THE BLOG
24/02/2016 11:02 GMT | Updated 24/02/2017 05:12 GMT

Ultra Effective - Fans, Football and Anti-racism in Germany

Towards the end of a gritty German football league relegation battle earlier this month between Werder Bremen and TSG Hoffenheim, the home fans grew increasingly angry at the lack of quality against a side down to ten men. Two fans sitting in the ultra (die-hard fan) area tried to strike up a sexist chant. They were promptly removed from the stand by a group of ultras who handed them over to the stewards, explaining the nature of the chanting. The course of action for the well-trained stewards was clear: sexism is against the club's code of conduct, so the perpetrators were escorted off the premises. The club has a well-established system for such incidents. Young, first-time offenders will be approached by the club with the aim of education, fan engagement and admittance to future games. Serial offenders will find they are no longer welcome.

How many English football fans can hold a mirror up to this and honestly point to similar experiences at their clubs?

After the game we meet with Bremen ultras who have set up "Football fans against Antisemitism" - a fan initiative that links education about modern-day antisemitism and the Holocaust with football. Hundreds of young fans attend their lectures, discussion groups and film showings. How are they so popular?

Werder Bremen allows the group to use a space within the ground for their events, but it is the ultras themselves who run and advertise the sessions. Quite simply, the lure of being included with respected fans is enough of a draw for younger supporters to make the effort to access the education they offer. It is a dramatic reversal of conventional thinking on gang-culture.

Fan movements to promote inclusion and diversity in football contribute, alongside more reasonable ticket prices, to the Bundesliga having the highest average attendance in the world. That is not to say that German football does not have a problem with racism, sexism and homophobia, and the fans we meet are aware of the difficult political context in which they operate. The leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) may have called for German border police to shoot at refugees who enter the country illegally, but recent polls place the party as the third strongest in the country. At the three regional state elections in March the AfD look set for a strong showing, with the SPD fearing humiliation and widespread speculation that Merkel's CDU/CSU dominance is weakening.

The most successful initiatives against discrimination in German football - from the famous punks of St. Pauli to Bremen and beyond - may rely in part on the support of the clubs, but they are almost entirely fan-driven. Liverpool supporters recently proved that English fans share some of the sensibilities of their German counterparts: fans do not consider themselves to be clients purchasing a product, but a part of a community, a 'club' in the broadest sense. Given the leverage, they would make English football more accessible, more diverse and safer.

How could they grasp this leverage from the vast power of corporate clubs? Fans with plans need to be at the heart of a club: Government support and planning consent should be conditional on a fan-owned base within each club. The German model of fans owning top clubs may not be realistic, but if those clubs want to prove they are more than a business, and that they care are about supporters, they will give away some of their power to the fans upon which their identities have been built.