With a genuine Bundesliga title race on the cards, there is more excitement than usual on the pitch. But, as always, there will be just as much to keep an eye on in the stands, too.
Second-tier club Hamburg have signaled their intention to allow a "legal pyro show" at a home game in the second half of the season in what could mean a step towards breaking years of deadlock between fans, clubs and authorities.
According to Sport Bild, the German Football League (DFL), Football Association (DFB) and the City of Hamburg have given the green light for up to ten flares to be ignited in a secure zone between the pitch and terrace at the Volksparkstadion — potentially ahead of the visit of Karlsruhe on February 8.
Back in February 2019, HSV chairman Bernd Hoffman acknowledged that the use of pyrotechnics is a part of fan culture in Germany, but the club was on the receiving end of increasingly hefty fines. Last season alone, Hamburg were ordered to pay €294,000 ($326,000) for their fans' use of flares. This season, they almost matched that in just one game after receiving a €200,000 fine for incidents in the Hamburg derby away at St. Pauli in September (see picture above), a figure which has since been reduced to €140,000 on appeal.
The use of pyrotechnics by football supporters in Germany creates spectacle and controversy in equal measure on an almost weekly basis. Hardcore fans, particularly the well-organized ultras, see the use of flares and smoke bombs as a visual expression of their independent fan culture. Clubs, police, authorities and parts of the media view pyrotechnics as dangerous and criminal — although the police's own statistics routinely show that more people are injured at football matches by police pepper spray than by pyrotechnics.
The two camps seem irreparably entrenched, but there have been attempts to break the deadlock. In summer 2019, Bundesliga side Werder Bremen tested so-called "cold pyro," developed in Denmark, in the presence of security teams and fire service. The tests failed after it was found that the flares emitted noxious gasses and still burned at between 300 and 500 degrees Celsius (570-930 degrees Fahrenheit), depending on color. Regular flares can burn at up to 2,500 degrees Celsius.
Now, all eyes will be on Hamburg next month. Whether controlled or "cold," it remains to be seen whether supporters themselves will ever find "legal" pyrotechnics appealing.
Top of the league at the halfway stage, RB Leipzig have a genuine chance of breaking Bayern Munich's seven-year hold on the Bundesliga title. But while neutrals have been crying out for a proper title race and a serious challenge to the Bavarians, not all would have wanted it this way.
The rise of the Red Bull franchise from the fifth-tier Oberliga to the top of the Bundesliga over the past decade has been accompanied by protests of varying intensity at every level. From boycotts, banners and blockades to weed killer, a decapitated bull's head and even violent attacks on fans, RB have seen it all — and the protests show little sign of stopping.
On Saturday, Union Berlin visit the Red Bull Arena and the fans of the newly promoted side are planning a "funeral march" to the ground, dressed in black and remaining silent for 15 minutes as they "mourn" what they believe is the "death of football" in Leipzig.
Already this season, hardcore fans of both Bayern and Cologne have boycotted their teams' trips to Leipzig, while Borussia Dortmund supporters are also expected to stay away on matchday 33.
"Leave your politics at the turnstiles" is not an argument that will find a great deal of sympathy on most German terraces. Fans are often acutely aware of how football mirrors the society in which it takes place, warts and all.
Most German fan bases, particularly in the higher professional divisions, are outspoken on topics such as racism, sexism and homophobia in football. Some, like in Dortmund and Bremen, have literally taken the battle against right-wing extremism into their own hands, with the help of recognized fan organizations such as the Fan Projects.
Further down the pyramid, though, away from the glamour of the Bundesliga, football also provides a platform for those at the other end of the political spectrum, as recent events in Cottbus and Chemnitz have shown. Developments in German and European politics will continue to be reflected in football stadiums in 2020.
The controversial 2022 World Cup in Qatar is edging ever closer, and the Gulf State is also continuing to expand its influence in German football — much to the displeasure of some fans.
Nowhere is Qatar a bigger topic in the Bundesliga than at Bayern, who have been sponsored by Qatar Airways (and previously by Hamad Airport in Doha) since 2016 and who have just returned from a 10th consecutive winter training camp in the country.
Banners criticizing the club hierarchy for their dealings with Qatar, which is frequently criticized for its poor human rights record and exploitation of migrant workers, are a common sight at Bayern home games.
In the week before Bayern's first game of the year away at Hertha Berlin, 150 Bayern fans attended an event in Munich where a panel including two migrant workers discussed conditions in Qatar. The organizers, hardcore Bayern fans themselves, accused their club of turning a blind eye to the abuses.
"You're destroying our sport," is the chant which invariably rings out around any given German stadium these days whenever the video assistant referee (VAR) is called into action — even when a decision stands to benefit the fans' own team. In the second division, Stuttgart fans even carry their own "Scrap VAR!" banner with them at every game so they can display it should the need arise.
VAR has undoubtedly improved since its introduction in the Bundesliga in the 2017-18 season, with decisions being made quicker and – most of the time – correctly. Just like in the Premier League however, handball and offside decisions continue to cause controversy and confusion.
But for many match-going supporters in Germany, no amount of accuracy in VAR decision-making will ever be enough to compensate for the damage they claim is done to the atmosphere and experience in the stadium when waiting for the video assistant to reach a decision.
As it stands, VAR isn't going anywhere soon, and neither are the protests against it.
When Monday night fixtures were introduced in the Bundesliga in the 2018-19, there was outrage among match-going fans who complained at yet more unsociable kickoff times and a further splitting up of the matchday for the benefit of television.
Following hefty protests in Frankfurt, Dortmund and Mainz, the DFL agreed to scrap the five Monday night games when they negotiate the next TV broadcast deal, which will start in the 2021-22 season. In their place, and in place of the five 1:30 p.m. kickoffs on Sunday, the DFL will introduce 10 7:30 p.m. kickoffs on Sundays.
The U-turn represented a significant success for German fans, but the anti-Monday protests still look set to continue until fans are satisfied that they really are gone for good.