Football fans in Germany are renowned for being well organized. But only in the last ten years has it become apparent that this quality could help provide legal help to fans in need of assistance.
The structures currently in place are supported by those who give their time, energy and knowledge in order to inform match-going supporters about their civil rights.
Lawyer group started a trend
Angela Furmaniak is a long-practicing lawyer based in the southwest of Germany.
She tells DW of a time in which there was little legal assistance available to fans who needed it. "When I started working with supporters almost ten years ago, I noticed that the repressive measures applied against them by the authorities were stronger than I thought," she recalls.
The first action of its kind was the Fanrechtefonds, (a fan rights fund). It was started in 2006 by active supporters and legal experts to collect money in order to financially back fans' legal defense in specific cases which are of interest to other fan groups.
Then, in 2010, Furmaniak was among the initiators of a Germany-wide group of law experts who provide legal help to football fans on a voluntary basis. They became known as the AG Fananwälte (a fan lawyers' working group). "I was under the impression that the way football fans handle their legal cases needs to be urgently professionalized," she said. The group currently consists of eleven lawyers, based in different parts of Germany.
As time went by, more and more local legal aid groups were established in cities across Germany and most Bundesliga clubs now have them. The concept differs from one location to the other, and so does the level of legal expertise the group's volunteers possess. But the idea remains the same: providing legal and financial help to supporters facing proceedings.
Doing instead of complaining
One of those groups is Kölsche Klüngel, a phrase in the local dialect that refers to people from Cologne helping each other mutually. Started in its current form in 2013, the group provides legal assistance to FC Cologne fans. In a conversation with DW, two of the group's volunteers recall how it began. Their names were altered at their request.
Steffi joined the group right from the start after "seeing how unfairly football fans are being treated."
Steffi's colleague, Axel, has volunteered since 2015. He too says he decided to become active due to the treatment football fans receive from the authorities. "You can't just complain that something isn't right without doing something about it. The Kölsche Klüngel is a great way for us to do that," he tells DW.
Contact with other groups
Steffi and Axel tell of close cooperation between Kölsche Klüngel and similar groups, including those of rivals Borussia Mönchengladbach and Fortuna Düsseldorf. Axel explains that all sides see added value in working together with counterparts from the region, due to all of them being "affected by the same issues". Steffi adds that, despite the fierce footballing rivalries, "the greater good is much more important".
One of Kölsche Klüngel's closest partners is Borussia Dortmund's legal aid group, Fanhilfe Dortmund (Fan help Dortmund). Stefan Witte, a lawyer based in the city, has been a member of the group since it was established a year ago. Witte tells DW that fans previously chose not to pursue legal justice due to the lack of structured legal aid, even in cases they had good chances of winning. "That didn't feel fair to me," he says.
Witte argues the importance of the networking between legal aid groups, as well as with the AG Fananwälte, cannot be underestimated, with the differences in laws in different German states an important factor.
Matchday structures in place
While Kölsche Klüngel was started by people with little to no legal experience, the situation is different in Dortmund. Many of the volunteers have some sort of legal expertise, from law students to practicing lawyers.
Legal aid groups are also in operation on matchdays, providing help at both home and away games. The groups also keep fans up to date about recent legal developments that could affect them. Every group has its own emergency contact, which fans can call should they need legal assistance. The emergency phone number is often available to away supporters, too. Both Borussia Dortmund and FC Cologne praise the good cooperation between organizations from different clubs.
Cooperation put to the test
One case that affected both the FC Cologne and Borussia Dortmund groups was a defamation lawsuit by Hoffenheim owner Dietmar Hopp. Official complaints were lodged by Hopp against fans of both clubs. The reason for the complaint was a fan chant labeling him a "son of a whore."
Hopp has been criticized by opposition fans for more than a decade over his ownership of TSG Hoffenheim and what many fans perceive as his contribution to the over-commercialization of the game in Germany. Steffi and Axel stress the idea was never about insulting him personally but to "criticize the construct that is Hoffenheim."
While several Borussia Dortmund fans were ordered to pay fines of between €400 ($450) and €600 by the local court in Sinsheim, two of the Cologne fans sued were recently acquitted, with the help of both AG Fananwälte's Tobias Westkamp and the Kölsche Klüngel.
Stefan Witte confirmed to DW that the team of legal experts representing the group of Borussia Dortmund fans are determined to appeal the verdict after heavily criticizing the Sinsheim court's handling of the case. "We'll take this further until someone hears us out," Witte says.
"Ideally, we wouldn't be needed"
Football fans in Germany are subjected to growing pressure from the authorities. Numerous German states have introduced extensive new police laws, while several state interior ministers have recently taken a stance against match-going supporters.
Angela Furmaniak describes current relations between fans and the police as being "in a very bad place." Representatives of legal aid groups from both Cologne and Dortmund believe recent developments will mean more work for them in the future.
According to Witte, these developments would mean that the work of legal aid groups becomes "ever more important." Kölsche Klüngel's Axel agrees.
"In an ideal world, our wouldn't be needed. We hope things will get better, but we're worried this won't be the case."