On a pleasant June day in 2004, my son and I must have been a bit bored. Or maybe we'd just grown restless. Or perhaps we were suffering from Bundesliga withdrawal symptoms. In any case, on a whim we decided to travel to nearby Bochum and watch the final of the European Under-21 Championship between Italy and Serbia & Montenegro.
Assuming that these junior sides wouldn't draw a massive crowd, I decided to leave home rather late. That was a mistake. Parking the car wasn't much of a problem, but as soon as we turned a corner and caught a glimpse of the ground, I knew we were in trouble.
We still had 30 or 35 minutes before the 20:45 kick-off time, but amazingly long queues were everywhere. No sooner had we joined one than news came over the PA that the kick-off would be moved to 21:00 because so many people were still outside the ground.
Naturally, I surmised that the delay and the queues were caused by the fact that the turnout was much bigger than had been anticipated. In a way that was true, as the size of the crowd was indeed unexpected and would ultimately force the organisers to open a terraced stand they had intended to be off-limits. Next day's newspapers spoke of 21,000 spectators, but I think it was more than that. However, that wasn't the reason for those long waiting lines.
Knowing that both sets of fans, Italians and Serbs, were famous for their love of pyrotechnics, UEFA had decided to make sure that absolutely no flares were being smuggled into the ground. To this end, everyone who entered the ground - and I mean everyone - was searched more thoroughly than I've ever seen before or since.
I mean, I had to take off my shoes and jump up and down like an idiot in front of the security people, while they examined my trainers looking for Bengal lights hidden in the soles, and even my son, then not yet 14, was searched with a fastidiousness bordering on paranoia.
We made it to our seats just in time to see the two teams coming out.
Italy fielded Alberto Gilardino, then already a star, and Andrea Barzagli, later of Wolfsburg, while Branislav Ivanovic, now at Chelsea, played for Serbia & Montenegro. I remember the Italians winning 3-0, I remember Gilardino scoring a goal, I remember two players from Serbia & Montenegro being sent off. But what I remember most of all is what happened shortly before the second half began.
The stand with the Serbian fans was to our right. They had been noisy during the first half, but not unusually so. Then, just as the first players came out of the tunnel to restart the game, the entire block was suddenly bathed in red light. It wasn't just a handful of flares, not even a few dozen. There was a veritable ocean of flares, as if every guy in that stand was holding up two of them.
The glow reflected off the roof, making it seem as if the sun was setting a second time that day, and the players who saw this waved at their supporters, while all around me people were scratching their heads, wondering how the Serbs had gotten enough pyrotechnics for a small Chinese village past those super-thorough stewards at the turnstiles.
I guess this experience has shaped my attitude as regards the current debate concerning pyrotechnics in German football. If you don't know what that debate is about, let me recap.
In late 2010, German fans, most of them members of the ultras movement, formed a pressure group called "Legalise Pyrotechnics - Respect Emotions". Their aim was, and is, to get the German FA (DFB) and the German Football League (DFL) to allow the controlled usage of pyrotechnics, primarily flares, inside football grounds under certain circumstances and they were hoping to negotiate with the powers that be.
This was not entirely without precedent. A similar organisation had been formed earlier that year in Austria, where the legal situation is roughly the same, though clubs and municipalities seem to be more flexible there. At Wacker Innsbruck, for instance, the ultras are allowed to light flares in a certain section of their stand, under surveillance and at a safe distance from normal fans, provided they use only certain materials and then properly dispose of their Bengal lights once the flames have burnt out.
This solution not only allows the ultras to show their support the way they love to and makes for those atmospheric shots television cameras are fond of, it also solves the two major problems with the current, secret use of flares. One is, of course, the danger posed by intense heat and smoke generated in a packed stand. The second is that the only way to get rid of used flares at the moment is throwing them at the pitch.
I suppose it's this state of affairs that prompted Helmut Spahn, then the DFB's head of security, to enter into talks with representatives of the pressure group last year. There were two in-depth meetings in Frankfurt, where the DFB is based, and experts were commissioned to provide a legal opinion on the matter. The fans, meanwhile, promised to curb pyrotechnics as best as possible for the duration of the negotiations.
Then, in the summer of 2011, Spahn left the DFB to work in Doha, Qatar. He was replaced by Hendrik Grosse Lefert, like Spahn a former policeman. Less than three months later, Dynamo Dresden supporters rioted during a cup game in Dortmund. The match was shown live on public television and more than six million viewers were treated to images of menacing, masked Dresden fans brandishing flares.
This led to an unfortunate blend of various related but ultimately distinctly different subjects in the public mind (and also, it has to be said, in the media), so that you would often hear people talking or writing about "new problems with pyrotechnics and violence in German football", as if the two were the same. They can be, of course, but it should be obvious that not everyone who likes to use flares is looking for a fight and that not everyone who is violent carries Bengal lights on him.
In any case, there was a sudden mood swing, also within the DFB, and in November the governing body announced that pyrotechnics would not be allowed, under no circumstances, to the deep dismay of the ultras, who felt they had be duped.
You could understand their disappointment, as the reasoning of the DFL/DFB is not conclusive. Reinhard Rauball, the chairman of the league, said he had no authority to legalise flares, although this had never been what the debate was about. Granted, the pressure group is misnamed. "Allow Pyrotechnics" would have been better. Rauball then added that the lawyers' opinion stated there was no way pyrotechnics could be legally used, which was only half the truth, as the document also mentioned that exemptions are possible.
Grosse Lefert was even less convincing. In mid-January, during a discussion on television, he said pyrotechnics would never be allowed because the DFB was afraid that some fans would sooner or later lose interest in such organised and supervised activities and would revert to smuggling flares illegally into the ground. Excuse me, but was he saying that he is not going to change the current, highly volatile and dangerous situation, because there is a chance that some people will then do what they are already doing right now? Yes, I think that's what he's saying. And it's at best nonsense, at worst circular reasoning.
I can do without flares very easily, I don't even find them particularly "atmospheric". However, many people obviously feel different about this and they will continue to get them into the ground. Judging from what I saw in Bochum all those years ago, there is no way to stop them, no matter how many stewards search how many people. If we accept this as fact, we should be pragmatic, not pig-headed, and look for a way to make attending a match safer for all of us.