The enemy of my enemy is my friend
Later this week, I'll have a reading together with a friend of mine in a city called Hamm. I don't mention this to shamelessly advertise the event, since most of you won't have the means, the time or the inclination to leg it to the north-eastern edge of the Ruhr area on such short notice.
Rather, I mention this reading because of my friend. He is not a professional writer but has already published four books with a fifth in the making. (Gosh, he's got too much time on his hands, doesn't he?) In one way or another, the books all deal with the same football club. My friend is a Schalke fan.
Actually, that's why we're having the reading in the first place.
It's billed as a "literary derby". My friend will read stuff from his growing collection of Schalke-related tomes, while I consider selecting mid-90s pieces that appeared in the first Borussia Dortmund fanzine to go with more recent articles I have done about Dortmund's famous terrace, the South Stand, and the winger Reinhard Libuda, one of the men who played for both clubs.
People often marvel that we can do these readings together, but in the Ruhr area it's the rule rather than the exception that a friend of yours, a workmate, a neighbour, an in-law or sometimes even a blood relative will happen to support the wrong club.
That's because - though most fans from both sets don't like to hear it - the clubs are really pretty much alike and their fanbases not separated by class, status, religion, politics or origin, as is the case with many other regional rivalries the world over.
So it's possible, while not always easy, for a Dortmund fan to maintain a friendship with a Schalke fan. However, that is not the same thing - to finally get to the subject of this column - as supporters keeping a fan friendship.
I have read about fan friendships in other countries, particularly in Poland, but on a larger scale the phenomenon seems to be, or have been, a German phenomenon.
Fan friendships started in the 70s, blossomed in the early 80s - when it was absolutely de rigueur to be chummy with the supporters of at least one other club - and enjoyed a renaissance of sorts in the mid-90s, before they slowly died out, with a few notable exceptions, when a generation began to people the stands that didn't grasp the concept.
To be honest, the concept was fairly hard to grasp to begin with, as bonds were sometimes forged between the unlikeliest of clubs. When I grew up, Dortmund had a fan friendship with Hamburg and everyone knew this. It meant we always cheered when a Hamburg goal flashed across the scoreboard and many of us either wore a Hamburg scarf together with a Dortmund scarf or one of the ubiquitous friendship scarves, a bastard concoction that was half Dortmund, half Hamburg.
However, none of us knew whether or not there was a particular reason for this alliance. Dortmund and Hamburg were two tradition-laden clubs of roughly equal status, but this didn't seem to be a prerequisite for a fan friendship, as Bayern Munich had one with Bochum, Cologne with St. Pauli and Werder Bremen with Rot-Weiss Essen. No, the combinations appeared to be entirely arbitrary to the uninitiated. There were fan friendships between Hertha and Karlsruhe, Bayer Leverkusen and Kickers Offenbach, Duisburg and Eintracht Frankfurt.
The reason it was so hard to understand or map all the various fan friendships was that they had come about by accident. Some through rather innocent accidents, as when Cologne played away at St. Pauli on the last day of the 1977-78 season.
This was an infamous day, because Cologne had gone into the last round of games as the league leaders, level on points with Gladbach but a seemingly unassailable ten goals ahead of them. However, as the season's final afternoon unfolded, the news began to make the rounds that Gladbach were scoring goals against Dortmund suspiciously freely. With an hour gone, Cologne were holding a narrow 1-0 lead at St. Pauli, while Gladbach were already 7-0 up.
Although Cologne eventually added four more goals down the stretch to win the Bundesliga by just three goals, many fans felt there was something fishy about Dortmund's debacle, among them the St. Pauli supporters. Even though their team had been defeated (and relegated), they celebrated Cologne's title together with the travelling fans and this laid the foundation for a fan friendship that would survive into the 90s.
Most of the original fan friendships, however, had a less pleasant genesis. It almost always involved physical trouble, or the threat of it, leading to an initially uneasy coalition that would then be kept alive and nurtured by hooligan groups which quite liked the idea of having at least one away trip per season they could approach with something akin to relaxation.
In 1973, for instance, members of a Bochum fan club gave shelter to Bayern supporters who were being chased through downtown Bochum. Eight years later, Leverkusen fans travelled to Offenbach, near Frankfurt, for a cup game and were attacked by Frankfurt thugs. Since Kickers Offenbach and Eintracht Frankfurt are fierce rivals, the Kickers fans protected Bayer's support. Both incidents led to lasting fan friendships.
A similar story is probably behind the most famous German fan friendship of them all. There are quite a few accounts of how it came to be that Schalke and Nurnberg supporters joined hands and forces - a book on the subject published in 1992 lists no less than six different versions. But most of the stories agree that the year was 1980 and that the main protagonists were members of Schalke's "Gelsenszene" and Nuremberg's "Red Devils", two notorious hooligan firms.
The friendship then crossed over into the regular sections of the fan scene and became a truly massive thing. The two sets of supporters didn't just mingle freely when the two teams played each other, it also became a common sight to find Nuremberg fans supporting Schalke whenever that team played somewhere in the south or Schalke fans on the away stand when Nuremberg were in the western part of the country.
If anything, the Nuremberg-Schalke fan friendship became more popular and famous as the years went on, in no small part because the other friendships were slowly but surely petering out.
Maybe it played a role that the game became so gentrified in the 90s.
For one, this made the hooligan element a fringe aspect, so that the origins of many friendships were no longer passed down. Secondly, the new fans who suddenly filled the grounds liked the idea of fan friendships, but struck them up so quickly and in such confusingly great numbers that they lost all meaning.
And so fan friendships have generally become a thing of the distant past in the new century, a relic the knowledge of which marks you out as an old-timer. Four years ago, even the epitome of the phenomenon suffered a heavy blow: Schalke and Nurnberg met in the League Cup, when suddenly some of the younger Franconian fans started up the "You'll never win the league" chant Schalke supporters had heard so often - but never when playing Nurnberg. Things haven't been the same since.
However, that year - 2007 - wasn't entirely bad for the concept of fan friendships. Because it was also the year that a group of two dozen Liverpool fans finally made a trip to Gladbach to acknowledge a friendship that goes back to the 70s but was conducted rather under the radar, not to mention one-sidedly, until Gladbach supporters collected more than 20,000 Marks for the victims of the Hillsborough disaster.
And 2007 was also the year that the official FIFA website reported on the fan friendship between St. Pauli and Celtic that can be traced back to the late 80s (partly in response to a Rangers-Hamburg alliance). Like the Gladbach-Liverpool connection, it was at first a rather unilateral relationship, embraced much more passionately by the Germans. But that has changed over the years, as FIFA reported: "St. Pauli memorabilia in brown or black are a regular sight in the stands at Celtic Park - indeed, the Bhoys' official club superstores even stock a St. Pauli range."
Just do not expect a Schalke-Dortmund fan friendship to emerge any time soon. Not even our reading in Hamm will bring that about.