Saturday's match between Eintracht Frankfurt and Cologne ended bitterly. Even as the visiting Cologne players celebrated a 2-0 victory that ensured their survival in the top tier of German football, some 150 so-called "Frankfurt Ultras" were already pouring onto the pitch at the other end.
The result meant that Frankfurt are very likely to be relegated, and the fans were disgusted. The club's security staff were run over by the crowd, there were several injuries and extensive damage to property – including the destruction of a high-tech TV camera said to be worth over 600,000 euros ($869,000).
But while ball boys and players fled in panic, riot police – armed with pepper-spray – suppressed further trouble, aided by an emotional and rather brave intervention from club President Peter Fischer - who stepped between the officers and the hooligans to calm the situation.
As a result, the incident was quickly contained, and Frankfurt coach Christoph Daum even showed a modicum of sympathy for the rioters. "These emotional outbursts – we don't sanction them, but they are a reaction to things that have happened here," he said in the aftermath. "These are people for whom Eintracht Frankfurt is their whole lives, and if the results aren't right, then there have to be scapegoats."
Climax to a bad day
But the incident was not only down to the poor result, it was also the culmination of a day's unrest. Some 34 fans – both from Frankfurt and Cologne - were arrested prior to the game as a precautionary measure, mainly because they were found to be carrying fireworks and boxer's mouthguards.
Fear has been spreading that violence is returning to German soccer. Over 900 Frankfurt hooligans were also involved in a large-scale battle with fans of visiting Kaiserslautern in March, when police were forced to use kettling tactics outside the stadium.
Second division team Energie Cottbus, meanwhile, has just been slapped with the biggest fine in its history after a game in April had to be suspended for nine minutes because fans began throwing fireworks on to the pitch.
Similarly, at the beginning of April, the referee of a match between Schalke and St. Pauli stopped a match after a St. Pauli fan threw a plastic beer cup at a linesman.
Ghost match threatened
The German Football Assocation has initiated an investigation into Saturday's incident in Frankfurt, and there are already threats that fans will be excluded from the club's next home match.
Speaking on Sunday, Frankfurt's club chairman Heribert Bruchhagen was forced to accept that at least a fine was likely. "It's regrettable that the fans expressed their disappointment in this way," he said. "I can't assess how the Football Association will react – the referee wasn't on the pitch. In the past there have been sanctions."
But some believe the media is unnaturally magnifying the trend towards violence. Michael Gabriel, head of KOS, a football fan organization that coordinates social projects with young fans, insists that soccer culture is healthy in Germany.
"Frankfurt is a very negative example," he told Deutsche Welle. "Otherwise, the Bundesliga gets a huge number of fans, and that isn't just because of the sport – it's also because of the atmosphere that the fans generate and because they feel safe."
But he says some clubs need to communicate better with their fans. "I think in the case of Frankfurt it's that the club has misjudged its own scene for several years," he says. "It has played down a lot of problems. It should have said much clearer and earlier where its limits are. The club has to make clear what it will tolerate and what it won't in its own stadium."
Even Gabriel acknowledges that hooliganism is a problem in Germany, but he doesn't think it is growing or that it is worse than in other countries. Still, several Ultra movements are quickly acquiring a reputation, and so far they appear to be undeterred by stadium bans and club fines.
Author: Ben Knight
Editor: Nicole Goebel