Bundesliga safety measures pass, but at what cost?
The announcement that the announcement would be delayed by a half-hour offered some hope for the 600 protesting supporters outside the Sheraton hotel in Frankfurt, where representatives of the 36 clubs in the German Football League (DFL) were voting on new safety measures. But their optimism was ill-founded.
"All 16 measures were adopted by a big majority," declared DFL chairman Reinhard Rauball to open his news conference Wednesday afternoon.
Some of the more controversial measures had been modified, Rauball added, and he stressed that the new regulations, dubbed "Safe Stadium Experience," were meant first and foremost as "guidelines that could be adhered to by each club in accordance with their regional needs in relation to their supporters."
Some of the new measures in question were accepted as reasonable by all parties. The DFL, for example, decided to spend more effort on training stadium stewards and will expand CCTV supervision to find perpetrators. But there was outrage at the grass roots about bringing in "full body searches" and the possible capping of the number of away fans' tickets. Peter Peters, the DFL vice president, explained that two caveats had been added in relation to these contentious issues. Security checks would have to be "appropriate and proportional," restrictions on the sales of away tickets would need "a clearly argued reason" and couldn't be imposed at will.
Taken at face value, it's difficult to see what all the fuss was about here. The much-envied German stadium experience with standing in the terraces, alcohol consumption and plenty of flag-waving should not be affected by "Safe Stadium Experience." None of the nuclear options -- all-seater stadiums, personalized tickets for fans -- that were mooted in response to a (perceived) increase in violence and hooliganism were part of the package, either.
"This will protect our fan culture, football is the winner," Rauball said.
But the initiators of the "12:12" protest -- most fans have kept quiet for the first 12 minutes, 12 seconds of matches in recent weeks -- are less sure.
"This is a bad decision," fan spokesman Philipp Markhardt said. "I think there'll be new demonstrations as a consequence, perhaps all the way until March".
The fans' quarrels are twofold. First, they feel excluded from the debate.
"It was never intended to leave our fans out, but something seems to have gone wrong in terms of communication," said Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, CEO of Bayern Munich. The Bundesliga did indeed make a huge mistake by discussing these measures without the necessary transparency. Fears of a new draconic regime swept through the grounds for months unchecked. As a result, there's been a breakdown of trust between the clubs and its members and supporters.
Second, it's a matter of principle. The overall majority of supporters understand clubs can't accept the use of illegal flares in their stadiums, but they feel that the new measures are the equivalent of taking a hammer to crack a nut. Marc Quambusch, an active Dortmund supporter, said "fans are afraid of being treated like criminals en masse" and said there was plenty of anecdotal evidence of club stewards overstepping their authority before.
"You can't justify strip searches simply because one or two people are bringing in flares," he argued.
There is a sense that the actual problem -- a rise in violence and injured supporters -- has been blown out of proportion as well. A Spiegel article that looked closer at the police figures found that the actual rise in incidents was almost negligible, but some media reports and interested politicians have drawn a different picture.
"People seem to have forgotten that 99 percent of Bundesliga football has no problem at all," argued Süddeutsche Zeitung.
Some clubs agree. Representatives of St. Pauli and Union Berlin (both from the 2. Bundesliga, the second division) voted against all the measures. Others, Hannover 96 for example, were against one or two of the more repressive new rules.
"The alleged increase in violence can't be proved," said Dirk Zingler, the president of Union Berlin. "There is no reason whatsoever to bow down to political pressure -- whatever its motives -- at this particular moment and to symbolically prove what has never been in question anyway -- that we are ready to act. Our club won't be part of that. Otherwise we will risk being a pawn of politicians who use the popular issue of football to raise their own profile."
Zingler's last point is especially salient. Politicians -- namely a group of law-and-order Interior Ministers from the Länder, Germany's federal states -- have scared the clubs with threats of tighter regulation, an end to standing and of making them pay a part of the policing costs. Instead of resisting that pressure and taking time out to think about an appropriate response, the DFL knee-jerked into a preemptive strike that does little -- apart from alienating those who make the Bundesliga experience so unique. It's also a fallacy to believe that this will be a one-off. A pattern has now been set: politicians have seen that the league can be pushed around easily.
Sadly, it won't be too long before we'll hear about even more restrictive measures. The anger on the terraces is such that a backlash is anticipated. Markhardt revealed that there's talk of a boycott of a whole match day in all stadiums, and there could also be less peaceful repercussions, too. "There'll be a fire," one hardcore supporter said.
That fire, in turn, will be cited as reason to clamp down even more. If German football is not careful, it'll find itself in an ugly tit-for-tat exchange that will estrange vast sections of the general public from their favorite game. And the worst thing is: there was absolutely no reason why the Bundesliga backed itself into that particular corner in the first place.