Sunday, 26 May 2013

German Football - Recovering the Drama of Sport

German football is all the rage these days. The age of Spanish tiki-taki is over, supplanted by speed in turning defence into attack, direct running into space, the ball delivered into those spaces by deft flicks, backheels, outside-of-the-foot passes – football played at pace, great to watch, with skill and panache, executed by the young Turks (or Poles) of Dortmund, and most effectively by Bayern M√ľnich.  

I had the privilege of being at the Champions’ League Final on Saturday (and it was a privilege). What struck me was not just the style of football but the difference between German and English fan culture, and the reminder of what English football lacks these days. Despite having been to what must be over 400 football matches in my life, this was different.
Germans are famous for their organisation, and it seems to have been applied to their football as well as their industry – to BVB and FCB as well as to VW. I’ve been to a few Wembley finals: a play-off with Bristol City, Man United beating Villa in a League Cup & losing to Barcelona in the 2011 Champions League Final, and a few England games too. In each of those matches, the atmosphere was frankly a disappointment. Clubs have some fans who like to sing and others who don’t. Because clubs sell tickets to fans randomly, the ‘singers’ get scattered around the vast stadium. As a result hardly any songs get going, and those do are out of time and soon fall flat. In this game, the Bayern ‘Ultras’, the rowdy, but generally well-behaved singers were all deliberately grouped by the club on the top shelf behind the goal, making a heck of a racket. Borussia Dortmund had ensured the ‘Unity’ fan group were placed as a block behind the goal, the centre of the famous Dortmund ‘Gelbe Wand’. In front of the main singing group behind the goal were three ‘Vorsinger’ – fans in the ubiquitous yellow shirt who spent the entire game with their backs to the action, conducting the singing and co-ordinated gestures of the fans, alongside three drummers beating time to the fans. The Unity group in the centre was flanked by the ‘Jubos’ (Young Borussians) to their right, and another group to the left. Whatever the Vorsinger did, the Unity group did. What the Unity group did, the Jobos and the rest of the Dortmund fans soon joined in, in a rapidly spreading sequence. Within seconds of the Unity group starting to jump up and down, the entire Dortmund end, 30,000 people were bouncing up and down in a sight that made you fear for the stability of the stadium itself.
There were no anti-opposition songs. This is a surprise for any English football fan, where you expect a fair amount of abuse and taunting of the opposing club, or individual players (usually John Terry). Similarly, there were few songs about individual players on either side, just songs supporting the team. The songs continued virtually the whole game. United away games are the closest I have seen to this, but it is still pretty rare in English football, where interest wanes considerably throughout the game. I know this was the CL final, but this seems to be pretty standard in a lot of German football.
When the UEFA-sponsored pre-match entertainment was on, some choreographed ‘battle’ between a red army and a yellow one, with flags and plastic arrows involved, the Unity group turned their backs, disdaining to watch mere entertainment that was nothing to do with football.

The result was a quite remarkable atmosphere – by far the best of any Wembley or Premiership match I have ever been to. Why? A number of factors stand out:
Perhaps the main thing is that due to the famous German 50+1 rule, where the majority of the voting rights to Bundesliga clubs has to remain with the members (fans), the clubs are clubs belonging to their fans, not businesses owned by distant moguls offering entertainment to spectators. Hence the organisation – the clubs work with the fans to make sure the singers sit together, the more rowdy and boisterous are encouraged rather than distrusted. The equivalent of a ‘Unity’ group in an English club would most likely be given police escorts to the ground, dispersed around the stadium, and treated as criminal suspects (and not surprisingly they sometimes end up behaving like them).

Virtually the whole crowd stood.  The introduction of all-seater stadia has killed the atmosphere in most English football grounds. I remember a Bristol City away game at Leeds a few seasons ago, where all the City away fans stood for the first 20 minutes, resulting in a feisty, loud, enjoyable atmosphere. A few zealous stewards then insisted on us all sitting down, ejecting a few who resisted. The result? The singing stopped, the atmosphere died. Home crowds from the Emirates to Old Trafford to Stamford Bridge are pretty mute these days, which is why I much prefer away games to home ones – at least at away games it tends to be the harder core, usually standing, a smaller, concentrated group intent on making a noise.
Sitting to watch is what you do at the theatre, not a football match. At the theatre, you don't interrupt, jeer, shout or sing - you just shut up and watch. And maybe this is the clue to it all. Football matches are meant to be a different kind of drama in which the fans are not just the audience, but get to play a part as well as the players. They are not mere passive spectators, but active participants who make a difference to the outcome of the game and the sense of occasion. Modern football, where clubs have been turned into businesses (as chronicled in David Conn’s excellent Richer Than God) and fans into spectators has often lost this element of the drama, diminished what was once a much more raw, alive, bristling experience into a sanitised, sedated performance, in which the fans’ vital part in the drama is excised. It is like a Greek tragedy with the ‘Chorus’ omitted, Hamlet without Horatio, King Lear without Cordelia. Fans are meant to be part of the play, playing a vital role in the event, and the Germans have found a way to bring them back onto the stage.

The English often feel a bit superior to the Germans when it comes to football – after all we invented the game. But now maybe it’s time to sit (or stand?), listen & learn.

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