The beautiful game is epitomized by its fans. People who are dedicated to their team give gatherings of football a never-ending heartbeat. Because of the unforgettable atmosphere it creates, fan culture has become a separate phenomenon that is just as much entertainment as the sport itself.
Football has been, is and always will be a sport for the people.
Argued to have the best fans in Europe, Germany and fan culture go hand in hand. The Bundesliga is the home to Bayern Munich’s raucous Südkurve and, of course, the inimitable Gelbe Wand (the Yellow Wall), Borussia Dortmund’s Südtribüne, where every other week 25,000 black and yellow supporters gather to create a man-made wonder of the world.
German football culture reaches far beyond the most popular stadiums. The second and third German divisions provide captivating support week in and week out. After FC Kaiserslautern was relegated to the 3. Liga for the first time in the club’s history, 41,324 supporters packed out the Fritz-Walter-Stadion on the famous Betzenberg hill for their first home game against 1860 Munich. To put that into perspective, only 7 Premier League stadiums have a greater capacity.
Football is nothing without the supporters, but there is one group of diehard fans who stand apart: the Bundesliga’s “ultras.”
Unity through passion and support
The word “ultra” originates in Italy and it describes football fans who are distinguished for their passionate, enthusiastic support. Every team in Germany, from the first division to the third, has at least one group of ultras. They are the people who make the flags and the banners and who are responsible for the acoustics in their respective team’s Kurve — the place at the end of the pitch where they customarily watch.
Being an ultra means that you support your club not only on the weekend at games but during the entire week. Ultras are united by their passion and their unshakable support of their club. The club is the beating heart of their way of life. Everything revolves around it.
On match days, the ultras’ goal is quite simple: to create an intimidating atmosphere for the opposing team while motivating their own. That does not mean, however, that they come dressed in their club’s jerseys. Many ultras never wear any merchandise from their team, as they believe that if you truly loves his football club, you don’t need to show it with shirts or scarfs. Instead, they spend hours on creating banners or flags, some having a political message.
Many ultra groups have gained a position within their clubs that allows them to influence Bundesliga politics. More often than not, the ultras want to have a voice in management at their respective clubs. For example, the modern game has seen tickets prices increase significantly, which is an issue many ultra groups have protested with varying success. German fan and ultra groups also celebrated a massive victory recently, when their protests against the Bundesliga’s Monday night fixtures was so persistent that the German Football League (DFL) confirmed that the detested fixture slot will be discontinued from the 2021-22 season onwards.
Criticism of Bayern's new change kit. "Our colours are red and white what's this blue shit? pic.twitter.com/397I4VpVv3— Mark Lovell (@LovellLowdown) May 12, 2018
Bayern’s own ultras, of course, are famously vocal and have successfully influenced the club on a number of occasions. The club recently announced, for instance, that future home kits would not feature blue shorts, a perfect example of the club listening to sustained supporter protests. Kits for ultras represent an important sign of identity with their club; hence the decision to utilize red and white in the home kit moving forward is a big win for the Bayern ultras. 1860 can have a monopoly on blue shorts in Munich...
Into the Südkurve: Bayern Munich’s vocal ultras
Bayern unsurprisingly has several ultra groups who gather at the “Südkurve München” to show their loyal support at the Allianz Arena. Schickeria München, Inferno Bavaria, Red Munich ‘89, Südkurve ‘73, Munichmaniacs 1996, the Red Angels, and the Red Sharks are the just most distinguished out of the many different groups.
The Bayern ultras are particularly well-known for their left-wing politics. The ultras’ political stance is rooted in history, as Bayern grew into an internationally renowned club through the ideas and energy of the former youth player and FC Bayern President Kurt Landauer. Born into a Jewish family, Landauer is today known as one of the founding fathers of Bayern’s youth policy. In honor and memory of this club legend, who was arrested a day after Kristallnacht, many sections of Bayern’s fans maintain a strict stance against homophobia and racism.
The ultras remembrance of the past extends to other club legends, as well. During a game against Hoffenheim last year, the Bayern fans honoured former Bayern youth player Werner Sigismund Hecht, who was killed in Auschwitz, with a giant choreo. Hecht’s father and mother were murdered in Auschwitz as well; only his sister survived.
Bayern Munich fans with a tribute to Werner Sigismund Hecht who died in Auschwitz in 1942. pic.twitter.com/q7SuZmAAuf— Mark Lovell (@LovellLowdown) January 27, 2018
The Schikeria, the largest of Bayern’s ultra groups, notably established the Kurt Landauer Cup, for which they were awarded the prestigious Julius Hirsch Award by the German Football Association (DFB). Karl-Heinz Rummenigge praised the Schikeria for their effort to bring Landauer into the public eye:
The commitment against all forms of discrimination and anti-Semitism is deeply rooted in the history of FC Bayern. I’m glad our fans have earned this acknowledgment. The creative choreography and actions of Schickeria are a shining example of that. The Julius Hirsch Award represents deserved recognition.
Banners containing social or political messages are common in the Südkurve. After getting fined by the club after the so called ‘‘Salt Bae scandal’’, the Bayern fans made a banner for Ribery at an away-game in Hoffenheim, encouraging him to stay the way he is.
Danke an die besten Fans der Welt ❤ #fr7 #BestFans #miasanmia @FCBayern pic.twitter.com/OPNIu72ylE— Franck Ribéry (@FranckRibery) January 18, 2019
In a more political manner, Bayern’ fans have frequently showed their discomfort with Bayern deepening their ties with Qatar.
#BayernMunich ultras publicly critical of club’s stance on its #Qatar links during victory over Werder Bremen yesterday. Some context…. pic.twitter.com/bqySqHsykG— Nicholas McGeehan (@NcGeehan) January 22, 2018
Other messages include Bayern’s fans protests of the high Champions League prices. In the last edition of the Champions League, Bayern threw fake euro bills during the away game against Anderlecht. Charging the fans €100 euros for one ticket was enough for the Bayern ultras to act. Neymar became the victim when Bayern fans showered the Brazilian superstar with fake €500 euro bills during PSG away match in Munich. Neymar was the obvious symbolic target in Bayern ultras’ war against UEFA.
The dark side of the German ultra scene
The comradery, positive actions and the atmosphere that ultras create are unfortunately often overshadowed in the media by scenes of fighting, vandalism, and racism.
Bayern fans have also been the centre of negative attention. Bayern’s first Pokal game of the season was interrupted briefly when Bayern fans threw rolls of toilet paper and beach balls on the pitch. The travelling Die Roten supporters were protesting the DFL and DFB’s failure to engage in a promised dialogue about financial matters.
In more serious incidents, the Schickeria has been involved in acts of violence with Nuremberg ultra groups on separate occasions. In another incident, the police found 300 grams of marijuana on a Shickeria fan bus after their dogs smelled something funny outside the BayArena.
Ultra activity also resonates with problems occurring outside of football. The fan culture in many East German clubs has been affected by the current political situation in Germany, where controversy rages over immigration and refugees. Neo-Nazi and far-right extremism mirroring the far-right Chemnitz protests can also be observed on the stands.
That has also led to confrontations in the west. Borussia Dortmund is usually acclaimed for its positive and inclusive fan culture. But inclusiveness may also bring in undesirable guests, something that the Dortmund fans learned of late. During their home victory against Bayern this season, there were reported chants of “Sieg Heil” from the extreme-right group “Northside” in Block 13 of the Yellow Wall.
The working class in the Ruhr has indeed seen a rise in neo-Nazi agitation that sometimes creeps into sections of the Yellow Wall. Siegfried Borchardt, one of the founders of Borussenfront, an extreme-right group within the BVB fan base, even won a seat on Dortmund’s city council. Pushing an anti-immigration ideology, Borchardt is known among Dortmund locals as “SS-Siggi.”
A culture worth preserving
Of course, the negative often overshadows the positive in the headlines. Violence and political confrontations are recurring themes in coverage of German and global ultras. But the negative press is hardly the whole story. The fan culture and involvement of ultras are largely responsible for the jaw-dropping atmosphere of Bundesliga games, and their actions to benefit the football world and society as a whole should not go unrecognized.
Ultras can be both frightening and exhilarating. The soul of many football clubs, ultras can also be a source of controversy. But despite occasional negative headlines, the Bundesliga’s ultras is a culture worth preserving. Neither Südkurve nor Bayern Munich itself would not be the same without them.