"What happens in soccer is fundamentally a mirror image of developments in society at large," Theo Zwanziger, president of the German soccer federation (DFB), told German television Tuesday. Violence, racism and xenophobia are societal problems, in other words. The soccer field just happens to be the place where they're being lived out.
And lived out they are. The waving flags and honking horns that animated German soccer stadiums during this summer's World Cup have been replaced by flying bottles, police batons and pepper spray. Violence in Germany's soccer leagues is growing, particularly at the league's lower levels.
The DFB and the Bundesliga, the country's top professional soccer league, called an emergency meeting Tuesday after 23 police officers and over 60 fans were injured last weekend. Four of the police officers wound up in the hospital. The violence led Zwanziger to admit that violence is growing in Germany's lower soccer leagues more than he realized. "I never believed I would ever be sitting here discussing this," he said.
To combat the trend, Zwanziger announced a new task force charged with setting up fresh standards of code and conduct. The group is to work closely with fan groups and enforce strict security standards in stadiums. Many point the finger at right-wing extremists amongst the fan base as the source of violent behavior. Zwanziger wants the task force to look into incidents of violence or racism at the stadiums and to initiate short- and long-term strategies to deal with xenophobia.
The past week has seen a particularly high level of violence. Last Wednesday a German Cup game was stopped with 10 minutes remaining when a linesman was knocked unconscious by a projectile thrown from the stands. At a second division game in Augsburg, some 150 supporters of the 1860 Munich club threw bottles and tore out stadium seats before police brought them under control with pepper spray.
And Zwanziger has already had to level sanctions against teams this year for racist behavior among their fans. In September, the club Hansa Rostock was fined €20,000 after fans made ape noises at Gerald Asamoah, a member of Germany's national team with Ghanaian roots. FC Sachsen Leipzig's Nigerian midfielder Adebowale Ogungbure was greeted with similar racist grunts by second division Hallesche FC. When Ogungbure retaliated with a Nazi salute, two fans actually physically attacked him.
Zwanziger said he was also surprised to learn that an entire day's worth of games was cancelled in Siegen-Wittgenstein regional league, between Frankfurt and Cologne, out of fear of violence.
The German soccer head said he hopes that the country's football leagues and head offices can set a positive example. "Football brings people together," he said in a Tuesday interview with German television. "But that doesn't equate to integration. We have to open our head offices a bit more to foreign-born Germans." That way, he said, acceptance of foreign players would grow.