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May 14, 2011

Dating the fans

There has been a lot of talk about fans over here during recent weeks and months. Sometimes because of what they did in the stands (such as when Bayern fans held up banners the club didn't like), sometimes because of what they did at the training ground (Cologne supporters left some graffiti that threatened their own players with bodily harm), sometimes because of what they did on the pitch (Frankfurt fans invaded the field against Cologne earlier this month).

So it was somehow fitting that I appeared on a local radio show last Tuesday to talk, in the broadest sense, about the role of the fans. One of my points was that people who watch football for a living, meaning journalists, usually know very little about the people whose life is watching football, meaning fans. Another one was that football clubs usually know very little about the people who support football clubs.

Journalists tend to cover fans only when they cause trouble. That's understandable, because that's how journalism works, yet it leads to a distorted image. When, for instance, a section of Bayern's support brandished those banners that attacked first Schalke 'keeper Manuel Neuer and then their own president Uli Hoeness, a lot of coverage was given to the reactions of the Bayern honchos, but very little was written about the background.

(Which, if you allow me one of my trademark rambling asides, also meant the mainstream media missed one of the great, smart, subtle ripostes of the season. Referring to the anti-Neuer protests, Hoeness told a Munich newspaper: "This was the first time in many, many years that a guest was treated so terribly here." With a touch of bitterness, he added: "This is not my Bayern Munich." To which a fan replied via a message board: "You are absolutely right, Uli. This is not your Bayern Munich.")

Clubs, meanwhile, tend to hobnob with supporters only when it serves to either illustrate how down-to-earth or how tradition-laden they are. But since they don't really know the world of the fans, this can lead to embarrassing situations.

Let me illustrate this with a story I told on that radio show, albeit in an off-the-cuff manner, and missing the dates and details I couldn't instantly recall on the air.

In the mid-noughties, a book about the history of VfL Bochum was published. Six pages in that book were devoted to the club's fans - well, only five pages really, because one carried only a large photo. The chapter pointed out that a fan club called 'Bochumer Jungen' - Bochum boys - was the longest established in Germany, saying that was why then-club president Werner Altegoer attended the fan club's 30th birthday party in 2002.

Then, in March of 2007, VfL Bochum started an image campaign entitled "We are Bochum - We are VfL!" to underline the close links between the club, the city and its people. VfL drew special attention to their support, saying: "The oldest German fan club is celebrating 35 years of existence. You can't imagine the history of VfL and the city of Bochum without the Bochumer Jungen, who are still an active part of our club's fan scene. VfL is proud of its fans and especially proud of having the oldest German fan club."

For the rest of that season, the posters that advertised Bochum games said "35 Years of Bochumer Jungen" in bold letters and also: "We are proud of Germany's oldest fan club."

The fan club known as Bochumer Jungen was formed in mid-May of 1972, at the instigation, incidentally, of the man who was then also the club's press officer. That means Bochumer Jungen came into being exactly one month after a group of Hamburg supporters had come together - as far as I know in Bispingen, a town 30 miles south of Hamburg - to found 'Rothosen', the first HSV fan club.

In February 1972, two months before Rothosen was founded and three months before the birth of Bochumer Jungen, a group of Hertha fans - among them former player Wolfgang Holst, who would later become the football club's president - created the first Hertha fan club. These days it is usually referred to as Hertha BSC Fan Club 1972 to distinguish it from all the clubs that came later.

And another month earlier, on January 2, 1972, nine Gladbach supporters met in a pub in Nettetal, 15 miles northwest of Monchengladbach, to form the first Borussia fan club. It was named after the pub and thus carries the unusual moniker Den Tuddel to this day. (That's a dialect expression meaning ... whatever. I'm not from the Rhineland.)

So that makes three fan clubs that were formed in the first few months of 1972 alone, before the Bochumer Jungen set up their club. And even these are by no means the oldest ones in the land.

One and a half years after VfL Bochum plastered the city with posters making that daring claim about the Bochumer Jungen being the very first fan club, a Dortmund supporters' club from Iserlohn, a city 20 miles southeast of Dortmund, celebrated its 40th birthday with a big party. The club was formed in 1968 by 32 supporters, and almost half of them were women - quite unusual for the times, I suspect.

Yet even this venerable club isn't the oldest. There is an 1860 Munich supporters' club from Dingolfing, which lies some 70 miles northeast of Munich, that dates from 1965. It was formed by seven 1860 fans, then in their mid-20s, and named after a local district called Frauenbiburg.

In September of 2005 - two years before the Bochum posters appeared! - the 40th anniversary of this club's foundation drew a visit from Wolfgang Hauner, then 1860's vice president. It would have been understandable had Hauner said that the Frauenbiburg supporters were quite probably the oldest fan club in Germany. But he didn't. He went much further.

"It fits 1860's tradition very well," Hauner declared during his address, "that we have the oldest football fan club in the world!"

Need it be said that this outlandish claim is rubbish too? I'm aware of at least one still-active fan club that predates the 1860 one by many years - a Manchester United supporters' club that was founded in 1959 by a man called John Calleja in, of all places, Malta. Calleja actually sent a letter to Matt Busby, asking for permission to form such a club. Busby's reply in the affirmative arrived on February 24, 1959.

Is this the oldest fan club in the world? I don't know - though I like the idea, mainly because this club sprang up in such an unlikely place - and I surely won't make any guesses, let alone claims. But I'd like to suggest that the next time journalists or football clubs make an assertion about fans, even if they don't put them on posters, they first look into the matter.

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