There aren't many words more associated with rowdy football supporters in the English language than "hooligans."
Hooligans were once associated with spontaneous bursts of violence in cities where their club or national team was playing, often under the influence of excessive alcohol or illicit drugs. However, this is far from being true of modern-day hooligans, many of whom have a healthy lifestyle, avoid alcohol consumption and train in martial arts, specifically, the full-contact martial arts genre known as mixed martial arts (MMA).
While the ultras, the dominant supporter subculture in Europe's stadiums over the past 20 years, are known to be of different political affiliations, large parts of the hooligan scene are on the political right. Eastern Europe is known to be the home for some of the most notorious hooligan groups.
Fighting on neutral ground
Violent incidents involving hooligans have all but disappeared from Western Europe's football stadiums, but that's not to say they disappeared altogether. Hooligan groups, known to be well networked to each other, now practice their violence in so-called "field matches," where groups of hooligans meet in an area far away from any stadium or city center. The rules and the number of participants from each group are determined in advance. After a short fight, one team is determined to be the winner. Then the two teams often take photos together, as a mark of respect. The footage is then posted on social media or uploaded to hooligan websites.
Robert Claus is a fan researcher and author. His 2017 book Hooligans: A world between football, violence and politics sheds light on the scene and the connections of some of its members to the far-right, in Germany and beyond.
While there are no official figures, Claus estimates the number of hooligans in Germany to be in the low thousands. The author says the so-called "matches" became a central part of the hooligan scene in the early 2000s.
"Hooliganism has developed from poorly organized street fights to an international network of martial arts and business. The variety of events, clothing brands and gyms prove it," he told DW, while emphasizing it wouldn't be right to generalize everyone in the MMA scene as far-right extremists.
German blog Runter von der Matte (get off the mat) documents the connections between MMA fighters and the far-right scene, with the motto: "Look closely, address the issue, get off the mat! No handshakes with Nazis!"
Among the events in which Germany's hooligan structures have shown their ability to mobilize are the 2014 Hooligans Against Salafists march in Cologne and the 2018 far-right marches in the city of Chemnitz.
Claus thinks that in order to deal with the issue, a change in approach is needed.
"The ultras take too much of the authorities' focus, in my view. For years, they ignored the professionalism of hooliganism, which was also pushed by far-right elements," he said.
Green Party call for action
Monika Lazar, is a member of the Bundestag and the Green Party's spokesperson on sports-related issues. She told DW that the authorities have been ignoring the matter for too long.
"We've been following the professionalization of far-right extremists' violence with great worry," she said. According to Lazar, the federal government must act against what she sees as a "dangerous phenomenon," as part of which neo-Nazis have made establishing networks of gyms, events and fashion labels part of their business model.
"The German government barely has any idea of what happens with the money that flows into the pockets of far-right extremists as a result of their activity in the mixed martial arts scene," Lazar said." The same is true for the connections between far-right figures from Germany to those on the international level, especially those in Eastern Europe."
A possible solution, Lazar argues, would be to establish a nationwide program to raise awareness of the dangers of far-right extremism in the MMA scene. She also says the overnment should consider imposing rules on who is allowed to operate a martial-arts studio in the country, something that is currently largely unregulated.
"In France, for example, there's a licensing progress in place for martial arts studios, which could deter far-right extremists," Lazar said.
Safer in the stadiums
However, while hooligans may be becoming more professional in their activities, going to football matches has actually become safer. The Central Information Office Sport Operations (ZiS) collects data related to police operations at football games in the country's leagues. According to ZiS' data, collected on a seasonal basis since 1999-2000, the number of people recorded as either potentially violent or as actively looking for violence in relation to matches in Germany's top four tiers of football stood at 17,164 in 2018-19. The report also says that of these, about 240 people were categorized as "right-wing motivated," whereas some 130 people were deemed to be "left-wing motivated." To put these figures into perspective, Germany's top three divisions alone had a combined attendance of 22 million in 2018-19.
The data indicates a clear trend. The number of criminal cases related to football games in Germany's top two divisions in 2018-19 was at a 12-year low. The number of injuries recorded was 874, the second-lowest number in the past six seasons, out of which 359 are defined as "uninvolved." With 18.9 million people attending games in those two leagues that season, the chances of getting injured at a football game was negligible.
Nicole Selmer is the editor-in-chief of Austrian football magazine Ballesterer and an expert on football violence. According to Selmer, the game has come a long way in the last 30 years, with the clubs' professionalization, increasing amounts of revenue and increasing media coverage being among the reasons for the trend.
"Things have significantly improved, we're talking about completely different situations," she said.
'Banned people don't disappear'
Despite this, headlines in Germany often suggest otherwise, with the phrase "a new dimension of violence" having become familiar to German football fans due to its frequent use by the media. Selmer believes the false impression stems from football's ever-growing role in German society.
"In contrast to previous decades, football is no longer a matter for the sports section (of the newspaper) only. It's politics, it's culture, and that's a good thing. But it means it's much more in people's focus," Selmer explained.
When it comes to violence prevention, Selmer thinks the role of the social-work institution known as the Fanprojekt cannot be overstated, also due to the knowledge its employees have with regards to fan culture. This cannot be said about the authorities, Selmer argues.
"You must be able to tell the difference of where the conflict comes from. A violent incident between fans and the police is not the same as an incident between far-right supporters and left-wing ultras, and that's something that the authorities, and sometimes even the clubs, are having a hard time with," she said.
While football clubs, police and the authorities often issue stadium banning orders to fans found guilty of carrying out violence, Selmer questions the long-term effects of such tactics, and expects repression against football fans to have repercussions.
"When you ban people from the stadium, that doesn't make them disappear," she said. "They'll just be somewhere else, instead."