I spent the larger part of Monday evening reading an article in a monthly magazine and then checking the reactions across various message boards. The magazine's cover, almost solely devoted to this one story, depicts your classic prohibition sign, with the diagonal line crossing a megaphone. Below that are the words "Silence, please!" and then: "How ultras are ruining the atmosphere on German fan stands."
Since this column is directed at non-Germans, and probably even at non-continental Europeans, you'll need a bit of background before we come to the piece in question.
First, the magazine. It's called "11 Freunde", which translates as "11 Friends". The unusual name refers to a 1955 boys' novel about football, written by the journalist Sammy Drechsel - "You ought to be eleven friends". (The phrase itself is much older, though.)
"11 Freunde" describes itself as a "magazine for football culture", and while I'd hesitate to compare it to "When Saturday Comes", this is certainly the kind of tradition and mindset the publishers aspire to, very often successfully. The mag is now in its eighth season and I guess I'm not stepping on any toes when I say it's broken through to the mainstream and is both professional and respected.
I still have the first ten issues safely tucked away in a box in the attic (no unsolicited bids, please!), because I didn't think the magazine would survive for very long. Well, I was wrong, as "11 Freunde" went monthly in 2002 or so and is now available from almost every half-decent newsagent.
Second, the ultras. If you're from the US or the UK, you will in all likelihood not be closely familiar with this particular group of football fans. And if you're loosely familiar, you'll probably think of Italian ultras, who don't exactly have the best of reputations.
So, let me first say that German ultras are different from their Italian counterparts in that the element of violence and right-wing politics - which has given some groups in Italy (and Spain and some parts of what used to be called Eastern Europe) a bad name - is virtually non-existent. Meaning, as a rule, they are no hooligans and no fascists.
But German ultras do follow the Italian model in that they adhere to a fixed code of honour. They aim towards a vocal and continuous support of their team regardless of what happens on the pitch, which is why they use a so-called Capo, someone with a megaphone who leads the chants. They invest an awful lot of time and money to prepare and then organise the colourful choreographies which look so good on television. (I rarely see them in action because you can't when you're on the very stand on which they are being orchestrated.)
The two most important defining elements, however, may be that an ultra group has a very strong sense of itself as a group, a tightly-knit unit, and that it, regardless of its allegiance to a particular club, is ultra-critical (no pun intended) of the commercialisation of the game.
Most ultras I know don't buy any official club merchandise but create their own fan gear. They will happily organise a twenty-hour roundtrip to see a derby in Austria's second division but hardly ever watch football on television. They would rather stay away from the ground than sit down during a match. They do, at times, clash with other ultra groups (stealing a banner has become some sort of pastime) but their main enemy are the police and other forces they see as repressive.
In the mid-to-late 90s, when the ultra movement took off at German grounds, it was widely considered a much-needed breath of fresh air. And it's true that things had gone pretty stale at that time. The classic 1970s and early 80s German football fan - known as 'the Habit', from the nickname for the sleeveless jean jacket he would plaster with patches and proudly wear over his clothes on match days - had been made to look anachronistic by the gentrification of the game. It had all become too posh for him and, since he was usually too old to change his ways, he either stayed home or, if he went, suffered it all with silent resignation.
There were also, at least that's how I perceived it, less and less young people coming to the games. It's not that they had been priced out of the game (as happened in England), so I guess they just didn't find the communal excitement anymore that once lured us onto the terraces as much as the game on the pitch below. But the ultra movement brought a lot of that back, and with it a new, younger set of fans.
So, what kind of problem does "11 Freunde" have with ultras? Well, to cut five and a half pages of magazine text short, the situation reminds me of a chat I had many years ago with Tim Warren, the man who started Crypt Records. At one point he complained about the state of punk, saying: "It started out to teach you there are no rules, there is no elite and we need change. And now there are more rules than we've ever had before and an elitist clique is just endlessly going through the motions."
Correspondingly, "11 Freunde" basically bemoans that ultras have become less interested in support than self-staging, that their constant chanting is stupefying rather than exhilarating, that they have become so self-centred and cliquish they won't even take up songs started by non-ultras and that their orchestrated approach kills off anything that is spontaneous.
I can follow many of those arguments. In fact, in mid-2003 I was interviewed by a Dortmund online fanzine and a few of their questions concerned my view of the ultras. The links are still alive, so I don't have to trust my memory to report that I said one reason the ultras don't find universal acceptance is that "many people have an aversion to choreographies of any kind", adding that I myself never even hold up those coloured cards distributed by ultras which are meant to form a giant picture or whatever when the teams come out of the tunnel. I also said I prefer "something spontaneous, to something that has been rehearsed".
Yet that was not meant to criticise ultras, just to explain why not everyone joins in when they do their thing. When I was asked whether the ultra movement was doomed to remain a subculture, I replied: "What's wrong with subcultures? I don't think the ultras would want their shtick to become a fashionable trend followed by half of the whole stand."
Football is many things to many people. Just as there is no right and no wrong way of playing it, there is also no right and no wrong way of watching it. If your main motivation for attending a game is to get drunk and hurl abuse at the ref, well, that's a time-honoured way of doing things as long as you don't hurt anyone. And if you go to a game primarily to be with your peer group, follow a ritual and sing along to a guy with a megaphone, well, I don't mind either.
Perhaps it's true that what was once an exciting and lively new subculture has now become static. But that's what happens with subcultures. If it's indeed as bad as "11 Freunde" says, then people will either re-invent the whole thing or will one day move on and start up something else. Some, of course, will stay and become the equivalent of, er, the Exploited.