HSV fans set off pyrotechnics legally and under controlled conditions on Saturday - a first in German football. It may not be a long-term solution, but it shows the importance of dialogue between fans, clubs and police.
"Please refrain from setting off pyrotechnics, such devices have no place in a football stadium, you are damaging your own club."
The announcement is heard in football stadiums across Germany on an almost weekly basis, often with a resigned, weary tone, as if the announcer knows full well that his words will have no effect on the balaclava-clad ultras setting off flares and smoke bombs in the stands.
But on Saturday, as blue, white and black smoke billowed out from behind the goal at Hamburg's Volksparkstadion, there was no such warning after the German Football Association (DFB) granted permission for a one-off pyrotechnic display - a first in German football.
Ahead of kick-off in the second-division fixture against Karlsruhe, ten HSV ultras stood freely in the area between the goal and Nordkurve terrace, each holding a smoke bomb strapped to a stick
The devices were certified by Germany's federal institute for material research and testing (BAM), were similar to the smoke bombs used in theater productions, and the whole process was supervised by club stewards, the fire service and a pyrotechnics expert. Buckets of sand were also provided.
The experiment was a result of month-long discussions and test runs involving supporters, club and authorities in Hamburg following a year in which HSV, relegated from the Bundesliga for the first time in 2018, topped the list of fines issued to clubs for their fans' use of pyrotechnics.
But with fines having little effect on the club's ultras and active fan scene, who consider pyrotechnics to be an integral part of their fan culture, HSV opted for dialogue in an attempt to find a solution.
"In recent years, HSV have developed a really good basis for discussions with the active support," explains Ole Schmieder, from the HSV Fan Project, a pedagogical organization which works with young football fans in the community.
"Whether you find pyro good or bad is irrelevant. Fact is, it happens and we have to accept that. But why can't we find a new way of dealing with it? The surpsring thing is that the DFB agreed to go along with it."
In 2018, the DFB produced an official catalogue of punishments for the use of pyrotechnics and other indiscretions, whereby clubs would be fined €1,000 per flare in the Bundeslia and €600 per flare in Bundesliga 2. But supporters have criticized the "arbitrary" and "indiscriminate" issuing of fines which often end up being higher than the DFB's own guidelines.
"It's not the use of pyrotechnics which needs to be questioned, but the way the DFB deals with the issue," wrote HSV's "Castaways" ultras, who carried out the legal pyro display against Karlsruhe. "Our club has changed it mind: rather than general criminalization and and insane DFB fines, we're committed to a dialogue and a common solution."
HSV club chairman Bernd Hoffmann acknowledged officially in February that pyrotechnics are a part of fan culture in Germany, and the HSV ultras hope that this is just the beginning. "We want to get the ball rolling," they wrote. "We're confident that other clubs will follow our example."
'Prepared to try something different'
Whether legally authorized pyrotechnic shows will prove to be an acceptable solution for German ultras in the long term remains to be seen. After all, the rebellious nature of setting off illegal pyrotechnics could be lost when the devices are no longer prohibited.
"Let's be under no illusions: it's no substitute for the ultras' usual use of pyrotechnics," admits Ole Schmieder of the HSV Fan Project. "But it does show that they are prepared to try something different.
"The fan scene already puts a lot of energy into things which aren't banned: flags, banners, songs, choreographies. They are also integral elements of fan culture which haven't been given up just because they are legal. Being an active supporter isn't just about engaging in illegal activities."
Despite local police in Hamburg authorizing the display, the German police union GdP still expressed concerns that such displays could make officers' work on matchdays more difficult. "In our experience, many ultras tend to reject officially organized atmosphere outright," read a statement. "We consider the DFB concessions not only naive but also extremely risky."
'Not rioting or hooliganism'
Club officials at HSV, on the other hand, say that they are not so "naive" as to think that a permanent solution has now been found, but they are also cautiously positive.
"I don't think that the ultras are now going to stop using pyrotechnics illegally," fan liaison officer Cornelius Göbel told the Süddeutsche Zeitung. "But it leaves room for discussions and compromise."
That approach is surely preferable to the current situation which has seen the various parties increasingly entrenched on the issue. If the authorities' approach so far has shown one thing, it's that the fans are simply not going to stop using pyrotechnics.
As Schmieder points out, pyrotechnics have an energizing effect on fans, boosting the atmosphere and helping to push the team on the pitch.
"When you're stood in an away end, it's not just the ultras who get louder and more motivated by the use of pyro," he insists. "This phenomenon really does exist, it gives people a boost. You can't just dismiss it as rioting or hooliganism."