Der 12. Mann

Borussia Dortmund’s 3-2 victory at Stuttgart in late February was significant for two reasons. Firstly, it was BVB’s third win on the bounce and gave credence to hopes of turning their disastrous season around. Secondly, and more poignantly, it led to a moment that illustrates the close relationship between clubs and fans that characterizes German football.

As the VfB Stuttgart players trudged apprehensively to their ever-vocal followers in the Canstatter Kurve, applauding sheepishly, they wouldn’t have been hoping for a rousing reception. After all, this latest defeat had left them three points adrift at the bottom of the table and was their eighth home game without a win. But win, lose or draw, players see it as their duty to pay respect to their faithful, and in this case long-suffering, fans. After every game, the players go to salute their respective fan blocks, generally standing in front of the advertising hoardings to either show thanks or to celebrate a result together.

In some cases, more is required – either in times of immense jubilation or days of deep discontent. And being at the foot of the table at the end of February calls for a closer encounter. VfB captain Georg Niedermeier led his players off the pitch directly to the fans, many of whom had gathered at the front of the stand. Instead of abuse there was a dialogue, with special attention being paid to the young defender Timo Baumgartl. The 18-year-old’s mistake had let in Marco Reus to score Dortmund’s third and fatal goal. Clearly upset at having let his team down, the tearful youngster was consoled by fans, who hugged him and encouraged him to keep his chin up. It was a real sign of affection that reminded those who saw it of the human side of the beautiful game.

As touching as this was, there are more hostile moments. Before this very game the home fans had unveiled a huge banner reading Wadenkrampf und Bluterguss statt Selfie-Scheiß im Mannschaftsbus, a less-than-subtle reminder that the team is contesting a relegation battle, and not Germany’s Next Top Model. A few months previous, towards the end of Fredi Bobic’s reign as Sporting Director the atmosphere was often quite vitriol as the fans became increasingly disillusioned. In the end it was their vocal and continued discontent that ultimately led to Bobic – himself a VfB legend – being relieved of his duties.

The Ultras of the Bundesliga often live up to their name, in both a positive and negative sense. Following primitive scenes of violence between FC Köln and Borussia Dortmund, involving the Köln fan group Boyz, the Cologne club quickly and openly condemned the perpetrators’ hooligan antics and roundly criticized the group in question. Unhappy at what they thought to be wholesale blame, fellow members and sympathisers arranged a no-show for the following league game at Hannover. Although the number who stayed away was lower than feared, there were around 1500 empty seats. Despite the questionable background to the protest, it demonstrated the fans’ willingness to take action and vote with their feet. What’s more such action arguably strikes a louder chord than simply printing out A4 sheets of paper with Manager Out, or scrawling abuse on an old bed sheet.

So what’s behind the intimate relationship between German fans and their clubs? There are a number of factors. For one, German football is very fan-friendly, with ticket prices among the lowest in Europe’s top leagues, especially for the fan club members. For example, a season ticket for Bayern Munich’s fan block costs around 140€, a shade over £100 – and no regular Premier League punter needs to be told how many times they can watch their team for that amount. It has to be said, however, that prices for fan club members are heavily subsidized and the Bundesliga is perhaps not as cheap as it’s made out to be. Nevertheless, nearly all top-flight clubs offer adult-season tickets for £250 or less.

Despite being branded as the best league in the world, the Premier League has been rife with grumblings about a lack of atmosphere in certain stadiums for some time. A widely-held opinion on this topic is that many ‘real’ fans have simply been priced out of going to games in recent years. This is not the case in Germany, and it is no wonder that stadiums are full and loud. Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park is often cited as being one of the best places to watch a live game due to its goose-bump-inducing atmosphere. Hardly surprising when the club has 55,000 season ticket holders.

Another facet to consider is the manner in which clubs are run in Germany. The 50+1 rule stipulates that at least 51% of any club must be owned by club members and cannot be purchased by wealthy outsiders. External investment can be, and is still, made in considerable amounts, but ultimately the control remains in the hands of those with the club’s best interests at heart. This also means that any profit made generally stays within the club and is not siphoned off to pay the owner’s debts or fuel other non-football interests.

A further reason for the fans sustained emotional involvement with their clubs may also be the simple fact that there are a large number of German players in the Bundesliga – thanks largely to initiatives put in place by the German FA to improve the health of the national team over a decade ago. Most clubs will have a crop of youngsters coming through the ranks and breaking into the first team. Any fan wants to see this, and this may also explain the paternal reaction to Baumgartl’s error against Dortmund. Fans will generally be able to take defeat and disappointment on the chin if they can identify with those wearing the shirts. Without an identity there is no base for a relationship.

Currently, just over half the players in the Bundesliga are German. In comparison, the Premier League is made up of around two-thirds foreign imports. That is not to say that players from abroad cannot become part of a club’s fabric. There are of course countless examples of this being the case, but it is arguably the number of young local boys coming through that provides a sense of family and legacy.

A fundamental point is that German football clubs are just that – clubs. Many of them started life as local sports or gymnastics clubs, and consequently their roots are intertwined with communities and people. Membership to any one club means more than just discounted ticket prices and a free calendar every year. There is a real sense of belonging. And as members of the club, it is the fans who have a real stake in their team’s fortunes – something they take on board with a sense of responsibility.

This deep ingrained nature of the fan’s within their clubs manifests in the level of action they take when dissatisfied. Going back to the FC Köln fans, although they were essentially in the wrong initially, their reaction was swift and significant. The club members, as well as the Ultras, are arguably throwbacks to an era when the lives of millions revolved around match day – a time before 24-hour sports news, ubiquitous live coverage and streaming, and certainly a period before the players used 140 characters to tell you (almost) everything they are up to every twenty minutes.

These fans are fanatical, well-informed and extremely passionate. For them to stay away on match day is a bold statement indeed. In doing so they break a custom, denying themselves the high-point of their week, all for what they consider to be the greater good.

Of course, as the recent example with FC Köln shows, fans are not overt to overstepping the mark. Germany still has regular problems with the use of flares and fireworks and is also no stranger to vandalism and violence. For that reason there is often a visible police presence and a palpable sense of tension when rivals meet. For the most part, though, it is good, clean fun with opposition fans winding one another up from their enclosures draped in club colours and awash with banners and flags. Regardless of the size of the club or stadium, 90 minutes amongst the hardcore fans is an experience for any football lover.

The Fankurven up and down the country – and across the divisions – are no place for fair-weather fans and you’ll do well to find a prawn sandwich. Before most people are making their way to the stadium the fan block is already bouncing and does not stop until well after the final whistle. It is rare to hear of a flat atmosphere at any game, and spectators can always be sure of entertainment in the terraces when deprived of it on the pitch.

Although occasionally subject to extreme criticism and scorn, players and managers alike recognize their fans lack neither commitment nor loyalty – the very qualities the fans expect in return.

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