Insults, fights, abandoned matches - Germany's football pitches are no place for the faint of heart. The lower leagues of the western city of Essen are seen as particularly rough. Where does the violence come from?
The sun is out, and yet it is a cold autumn afternoon on the pitch in Vogelheim, a neighborhood in the western German city of Essen. Forty minutes into the match between Barisspor and Atletico, two amateur teams in Kreisliga B, the city's second-lowest division, Barisspor's goalie fishes the ball out of the net - for the second time today. Atletico's players cheer in their green and white jerseys. Guarded applause comes from the sideline, where small groups of spectators are gathered. They drink coffee and joke about the players' skills - or lack thereof. It is a fairly standard Sunday in German amateur football. At least upon first sight.
However, Essen's lower leagues have a problem. After recent outbursts of violence on the city's pitches, the local football association stopped assigning referees to games involving three teams allegedly involved. One of them is Barisspor, a club with a lot of players of Turkish origin. That's why on this day, it is not an official ref in a bright yellow kit who is in charge of the game but a substitute from the guests, Atletico, in an outdoor jacket and sweatpants.
When asking around on the pitch or reading comments online, one is met with lots of criticism of the decision. People say the association is shirking its responsibility and the current arrangement will only add fuel to the fire, as inexperienced fill-ins now have to act as referees in matches involving the problematic teams. The association itself remains silent - repeated requests from DW for comment went unanswered.
Like every weekend, Atletico's managing director Alfred Arndt is standing on the sideline. He has been active in Essen's amateur football for more than 40 years - first as a player and then behind the scenes. He has seen a lot over the years, he tells DW. But in all his years in the game, the violence has never been as bad as it is now. Only a few weeks ago, he watched a game on Atletico's home pitch get completely out of hand.
The away team was not happy with a decision the referee took and suddenly attacked the official, he recalls. When some Atletico players and Arndt himself tried to shield the ref, they became the center of the attackers' aggression. Eight police cars were needed to calm the situation; several assault charges were filed that day. "I have no words for that," Arndt says as he shakes his head. Fortunately, today seems to be quieter.
Different place, same problem
More than 250 kilometers to the south, in the city of Mainz, another match is underway. Bosjnak Mainz are hosting TSG Heidesheim. Sixty minutes into the game, referee Jonas Blaser tries to send off a player after a foul and runs over to him.
"I could see in his eyes that he was really angry - and then came the headbutt and I was on the ground," he tells DW. He abandons the match, once he is on his feet again.
The 22-year-old referee requires hospital treatment for a broken nose and has a cut stitched up. But the incident will not keep him from refereeing in the future. To him it is too valuable a hobby, which he has been pursuing for six years already. It allows him to be on the pitch, despite not having the time to practice during the week.
"To let one player ruin all this, I can't accept that," he says. He adds that such violence is rather unusual on Mainz' pitches.
Mirror of society
Statistics from the DFB (German football association) show that only 0.044 percent of all games in Germany are abandoned due to acts of violence or discrimination. But this does not mean that violence is not a big problem on Germany's pitches, thinks Prof. Dr. Ulf Gebken, a sports sociologist at Duisburg-Essen University. Especially in big cities brawls occur more often, because social tensions are greater.
"People who are affected by poverty, unemployment and a lack of integration meet people who have found their place in society. Where else but on the football pitches do these people meet?" he says in an interview with DW.
In this division of society, Gebken also sees the reason why a relative high number of players with a migrant background end up before sports tribunals, where they also receive harsher punishments.
"For people who are fighting for recognition and want to get that on the football pitch, values like fair play and sportsmanship come second. The most important thing is: 'I want to score this goal!" he says.
The ref felt threatened, the club denies any wrongdoing
Back in Essen-Vogelheim, Atletico is in a 4-0 lead. There are no signs of anyone losing their temper, presumably the result is already too clear. Just off the pitch, Hakan Yesilsu stands in a small construction site trailer that has been converted into a snack stand. He is Barisspor's vice chairman and is selling sausages, drinks and sweets today. When there are no customers, he has time for a cigarette and some answers.
Why is it that referees do not want to work games of Barisspor's first team anymore?
"There have been no acts of violence, no personal insults or verbal abuse and no threats of violence," he says, referring to the game a few weeks back, which the referee abandoned because he felt threatened. Yesilsu is upset about the association's decision. His team is being portrayed as violent - wrongfully, he says. But the club still has to cope with the damage to its reputation.
"Warning shot" for Barisspor
"There have been no acts of violence" - Hakan Yesilsu thinks a handful of players ruin everybody's reputation
Football in Essen does have a problem with violence in his point of view. But not everybody should suffer from a few players and clubs who cannot keep their cool.
"Of course there are incidents that have to be punished. But it's wrong to lump everything together," he says. A few days later, the sports tribunal imposes a 100-euro ($106) penalty on Barisspor and suspends one of their players. The verdict is not what Yesilsu had hoped for. But it is also not much more than a "warning."
From his trailer, Yesilsu watches Atletico score the fifth and final goal and deservedly win the match. There is applause, as the makeshift referee blows the final whistle. It was a quiet game, no particular incidents. In Essen's lower leagues these days, this is the best that anybody can hope for.