Eintracht Frankfurt's thrilling European campaign has further galvanized one of Germany's most fervent fan bases. A suspended UEFA ban isn't the only reason the fans are sitting on a "powder keg" though.
Five years ago Eintracht Frankfurt captured the attention of the footballing world when they took a then record-breaking 12,000 fans to an "unforgettable” Europa League group stage game in Bordeaux.
That European campaign ended in a Round of 32 loss to Porto on away goals and, with Frankfurt travelling to Portugal again on Thursday to face Benfica in the Europa League quarterfinals, the hope is that the same fate doesn't befall them again. There's something different about this season though.
"I think it's on account of last season's surprising German Cup (final) win over Bayern Munich. The whole city is a lot more caught up in the club,” Frankfurt fan Ari told DW. "It brought together a whole city, which filtered into the stadium, especially in the Europa League.”
The 3-1 win over Bayern in Berlin ended Eintracht's 30-year wait for silverware as well as a five year absence from the European stage. Ari has been a lifelong Frankfurt fan, attending his first game back in 1992, and was one of the lucky 40,000 fans who secured the ‘Blind-Date' tickets offered by the club.
Atmospheres the envy of Europe
For €93 fans could get tickets for all three group stage home games without knowing the opponents. The tickets sold out six weeks before the group draw was made.
Combine that deal with the wave of euphoria generated last season and the result has been jaw-dropping atmospheres that have been the envy of Europe. Ones generated not just by the ultras in the West and North-West stands, but an entire 45,000-seater stadium.
"Everyone is getting involved and after a win, they're staying to celebrate their players. That wasn't the case in the past,” admitted Ari. "I think in Europe and worldwide the Frankfurt fans have earned ourselves a fantastic reputation.
"Even just a glance at the choreos (choreographed fan displays) that have taken place before every game, with the unfortunate exception of Donetsk when it was called off shortly before kick-off, they are unique. To have choreos like that before every home game is incredible.”
However, the fans have also been walking a disciplinary tightrope, which threatens to undo the work put into forging that reputation. After the clash with police before the second leg on home soil against Donetsk, Ari admits that had Frankfurt been knocked out that night there may have been "riots” in the stands.
"You'd have feared that the old Frankfurt fan culture would rear its ugly head again. That's a little more aggressive and unpredictable, but that's also a part of Frankfurt: pure fanaticism.”
Pyrotechnics and flares threaten Europa run
Their most recent display of fanaticism was a "big scandal” in the Frankfurt fan scene, as pyrotechnics were lit and flares fired onto the pitch in Milan despite the fact their club was facing a suspended ban from governing body UEFA.
"I was disappointed, but that is the flip side of the Eintracht fans," Ari continues. "They are a bit more fanatical. What happened was very poor and a great shame. We took a big risk in potentially ruining the next away trip, the dream for the tens of thousands of travelling fans.”
Club executive Axel Hellmann said the club could "count themselves lucky” they were only hit with a €50,000 fine and a one-year extension of their suspended sentence. "At the end of the competition - whenever that is for us - we will, together with our fan scene, discuss how we can avoid facing a potential fan-shutout in future European competitions.”
Ari himself called for the ultras groups to deal with the matter internally and section the guilty parties by removing game day privileges to avoid a ban that could return Frankfurt to "a divided fan culture like there was in the 90s.”
"It's a powder keg in Frankfurt. Everything is going in the right direction, but you've got to be very careful with the Frankfurt fan scene because it's very volatile.”
"That's the big risk. All the euphoria would've been wiped away. Everything we've built in terms of how we present ourselves, the new style of play and the fact we're often seen as favorites. That could've been lost in the blink of an eye because of three pyrotechnics and some flares that were shot onto the pitch.”
However, while Ari did feel the ultras groups could have done more to ease any fears, he was pleased with the united front the fans presented in general.
"The good thing about the situation though, was that the fans themselves made it clear 'we don't accept bulls**t like this' and 'we don't want to risk a stadium ban'. What we want is to revel in this European adventure for as long as possible and with as many people as possible. That was an incredibly strong reaction.”
He's also hoping that reaction can spark again when Frankfurt's impassioned fans take the stands inside the Estadio de Luz in Lisbon. A positive performance both on and off the pitch would stand them in good stead to extend their incredible unbeaten run in this season's Europa League.
"I'd love it if the travelling fans can show the world what an incredible fan scene we have. To present ourselves positively and show everyone what Frankfurt's fans are really about. They need to revel in the experience and sing even louder. But it's not cold enough in the middle of April to need pyrotechnics to keep you warm."