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Germany

Hardcore football fans 'do not put violence first'

Football is worshiped by millions in Germany, and some of the sport's more passionate followers have a reputation for stirring up trouble. Still, Germany has found a way to embrace true fans and push against hooligans.

Football-related violence is a regular occurrence in Germany, and games between rival teams can often paralyze entire cities. The police have noted 1,265 people injured in the current football season, the authorities told DW. This week, second-league team Dynamo Dresden was fined 60,000 euros ($65,400) after one of its fans threw a severed bull's head near the pitch.

Many blame these incidents on pent-up frustration of poor and uneducated soccer fans. But the real issue is more complicated, according to Michael Gabriel, the manager of the Koordinationsstelle Fanprojekte, an autonomous organization that oversees dozens of projects aimed at supporting young football fans across Germany.

"From my perspective, there are various reasons for violence at football matches," he told DW. "One of the factors is definitely the setting - in football there are two camps, us versus them. This is linked with rivalries that have been developing, in some cases, for many years. With this kind of extremely emotional environment, extreme behavior can happen."

Although these tensions are usually expressed through chanting and mockery, the situation can occasionally grow violent, Gabriel said.

"Another factor, which has been described by Bill Buford in his book 'Among the Thugs,' is that some people find violence fun and meaningful. Societal deprivation or frustrations are usually not the key factors," he added.

Ultras vs. hooligans

Germany has an extensive network of institutions dedicated to working with the fans, including special fan mediators between clubs' supporters and management. Security forces also take preventive steps against known troublemakers, such as banning them from certain places, according to the police.

"These measures aim to prevent the inciters from traveling to game venues and committing offenses. On game days, authorities separate fans in order to prevent clashes between rival groups," police told DW.

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These efforts have largely pushed classic hooligan groups into irrelevance, relegating their conflicts away from stadiums. Most of the game-day incidents are now caused by the so-called ultras, the hardcore fans. Although both groups can be violent, it is important to make a distinction between them, Gabriel told DW.

"Unlike the hooligans, who meet with the purpose of fighting other fans, the ultra fans do not put violence first. They contribute massively to the atmosphere, they show a desire to help their clubs in other ways, to cooperate and be part of the decision-making process," he added. "Still, it's rare to find an ultra fan who completely rejects violence."

Violence on the rise

German football clubs see fan-culture as a vital part of the game, and fans' opinions matter to the management, according to the Gabriel.

"They also aim to allow fans to get involved in a creative and constructive way," Gabriel said, adding that Germany also has a network of 59 so-called fan-projects, which do long-term work with young football fans, independently from the clubs.

This bid to engage fans has shown good results, keeping the violence at a relatively low level. Statistically, it is "more dangerous to visit the Oktoberfest in Munich than to go to a football game" in Germany, Gabriel said.

"If you look at the situation in the German football, it is extremely successful when it comes to ticket sales and filling up venues. This indicates good quality games, but also that the atmosphere at the games is good, and that visitors feels safe going to the stadiums," he said.

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But that doesn't mean football-related violence is not a problem, he said.

"Violent acts committed by some ultra groups are on the rise, and such acts are often condoned. Another phenomenon, which goes outside football, is the issue of hooligans. They do not play a big role in football anymore, but they have closed ranks in order to fight German Salafists. The hooligans are very right-wing and have racist attitudes." Some of them are also involved in the rallies set up by the anti-immigration, anti-Islam PEGIDA movement, he added.

"We also had a very serious incident this year in Leipzig, when various groups of hooligans attacked a section of the city that has a reputation for being left-wing," Gabriel said.

Despite these incidents, problems in German football remain "manageable" and less severe than in many other countries. The key is that German clubs stay engaged in constant dialogue with the fans, Gabriel said.

"Many clubs abroad are led by people who only want to make money and are not interested in their club's social responsibility. When their fans cause trouble, they often say, 'that has nothing to do with us, it is a job for the police,'" Gabriel said. "My impression is that these attitudes alienate friendly and peaceful fans from football and attract more people who seek out confrontation and violence."

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