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Dec 8, 2012

Fighting for your right to party

If you've watched a Bundesliga match live on television during the past fortnight, or perhaps this weekend, you may have noticed an eerie silence during the opening stages of the games.

At almost every ground in the upper echelons of the German game, not just the top flight, both sets of fans kept quiet for the first twelve minutes and twelve seconds.

It was, and is, in the truest sense of the word a silent protest at a collection of new regulations the league will vote on next Wednesday (which is December 12, hence the duration of the silence).

The fans consider the proposed regulations a rush job, pieced together by league and German FA officials under pressure from politicians who demand a clampdown on fan trouble. They are also annoyed that the fans themselves were not heard when the proposals were drawn up. Finally, they regard the whole thing as unfair and excessive.

The brochure that collects the proposed regulations, such as cutting the number of tickets reserved for away fans in half, is called Safe Stadium Experience. The fans say that this is a misleading, populist title, because German stadia are already safe and nobody who attends games feels unsafe.

No matter which side you take in this struggle, what never fails to amaze is the solidarity that exists among German supporters, regardless of the club they follow or the level of the game they watch their football at. Even the organisers of the campaign themselves weren't sure if their appeal would be heeded at every ground, by every fan group. But it was.

I guess this can be traced back to a summer 19 years ago. And it had to do with a game between Germany and England that was scheduled for April 1994 but ultimately never happened.

The match was supposed to be played in Hamburg to help national coach Berti Vogts prepare his team for the 1994 World Cup. Few people in Hamburg were really happy about this, because back then the England team still had the reputation of being followed by thugs and it was feared the game would attract hooligans from all over Germany.

Then there was the date. The game was scheduled for 20 April, Adolf Hitler's birthday. Since parts of Hamburg, most notably St. Pauli, were known for their sizable left-wing and anarchist communities, a considerable neo-fascist and right-wing element would come to Hamburg on that day to challenge the squatters and activists.

Now imagine all these groups descending on the city at the same time. Eight months before the game, fans from many clubs, not only St. Pauli, formed a pressure group that demanded the game be cancelled. The debate raged for many weeks, then Hamburg's Senator of the Interior Werner Hackmann put his foot down. In January, he called off the game. He said that between 2,000 and 2,500 policemen would have been needed to ensure safety around the stadium alone and that it was his duty to avert damage from the city.

The German FA decided to move the game to Berlin (no, I'm not making this up), but with two weeks left, Sir Bert Millichip, then the FA chairman, announced England would pull out of the match.

By that time the pressure group had been christened BAFF (which stood for Association of Anti-Fascist Fan Clubs and Fan Initiatives) and was now also targeting broader issues, such as racist chanting at games. But there was already another threat on the horizon, namely the proposed introduction of all-seater grounds.

In late November, BAFF organised a demonstration in front of the German FA's headquarters in Frankfurt to show the governing body that supporters from all walks of life and all kinds of clubs wanted to preserve standing areas. All through the next year, 1995, the commercialisation of the game became the most pressing concern, which is why BAFF decided to tone down the political angle and rename itself in early 1996. It now became the Alliance of Active Football Fans.

I attended the meeting in Oer-Erkenschwick, a city some 15 miles northeast of Gelsenkirchen, when the name change was made final. I wasn't there as a BAFF member, though, merely as an interested onlooker and accompanying the representatives of a Borussia Dortmund fanzine I would soon begin to contribute to.

The most amazing thing was not how smart, funny and articulate everybody was, the most amazing thing was how well they all got along. As we stood there, chatting and joking with the Schalke and Bochum guys (and girl), somebody from Cologne came up to us and said: "When we organised the meeting, we thought we would have to separate the Schalke and the Dortmund people, but it seems that's unnecessary."

It was unnecessary because these supporters had the same goal, they wanted to keep ticket prices down and save the terraces, at every club and in every city, not just at their own ground. This ability to think outside your own box, a skill that doesn't come naturally to football fans, has been in evidence numerous times since.

In the summer of 2001, for instance, the pay-TV station which held the rights to Bundesliga live games - then called Premiere World, now Sky Germany - was unhappy with the number of subscribers it was attracting. The reason, Premiere felt, was that highlights from all Saturday games were shown on terrestrial television as early as 18:30, roughly an hour after the games had ended.

This free-TV football show, called 'ran', aired on Sat.1, a station that was part of the same media group as Premiere World. In an effort to make subscriptions more attractive, 'ran' was moved back to 20:15. BAFF, by then some 4,000 members strong, called for a boycott of both Premiere World and the new time slot for 'ran'.

This was an even longer shot than the current "12:12" campaign, because the fans represented by BAFF were overwhelmingly people who watched games at the grounds and they were now trying to reach out to the 4.7 million people who tuned in to 'ran', many of whom were so-called armchair fans who rarely, if ever, attended games in person.

When the first 'ran' show in the new time slot was aired, only 2.2 million viewers watched it, less than half what Sat.1 was used to. A week later, the figure sunk to 2 million and by the third Saturday, it was down to 1.7 million. The show's host Jorg Wontorra said "I'm speechless", the weekly political magazine Focus headlined "The Vanishing Fan", the game's sponsors voiced their displeasure at the plummeting ratings and the Bundesliga's chief executive Michael Pfad declared: "We have to solve this problem quickly."

After just one month, Sat.1 moved the show back to an earlier slot, 19:00, and immediately 4.3 million viewers tuned in again.

Naturally, German fans aren't always that successful. At around the same time, an initiative called "15:30" was formed (the name refers to the kick-off time on Saturdays that Germans have become used to since the mid-1960s), which opposed the spreading of games across weekends, with many different kick-off times.

That, too, garnered widespread support, because kick-off times are always an issue in a country like Germany, where many, many fans follow their teams to away games. In March 2001, some 20,000 people at Munich's old Olympic Stadium held up coloured boards that formed the message "15:30" during a game between Bayern and Bremen.

Yet the success of this campaign is debatable. At the time of writing, there are only five games per regular matchday that kick off at 15:30 on a Saturday. But I guess you can't win them all.

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