Football fan projects
Social work to combat extremist tendencies

Targeting violence and racism
Targeting violence and racism | Photo (detail): © Steve Seiffert (CBpx)

​While many Germans love football, radical fans repeatedly cause ugly scenes. To combat this, football associations and politicians across Germany are pinning their hopes on fan projects.

It is the 27th of May, 2018. After two years in the fourth division, FC Energie Cottbus has been promoted back into the professional football league. And yet horrifying scenes are unfolding on Altmarkt square in Cottbus. While fans of this Brandenburg club celebrate and make merry, a number of men pull Ku Klux Klan-style hoods over their heads and hold up a banner bearing the inscription “The Rise of Evil” – an allusion to the rise of Adolf Hitler. Shortly afterwards, the photo did the rounds on the Internet. The club immediately distanced itself from the action and issued a press statement, describing it as “inhumane, repugnant and in no way tolerable”. 

Outreach social work with football fans

Sven Graupner agrees. A social worker, he has been involved in the Cottbus fan project for many years. He firmly believes that right-wing extremist fans of FCE account for only “a very small minority”. Which makes it all the more frustrating for Graupner that the club keeps hitting the headlines “because a handful of idiots are ruining the wonderful atmosphere here”. And yet, as he goes on to say, the ugly scenes on Altmarkt square were over in just a few seconds – the hooded men were well aware “that the great majority of the fans would disapprove of their behaviour”.

It is partly thanks to the fan project that radical tendencies are not embraced by the majority of FC Energie fans. Supported by the Youth Welfare Service, the project has been running since 1998. Its goal is to give young football fans a positive self-image and to tackle violence, racism and discrimination. It is based on the “outreach” principle of social work: Graupner and his three colleagues not only attend all home and away games, but also carry out civic education activities. “It is a question of strengthening the democratic centre among the fans.”

Projects in 59 places around Germany

There are now projects like the one in Cottbus in 59 cities and municipalities in Germany. They are mainly based in towns whose local football team is in the Bundesliga or in the second and third leagues. The basis for the projects is the “National Concept for Sport and Safety” (NKSS) – a late response to the 1985 disaster at Heysel Stadium in Brussels when 39 people were killed during a European Cup Final between FC Liverpool and Juventus Turin. However, it was not until 1991, when hundreds of Dynamo Dresden fans ran riot to such an extent during a European Cup game against Red Star Belgrade that the match was almost aborted, that the subject of fan violence could no longer be played down. The NKSS was adopted a short time later – its goal being to convey “democratic and humanitarian principles and values, as well as legal norms”.

Fan scenes become increasingly politicized

Fan projects are funded by the municipality in question and by the local federal state. Each year, they have to make at least 60,000 euros available for a project. The German Football Association (DFB) and the Deutsche Fußball Liga (DFL) double the amount and are currently investing around six million euros in fan work – according to the latest report issued by the Fan Project Coordination Centre (KOS) in Frankfurt am Main. As KOS expert Gerd Wagner explains, the money is urgently needed given that project work has not become any easier in recent years.

“We are seeing fan scenes becoming more and more differentiated, and more politicized”, says Wagner, noting that a whole series of new groupings has emerged, covering the entire spectrum from far right to far left. Social and political issues, such as the election successes of the right-wing AfD or the refugee debate, are being brought into the stadium. To prevent political conflicts spilling over into violence, Wagner explains that it is important “to combat political extremism with social preventive measures”.

One form of mobile youth work

The project in Cottbus is one good example. Open every afternoon from 2 pm, the Kickerstube serves as a central meeting place for youngsters and young adults aged between twelve and 27. To reach out to as many fans of FC Energie as possible, a wide range of leisure activities is on offer – from table football tournaments to holiday camps – as well as a broad spectrum of advisory and support services.

The focus is by no means only on football, however, but on every aspect of the fans’ lives – be it school, job or conflicts at home. In this sense, social work with football fans is not really fan work at all, but rather “a form of mobile youth work”, says Graupner. After all, if the idea is to prevent football fans whose behaviour is already ringing alarm bells from becoming further radicalized, the key is to seek repeated dialogue with them: “We must talk to them, not about them.”