Germany's ultra fan scene has stoked controversy this season through organized protests, anti-commercialization campaigns, and even violence. Are they a plague, or do they represent fans' interests?
The passion of soccer fans sometimes spills out of the stands
Loyalties can get complicated in football. In early March, Schalke goalkeeper Manuel Neuer played a blinder in the DFB cup semi-final in Bayern Munich's Allianz Arena, which is expected to be his future home stadium.
While the Bavarians dominated the field, the German national team keeper made a fortress of his penalty area, and Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, Mario Gomez et al could find no way to answer Raul's 15th minute goal. Schalke went on to win the tournament, captained by Neuer, the club's outstanding player.
But as the game in Munich wound to a close, and the Bayern stars looked increasingly dejected, an organized group of Bayern fans known as "Schickeria" mounted a personal attack on Neuer, who they had decided they did not want on their team next season.
That this was not just an expression of frustration at the result was obvious from the form it took - at a pre-arranged moment, hundreds of fans held up pre-printed signs with the slogan "Koan Neuer" ("No Neuer"). Neuer also spent much of the game clearing his area of detritus flung around him, while behind him more signs were displayed with charming messages like: "Play for those who mock you and hate you? Where's your pride, Schalke pig?"
The hatred was sparked by a perceived slight that Neuer had offered the Bayern fans in 2009 (he was seen to ape Bayern legend Oliver Kahn's famous corner flag celebration), but Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge had no patience with the die-hard fans, also known as ultras.
"Bayern and the whole state of Bavaria are famous for our hospitality. The lad has never said a single negative word about Bayern Munich." Later he told the Münchner Merkur newspaper, "No-one likes to see what happened there. The issue of ultras is relatively new for us."
Not that new, though. There have been self-designated German ultras since the early 90s. It is a term and a subculture adopted from Italy, and it means extremely passionate fans given to elaborate, choreographed stadium displays. But in the past season, there has been a growing sense that the German ultras are beginning to take their passions a little too far, and there is certainly a tendency among ultra groups to identify themselves as more authentic fans than mere "normal" fans.
The 'real' fans
Frankfurt's fans have been attracting particular attention in recent weeks - while Frankfurt's form tipped them into relegation, they staged pitch invasions and attacked opposing supporters.
The last game of the season provided a particularly ugly spectacle. The club faced champions Dortmund, and still had a chance of staying in the Bundesliga. In fact, at the moment Frankfurt took the lead in the 49th minute, the team looked safe.
That was when Frankfurt's ultras lit fireworks and flares in their part of the stands, prompting fears that the match would be abandoned and Frankfurt penalized. "At that point, their interest in a pyrotechnic show was above the interests of the club," says Michael Gabriel, head of KOS, a football fan youth organization. "The ultras accepted the possibility that the match would be abandoned and the team relegated."
Frankfurt's ultras have been particularly difficult to contain recently
Gabriel, who coordinates social projects with young fans, says this is characteristic of the ultras. "The ultras are often criticized for only being interested in themselves and their own image, and that the interests of the club - especially the sporting interests of the club - are less important," he told Deutsche Welle.
Gabriel also says that the ultras have become a well-rehearsed mass in the stadiums. "Someone stands there with a megaphone and leads the singing. And, significantly, he has his back to the game - he doesn't necessarily see what his happening on the pitch, but he sets the tone."
It's this intense passion and identity - regardless of the fortunes of the club - that have come to define the ultras.
But for football correspondent and author Raphael Honigstein, German ultras now have ambitions beyond well-honed songs and fierce pride. Now they also want a bigger say in how their club is actually run.
"What's new is that they've redefined what it means to be an ultra," he says. "It's moved beyond who can put on the best choreography for 90 minutes. Now, they feel like they have to protect the club even against those who are in charge of it. It's become more political, but you're talking about internal politics."
This season's primary example was Schickeria, again, who topped their attack on Neuer with a longer and more determined personal campaign against Bayern's all-powerful club President Uli Hoeness. Hoeness. Despite service to Bayern which goes back to 1970, he was deemed a traitor because he allegedly offered to help bail out the team's local rival 1860 Munich.
Football in utopia
Like many ultras, Schickeria have adopted a strong anti-commercialist philosophy, as expressed on their website: "Football has developed from a sport that brings people together to a 'business.' They prefer individual customers, who bring a lot of money into this new 'football show-business,' to free and independent fan groups."
Many fans would sympathize with this critique, but Honigstein suggests it hides a naive and unrealistic world view. "These guys pay 120 euros ($170) for their season tickets, because they are effectively subsidized by the club, who want that kind of passionate support, who want these people to be there," he says. "But that only works because Bayern then sell 5,000 or 8,000 corporate seats. For those fans to then have a go at the people who effectively pay for their cheap tickets is ridiculous. But they don't see it that way."
Clearing the air
Hoeness is now preparing to hold a round-table meeting with various fan organizations to confront such disputes. After a particularly bitter season, there are plenty of creases to iron out and hatchets to bury.
Hoeness has little patience with those who criticize his financial management
A rather startling video was once uploaded to Youtube which illustrates the row very well. Hoeness is sitting before a red background during the club's annual general meeting, next to an uncomfortable-looking Rummenigge. Suddenly he snaps and loses his temper at a group of fans who had apparently been heckling him. To boos, whistles and some applause, he scoffs bitterly and rages at their visions of footballing utopias, and their memories of golden ages when the game was innocent, tickets were cheap and all the spectators were non-corporate.
"Your awful atmosphere! You're responsible for that, not us!" he shouts. "So you don't want to play against Chelsea anymore? If that's what you want, you'll have to get a new board, because you won't do it with us!"
But that video is now four years old. It seems there are some arguments that just won't go away.
Author: Ben Knight
Editor: Matt Hermann