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Champions League: Frankfurt, Napoli ultras clash despite ban

Matt Ford | Elisabetta Galla Naples
March 15, 2023

After a series of legal wranglings and an attempt to ban away fans, Eintracht Frankfurt rejected their ticket allocation away at SSC Napoli. Several hundred Frankfurt ultras traveled to Naples anyway.

Eintracht Frankfurt fans marching through central Naples on Wednesday afternoon
Despite there being no away tickets, hundreds of Eintracht Frankfurt supporters traveled to Naples anywayImage: Alessandro Garofalo/LaPresse/Zuma/picture alliance

Eintracht Frankfurt supporters have been involved in violent clashes with rival fans and local police in Naples, Italy, ahead of their team's Champions League last-16 second leg against SSC Napoli on Wednesday night, which Frankfurt lost 3-0 on the night.

Despite the German club having turned down their entire ticket allocation for the match at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona after a series of legal wranglings with the Italian authorities (see below), several hundred Frankfurt ultras still traveled to the southern Italian port city, accompanied by "allied" ultras from Italian side Atalanta.

The majority arrived by train on Tuesday night and were taken by bus under police escort to the Royal Hotel Continental on the seafront in central Naples. They were joined on Wednesday morning by another 100 fans.

Around midday on Wednesday, with their numbers swelled to around 600, the Frankfurt fans left the hotel and marched along the promenade, closely watched by Italian anti-terrorist police. When it began to rain in the afternoon, they sheltered at cafes on the Piazza del Gesu.

Local Italian media reported that Frankfurt supporters with valid tickets in the home sections would be allowed to proceed to the stadium provided they did not have a registered address in the city of Frankfurt. The rest were to be escorted back to the hotel to watch the match on a big screen.

The atmosphere remained relatively subdued until late-afternoon when, with police taking up positions to escort Frankfurt fans back to their hotel, stones and bottles were thrown and skirmishes ensued.

The situation escalated further when local Napoli ultras arrived on the scene and attacked the Frankfurt ultras and the police with assorted pyrotechnics and fireworks. At least one police car was also set ablaze.

Why are away fans not allowed?

According to UEFA regulations, home clubs are obliged to offer 5% of total stadium capacity to supporters of the visiting team in a clearly segregated part of the stadium. Eintracht Frankfurt were therefore entitled to sell 2,700 tickets to their supporters for the match, for which many fans had already booked travel and accommodation – partly on six flights chartered by the club.

However, following an ultimately unsuccessful series of legal challenges, Eintracht opted to reject their ticket allocation altogether and cancel the charter planes, leaving the team to attempt to overturn a 0-2 first-leg defeat without the backing of their supporters. 

On the evening of Monday, March 6, Eintracht were informed by European football's governing body UEFA that the Italian interior ministry was preparing a decree for the following morning which would forbid SSC Napoli from selling tickets to Frankfurt fans.

Local Frankfurt broadcaster Hessischer Rundfunk (HR) reported that the Italian authorities were even considering general local banning orders for German citizens in the city of Naples, citing fears of violent clashes between rival supporters.

Ahead of the first leg in Frankfurt three weeks ago, 20 local area bans were issued by police after three Italian fans were attacked in the district of Sachsenhausen. There were also reports of people emerging from cars with Italian plates to attack Frankfurt fans. The match itself went ahead without any notable incidents, bar a few scuffles in the away end between Napoli fans themselves, of whom 2,600 made the trip. A total of nine people were temporarily taken into custody.

Eintracht Frankfurt initially successfully appealed against the decree, obtaining a temporary injunction on March 11 which obliged the Serie A league leaders to offer away tickets for the return leg.

However, a new decree by the local Naples prefecture on March 12 banned the Italian club from selling tickets to people with registered addresses in the city of Frankfurt.

"This new decree is, in both its content and its justification, no less illegal and also entirely impractical, since two thirds of our fans don't even come from Frankfurt [itself], but rather from the [wider] region," commented Eintracht board member and legal aid Philipp Reschke, as the club appealed again.

The following day, March 13, local courts confirmed the validity of the decree and rejected Eintracht's appeal, leading Frankfurt to officially turn down their entire ticket allocation. But several hundred ultras have traveled anyway.

Eintracht Frankfurt players training ahead of the game against Napoli, in front of a screen showing the badges of both clubs as well as the Champions League trophy
In Naples, Eintracht Frankfurt are looking to overturn a 0-2 defeat from the first leg. But they'll have to do so without their supporters.Image: Arne Dedert/dpa/picture alliance

Criticism and fears of opening 'Pandora's box'

Following the legal wranglings, Italian authorities and SSC Napoli have been subjected to fierce criticism from Eintracht Frankfurt, the German Football Association (DFB), the German government, German police and UEFA, among others.

"This is a sad day for football," said Eintracht legal aid Reschke. "And this could potentially open Pandora's box. We hope that this doesn't set a precedent."

Eintracht board spokesman – and current interim German Football League (DFL) CEO – Axel Hellmann told DPA: "This is a grave and unacceptable intrusion by the Italian authorities into the culture and implementation of European club competition. It amounts to an admission of failure on the part of the Italian state that it doesn't see itself as capable of staging a Champions League game with 2,500 away fans. UEFA is now called upon to ensure that this does not set a precedent and endanger the integrity of the competition."

And UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin has offered his support, telling German broadcaster ZDF on Tuesday: "We have to say that, when something like this happens, then we simply don't play. It's quite simple: We'll change the rules. We have to do something urgently because this decision by the Italian authorities is absolutely not correct."

Germany's interior minister, Nancy Faeser (SPD), has also spoken out, saying the measures are counter-intuitive. "With high-risk fixtures, all security measures should be thoroughly checked before banning all fans of a team as a last resort," she said. "Such an extreme measure potentially risks further escalation."

Dario Minden, of Eintracht Frankfurt's official fan liaison department and a member of German nationwide supporter group Unsere Kurve, concurs, saying: "The risk of danger has only been increased by these supposed security measures. The safest course of action is have people in the away end. Because, whatever you do, and whether you like it or not, Naples will not be a Frankfurt-free zone."

Even the chairman of the German Police Union (GdP), Jochen Kopelke, criticized the Italian approach. He told German sports TV show Sportschau that "such measures can be useful when it comes to the police's job of averting danger," but added that they risk increasing the likelihood of violently-minded fans meeting up to fight elsewhere, away from the stadium.

Finally, sports lawyer Thomas Summerer opined that the Italian authorities have acted illegally. "A ticketing ban for fans who live in Frankfurt is a contravention of European law," he told Sportschau. "It effectively constitutes a ban on entering Italy. Since the reason for the visit is to attend the game, it's a restriction on the freedom of services. The users of a service, such as the attendees at a sporting event, should not be prevented from entering a country by a [EU] member state."

Eintracht Frankfurt supporters marching through central Naples on Wednesday afternoon
The atmosphere in Naples remained generally peaceful until late afternoonImage: Oliver Weiken/dpa/picture alliance

What happened in Naples on Wednesday?

Most of the traveling Eintracht Frankfurt supporters in Naples belong to or are close to the club's hardcore "Ultras Frankfurt" (UF) and are reportedly accompanied by fellow ultras from Italian club Atalanta, with whom they share friendly links.

Such so-called "fan friendships" are common within European football's "ultra" sub-culture, often within countries (Schalke and Nuremberg being the most well-known in Germany) but also across borders.

The "ultra" style of football support, characterized by flags, banners, chants and colorful choreographies as an expression of unconditional support for a club, originated in Italy in the 1970s and 1980s and only arrived in Germany in the late 1990s. Consequently, many German ultras still look to Italy as the motherland of the sub-culture, and hold Italian ultras – both friends and foes – in high regard.

It's for this reason that a trip to Naples, a city rich in Italian football and ultra culture, and once the home of the legendary Diego Maradona, represents an attractive destination for Eintracht Frankfurt's ultras, seeing a chance to measure themselves against their Napoli counterparts, alongside their friends from Atalanta.

In recent years, Eintracht Frankfurt supporters have made generally positive headlines around the world for their passionate support, including when around 30,000 of them veritably took over Barcelona's Camp Nou in April 2022, en route to the club winning the Europa League.

While German ultras are generally politically left-leaning and rarely actively seek violence, they will often respond when provoked by rival groups or by the police. Some Italian ultras, on the other hand, do have more violent reputations, and the very presence of Frankfurt ultras in Naples city center will likely have been considered an intentional provocation.

Edited by: Felix Tamsut