their away game at Arminia Bielefeld have made the headlines in Germany over the past couple of months.
The question remains: Who is to blame? Ralf Jaeger, the head of the German Interior Ministers’ Conference, had turned down a late invitation to the Fankongress, and in the accompanying letter explained: “Perpetrators travel through Germany, provoking riots on their way.”
Sig Zelt, one of the organisers of the event, insisted: “Those words are a declaration of war by Mr. Jaeger.” Indeed, Zelt accused the German police of taking measures that are far too heavy for football, which are usually only used to fight terrorism -- highlighting the tactic of planting confidential informants in the German fan scene, which had been brought to public attention in 2013.
The sad thing is that -- alongside the rise of the domestic game, culminating in the 2013 Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund -- German fans had been hailed as a role model across Europe. Germany, it seems, is the dream for every football fan in the world. Safe standing, beer and Bratwurst within the stadium parameters, as well as the 50+1 rule in place, making it difficult for anyone other than the club members to own and decide the future of the clubs.
But, underneath the shiny surface, cracks have appeared in the system which puts the future of German football as we know it in danger. The ongoing discussions about the safety of fans inside and on the way to the stadium, several clubs undermining the 50+1 structures with a so-called “Lex Leverkusen,” which principally allows any given enterprise to take over a club if they are patient enough to invest for some 20 years.
With Bayer Leverkusen and Wolfsburg already owned by companies rather than the members, Hannover could be next in line and, from outside the German Football League system, RB Leipzig will, most likely, reach the two upper tiers this summer.
At the weekend, Rettig had his say about the ambitious club, which is owned by Red Bull, and so far has been reluctant to hand any empowerment to its members. “50+1 will not fall. No ifs and buts,” Rettig said in one of the 10 workshops over the weekend. The German Football League will take a closer look at the construct in Leipzig, but with incidents in Cologne overshadowing the Fankongress there are current issues to solve before work can begin in earnest on building for the future.
“What happened in Cologne should not bar us from continuing the dialogue,” Rettig concluded. Hopefully he was heard above all the shouting.