Despite the coronavirus pandemic keeping people apart, German football’s ultras are pulling together. The intention is not to change their image, but to underline what they've known about the ultras scene all along.
In a time of social distancing due to the coronavirus pandemic, German football’s ultras are pulling together as they’ve always done.
It has been just over a month since Schwabensturm 02 announced the establishment of a shopping service for those directly affected by the outbreak that has brought German football to a standstill.
Since then, the Stuttgart ultras group has put together a team spanning cities and towns across more than 60 kilometers. More than 80 helpers are available six days a week to deliver groceries and prescriptions to the elderly or at-risk, as well as to frontline staff working in care homes and hospitals.
For Schwabensturm member Clemens Knödler, it has been a rewarding experience. "It’s going really well. Of course, it’s a voluntary service with no extra charge," he told DW. "We’re encountering a lot of gratitude. People are really pleased that we’re supporting them."
500 and counting
Schwabensturm’s shopping service has the greatest scale, but dozens of similar programs have been set up by organized supporters all around Germany. In the capital, Union Berlin ultras have set up a 'giving fence' at which locals can donate sanitary products, clothing, and food items for those in need.
Fabian of the Szene Köpenick has been taken aback by the level of generosity. "We’re here every day to have a look, and every day there are new bags hanging here," he told DW. "There's a constant turnover."
The fence was just the start. After hearing that carers and essential staff are facing a shortage of face masks, the Union ultras called on supporters to sew their own and donate them.
They’ve collected 500 so far according to Fabian, who explained that the mask-sewing scheme has an added benefit. "Kids don’t have much to do at the moment, so why not sit down with them and have a go at it together? It’s fun. I’ve got two left hands and even I managed it."
Image change "not our aim"
The fact that active fan groups are the common denominator of so many similar efforts in Germany has not gone without notice. Given how quickly the pandemic followed on the heels of the Dietmar Hopp affair, an irresistible story of redemption was near at hand.
Ultras, so recently roundly condemned as the 'ugly face of football', are now being widely praised for their neighborliness and solidarity. Much of that praise has come from usually unfriendly quarters of the press.
"Everyone's talking about a change of image at the moment. I want to completely separate what we’re doing here from football," Fabian told DW. "I'm not doing it so that we can say afterwards that we've done something to improve the reputation of the fan scene. That's not our aim."
Not out of the norm
Groups across the country have long been involved in running social projects and some feel that the credit they're receiving at the moment is curiously sudden.
Nordkurve Aktiv, a charitable initiative set up a decade ago by ultras in Mönchengladbach, is also operating a grocery-shopping scheme. They've also made various donations to local institutions affected by the current crisis, but Steven Mähler of the group told DW that there's nothing radically new in the efforts of organized football fans.
"I think being socially engaged is a big part of ultra culture," said Mähler. "It's not just the negative stuff that's always in the papers. There's probably a charitable institution in just about every fan scene in Germany."
"Normal people who want to help"
More used to facing criticism and feeling embattled, many organized supporters are known to be cautious when it comes to their newly improved image. Schwabensturm’s Clemens Knödler articulated his reservations about whether the current positive press can do the reputation of ultras in Germany any long-term good.
"I don't really think the general perception [of ultras] will be permanently changed," he told DW. "Maybe people will reflect a bit more, but I don't know how long it will last."
Still, for the moment at least, Knödler is pleased that a lesser-known facet of ultra culture is on prominent display. "We've got the chance to show something else that defines ultras," he said. "They aren't the 'ugly face of football', they're just normal people, who have a social conscience, and want to help as well as they can."