Thursday, September 12, 2013

Football, Violence and the Police

A debate about violence in football stadiums in Germany has been going on for some time, now. An police report stated that the number of people injured had increased significantly. At the same time a media campaign was launched to get rid of pyrotechnics at games. This included the burning clothes live on TV to illustrate the dangers, but to my knowledge no person that was actually injured by a flare in a stadium could be found. Then, few weeks ago, during the Champions League qualification game between Schalke 04 and PAOK, a police action against Schalke fans sparked an outcry, and now has escalated even further.

Some Schalke fans showed a Macedonian flag, which according to the German police might have provoked a pitch invasion by the PAOK fans. According to the parliament document (German pdf), some PAOK fans blackmailed the police with this threat:

[The PAOK fans] demanded that the flag has to be removed. Otherwise they would invade the pitch and remove it themselves.
This happened around the tenth minute of the game. The Ultras were not willing to remove the flag after they had been asked to do so several times. To prevent "considerable dangers" for the fans the police then decided to enter the Schalke stand; and remove the flag themselves. This action resulted in 80 fans, two red cross workers, and two police officers injured. The Schalke fans were absolutely calm before the police action started.All of those injured will be used in next years police report on violence in stadiums to demonstrate that the fans are getting more and more violent.

No spectators were allowed during the second leg due to previous misconduct by PAOK ultras. The persons responsible at Schalke voiced their displeasure about the way the the action was conducted. To which the police union person Wendt, who is well known for rather controversial positions like the support of racial profiling, and his rather interesting understanding of basic rights, which he demonstrated by calling citizens, who sued against a law, terrorists (he earned himself an award for the ugliest word of the year for that), answered in the only way he could to deescalate the situation: "shut up!"

Today, the social democrat minister of the interior in the state NRW Ralf Jäger decided that police would from now on not help protect the fans at the Veltins Arena (Schalke stadium) anymore and instead they will from now on wait outside, in what must be considered a successful attempt to look as childish as possible. Also this move is most likely not even legal, since the police cannot just decide to not do their job anymore because their feelings were hurt by criticism; and if they do so then they have to act the same way in all stadiums. Of course, Wendt supports this move.

This is not the first time that a police action has provoked a massive backlash from football clubs in Germany. Last year FC Augsburg president said that the behavior of the USK (unit to be used during extreme riots) after a game between Fürth and Augsburg was "aggressive, provocative, and therefore counterproductive".

But, Germany has neither a fan nor a police violence problem, but the complete lack of an error culture and competence in both the police unions and some ministries of the interior in some states might cause that many football fans will see the police as a foe and danger and not a "friend and helper", which the police wants to be and for the most part actually is. Police getting blackmailed into an action over some flag is absolutely unacceptable.

I am neither for pyrotechnics nor is violence by fans aceptable, but the media campaign and the behavior by police union and government officials in the aftermath of this incident is not helpful. It has damaged both football as a brand and the image of those police officers who work hard to uphold the law. 18.7 million people attended games of first and second Bundesliga in the season 2011/2012. 1142 people were injured, including those by pepper spray, for example. Media should not have pretended that there is a violence problem in football stadiums. In fact, going to a game in Germany is  a safe and very affordable way to spend a Saturday afternoon. Let's keep it that way. Which means that the fans should take down that stupid flag when asked to and the police really, really needs to work hard to implement a culture that accepts that errors do in fact happen, then admits that they happened, and makes sure they don't happen again.

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