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A change in Germany’s pandemic strategy means that some stadiums are at full capacity, with masks no longer obligatory. Though some groups have criticized the new concept, fans are returning after a 19-month-absence.
The past few weeks have marked the long-awaited return of some ultra groups to stadiums in Germany's top two divisions after a 19-month absence.
"We've been waiting for this moment for a long time. After 570 days, we'll return to the Weserstadion's Ostkurve for the game against Heidenheim," said Werder Bremen ultra groupsInfamous Youth, Caillera and Ultra Boys Bremen.
"Please make sure to get tested before the game," the groups added. "See you Friday!"
Bremen is not alone. In Stuttgart, Mönchengladbach and the St. Pauli quarter of Hamburg, for instance, flags were waving across the terraces, support was organized from behind the goals and confetti rained down onto the pitch, adding some much-needed color and atmosphere.
But the return of some ultra groups tell a bigger story: It's about the return of the football ground as a sphere where opinions and political protests take center stage.
"Against all forms of antisemitism" read the banner in front of the area where the Mainz 05 ultras stand, referring to the antisemitic incidents during Union Berlin's Conference League game against Maccabi Haifa.
In Stuttgart, the ultra groupCommando Cannstatt held a banner calling for Dietmar Hopp's football investments to be scrutinized, while making a witty reference to the failed attempts made by German company CureVac, in which the Hoffenheim investor is involved, to develop a vaccine against COVID-19. "Efficacy under 50+1," the banner read.
In Hamburg, the Ultra Sankt Pauli group called for "peace for the terraces, fight for the associations," while publishing a statement criticizing German football's governing bodies for what the group sees as the associations' unwillingness for meaningful reforms.
Stadiums in Germany have always been a sphere in society where opinions and protests are part of the landscape. Football clubs and supporter groups in Germany were never shy of voicing their views on a wide range of topics, from current affairs to culture and other issues.
At many Bundesliga grounds, fans were standing and sitting in large groups. In many of the cases, they did not even wear a mask. The reason behind it represents a change in many German states' strategy in combating COVID-19.
In the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate, for instance, the so-called 3G ("geimpft, getestet, genesen,"or "vaccinated, tested or recovered") concept, which allows a certain degree of normality to people vaccinated against COVID-19, people who have recovered from it or people who produce a negative test result from the previous 24 hours, has been changed into a concept called "2G+."
As part of 2G+, only fully vaccinated or recovered people will be granted entry to various businesses and cultural institutions, with a certain number of tickets being reserved for people with a negative test result.
At Mainz's game against Union Berlin, those who do not hold a proof of vaccination or recovery are allocated a specific area of the venue. The 1,000 tested fans who attended the game had to sit with face masks on and with social distancing, which weren't a must for the vaccinated or recovered.
About 16,000 supporters were in attendance against Berlin, about 50% of the capacity of 33,000. For their next home games, Mainz will be able to welcome up to 25,000 fans due to their 2G+ concept.
In Hamburg, access to football stadiums is now only available for the fully vaccinated and for the recovered, with the exception of children and people younger than 18. As a result, both of the city's second division clubs Hamburger SV and FC St. Pauli will be able to fill their respective stadiums to 100%, without any obligation to wear masks.
In Cologne, the exception also includes people who aren't able to get vaccinated, with a doctor's approval, which allowed the club to sell all available seats of the city's Müngersdorfer Stadion, with standing areas selling up to 50% of their capacity.
Not everyone is pleased with the 2G+ principle. Dynamo Dresden's ultras called for fans not to travel to Hamburg for the game against St. Pauli. While saying they welcome the prospect of full stadiums, the group said they believe the fact that games take place in the open air doesn't justify the restrictions.
"We're a sports community, meaning every single Dynamo fan must be able to support their team, and it doesn't matter if they're vaccinated, recovered or tested," Ultras Dynamo said in a statement.
The Südtribüne Dortmund, the umbrella organization of Borussia Dortmund's ultra groups, say that, though the gradual relaxation of restrictions is understandable, football fans need to stay wary of football clubs and associations that may seek to turn the 2G+ concept into the new norm.
"Should this concept establish itself across Germany's stadiums, we can hardly see it leaving. The fans' stadium visit could see long-lasting changes by bureaucracy, entry procedures and, in the worst case scenario, personalized tickets as standard," said the Südtribüne Dortmund statement.
Germany's ultra scene largely rejects the idea of tickets being personalized.
In their statement, titled "return to full stadiums," the Südtribüne Dortmund use the examples of Austria and Denmark, where football grounds are being filled to a maximum capacity.
"It's important to point out: Our point is not to rate the restrictions in the fight against the virus. We acted in solidarity with those the most at risk from day one, and saw our German Cup win, our derby wins and the relegation of Schalke (BVB's local rivals) in small groups and on TV."
While Borussia Dortmund's ultra groups have not yet returned to the Südtribune, the Westfalenstadion's famous south stand, they were among the many groups to leave banners with various messages, voicing their opinions on a wide range of topics.
The return of some organized fan groups, along with the gradual ease of many of the COVID-19 restrictions in Germany, mean that supporters across the country's top two divisions could be set to have their biggest stage for voicing protests and political views back: Football games with full stadiums.