The significance of this weekend's anti-Hopp chants and the unprecedented move to stop football in Germany

unpacking a seminal moment in German football

Hi there, I will probably be back with some of the usual analysis (as well as a podcast with Constantin Eckner that is being a little delayed due to some production\audio issues) a little later this, but quite frankly I found it hard to focus on the actual games in light of the shocking events of Hoffenheim - Bayern.

For my immediate reaction to the events at Hoffenheim-Bayern please check out my video on Periscope


Why the match between Hoffenheim was stopped

When referee Christian Dingert stopped the events of the Hoffenheim-Bayern match, by then soundly in garbage time territory at 0-6, in the 66th minute, you could feel something strange was happening. Although there were also warnings in the Dortmund-Freiburg game that I was streaming on my laptop, most of us only found out that the insults hurled and displayed against Dietmar Hopp by a portion of the away fans were the cause.  Of course the banners with the words Hurensohn or ”son of a whore” - a base insult in German football circles that has been an epithet lately of Timo Werner but also has been applied to just about everyone - was hard to miss in an otherwise (by that point) rather languid match. What followed was something that we’ve seen increasingly more of: members of the team,  in this case former Hoffenheim player David Alaba and more importantly, Hansi Flick - a man who has countless ties to Hopp and Hoffenheim from coaching the team in the wayward Oberliga and Regionalliga (then 4th and 3rd divisions, now 5th and 4th) years between 2000 and 2005, to still having business interests in the cafeteria at the Sinsheim club - trying desperately to get the fans to stop it and get the banners taken down. When the banner resurfaced in the 77th minute, the referee activated the second step of the UEFA protocol and sent the two teams to the dressing rooms, from where they emerged a solid 15 minutes later. They would play out the remaining minutes in a bizarre spectacle: essentially abandoning competitive football and passing to opponents and holding hands/forming a circle around Dietmar Hopp in solidarity.

There is of course a long history of Hopp, who as he is wont to do was in the stands, watching the game together with Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, being a target of certain fan groups. There have been banners his face is in the crosshairs dating back to 2009 in Dortmund and resurfacing just last week in Borussia Park, which is of course something I disagree with in terms of its style, though like others and most notably Raphael Honigstein said ultras have a right to protest, especially in Germany.

What the protests are really about? Is it even Dietmar Hopp?

The way I see it, having had a day of reflection on the subject, there are essentially two conflating issues here:

  1. Certain fans, and for the purposes of trying to create a space for discourse where different sides and opinions can be expressed and heard,  it’s always important to try to avoid generalization,  are protesting against Dietmar Hopp who referred to himself in the 2008 Spiegel interview as “the face of commercialized football”. There are lots of issues that Hopp, in attempting to fight this backlash, for better or worse, has come to represent in the eyes of the traditionalist ultras, but those usually center around fan ownership, the perceived bypassing of 50+1, and “everything that is wrong with modern football”.  These protests have a long-standing history, particularly Hopp vis a vis Dortmund, dating back to 2008, when the upstart TSG was the Herbstmeister in its first debut season, while BVB were undergoing the transition from the miserable Thomas Doll era to Jürgen Klopp. The 2008 Spiegel interview sheds light on this:

    SPIEGEL: Can you understand football fans who get upset when a billionaire suddenly shows up and pampers a club until it starts beating everybody else?
    Hopp: Of course I understand that, but our rivals overlook the fact that we have consistently played a good role in the regional league (the fourth tier of the German league system) since 2001. What troubles me is the form of the protests. I can tolerate the "son-of-a-whore" chants. But when I see a poster depicting me in the sights of a gun, as recently happened in a match against Dortmund, it stops being amusing. The police arrested the young man.
    SPIEGEL: The stands can be a pretty rowdy place.
    Hopp: I know. But this is going too far. What happens if someone actually becomes violent one of these days? By the way, we dropped the charges last Monday when the man apologized. We also invited him to take see how things are in Hoffenheim for himself.
    SPIEGEL: The German Football Association (DFB) is threatening clubs with penalties if their fans accost you. In Bremen, for example, stadium officials refused to allow fans to bring in a sign that read: "Hoppe, hoppe Reiter -- wenn er fällt, dann schreit er" (in an allusion to Hopp's name from a children's song, suggesting that he is too sensitive about insults). Isn't all of this a bit exaggerated?
    Hopp: I also know that this could possibly provoke people to test the limits of what's permissible. As far as the sign in Bremen is concerned, it wouldn't have really bothered me. But I can't say whether what the DFB is doing is good or bad for us. It apparently wants to prevent arrests in the stadium.
    In that sense, this fight has continued for over a decade with the highlights, including Hopp threatening to take BVB fans to court, them wishing death threats upon the 79-year-old, and of course Hoffenheim using a sound machine capable of 130 dB to drown out away fans in 2011. (Hopp later apologized and claimed it was not at his orders)

    What has changed this situation is that because of the anti-Hopp crosshair and Hurensohn banners used by BVB fans in a May 2018 match (30 of them were banned and suspended for 3 away matches, but the banners were repeated in a home game of 2019 with the caption Hasta la vista, Hopp!, ) the DFB has chosen to lift the suspended sentence (Dortmund were ordered to pay a 50k fine earlier) and ban Dortmund fans from Hoffenheim entirely for 3 years (this was reduced to 2 years on Feb. 21st).
    In essence, this was a game-changing moment, because in the view of some ultra groups, the DFB broke their word about not handing out collective punishment for entire fan bases!

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  2. Thus emerged a unified effort on the part of certain fan groups to protest against the DFB’s collective punishment (which they promised they would not do in 2017) against Dortmund fans who have been banned from attending the PreZero Arena for two years .

You saw it on Saturday in Cologne, where the DFB was just as much of a target, if not more so than Hopp. Union Berlin fans also had their say on Sunday:

There are countless examples from Bochum on Sunday, which point at a larger issue, but even the original Bayern group (Schickeria one reveals a different target, the DFB:

“Everything remains the same, the DFB breaks its word, Hopp remains an SOB”

The fan club, one of the oldest ultra groups founded in 2002 has since lost its status according to some reports released a statement saying that while it is usually not their style to communicate in this manner, the word in question is a common insult (citing Timo Werner as an example). Furthermore they said that while they have had their problems with Hopp, they did NOT communicate them in this manner (using the word “son of a whore”) but thanks to Hopp’s actions (the BVB fans being disturbed with the mechanical sound machine) and those of the DFB - breaking its word by handing out collectively punitive sentences - they were “left with no choice but to see it as an insult” and without other alternatives they felt it was the best way to gain attention (in this they certainly succeeded).  They end their statement stating that if the league, the federation and the referee is going to stop games because of these kind of protests (“of which today’s was an absurd example”) “there will not be any matches lasting 90 minutes without interruption! Football stays dirty, fans remain rebellious and against collective punishment and the federation can f… off”

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The fallout: what’s really important in football?

On the one hand, the reaction of Dietmar Hopp, who after 10 years of trying, no longer wants to have a dialogue, the leaders of most clubs (Michael Zorc and Sebastian Kehl both spoke out against the banners), coaches ( Christian Streich, David Wagner and Achim Beierlorzer all came out in support of the attacks on Hopp) was predictable.  That of his lawyer was certainly something:

The reactions of the federation (from DFL president Christian Seifert, to DFB president Fritz Keller) was much more over the top, as they spoke of a low-point in German football. Understandably, given their relationships to Hopp, Bayern were in the most awkward situation of them all: Hasan Salihamidzic spoke of a weekend with the 120th anniversary of the club being ruined, while CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge spoke of a dark day for football.  It’s worth a side note here, that Bayern, who ten years ago were very much against the ideas of the so-called plastic clubs (Wolfsburg, Hoffenheim and Leipzig) have since considerably softened their stance. Whether or not that wind of change was helped or hurt by the close relationships between Hopp and Beckenbauer (golf buddies) and the joint projects - the 11,000 seatSAP Garden is set to open next year in Munich, where it will host basketball games (this team is run by Uli Hoeness) and hockey games of the Red Bull Munich, owned since 2012 by RB honcho Dietrich Mateschitz, who reportedly spent 100 million Euros on the stadium - I will leave for the reader to decide.

The larger takeaway that many smart Twitter users, journalists (Jon Harding, Andy Brassell, Christian Spiller and a host of others) and other observers of German football have made is that it’s not really about Dietmar Hopp. For of course what does it say about a league\federation\football culture - and this is in no means meant to excuse death threats and dehumanizing personal insults directed against Hopp or anyone else-

  • when frequent incidents of racism - from Jordan Torunarigha, Leroy Kwadwo, Chris Glosner, Leon Balogun and Leroy Sane go unpunished by the authorities?

  • Moreover, right-wing extremism and anti-Semitism (from Daniel Frahn to the HoonaRa group in Chemnitz) is still an issue, see the #Nazis Raus movement.

  • How about when sexism still is prevalent in stadiums and sports studios (Mario Basler saying  “female fans can smuggle in pyrotechnics between their legs, so they must also be searched” easily wins the dumbest statement of the year contest) while excellent podcasts like FRÜF (Frauen Reden Über Fussball - Women Talk About Football) are marginalized to the point of having to shut up shop.

  • And still there is that issue of homophobia entrenched in the footballing culture and mostly given lip service to with pretty rainbow-colored armbands, but has there been punishment?

Unless, I missed it, which is possible, for of course even I can’t watch every Bundesliga minute (though I’d like to) there were no stoppages of play, much less any threats of cancelling matches in those instance. Choosing to do so in the instance of Dietmar Hopp, as excellent as his charitable work and the things he has done for football in the Rhine Neckar region, seems protectionist and short-sighted at best, exclusive and elitist at worst. Whether or not the Bundesliga, which to some extent still prides itself on those crazy attendance figures and the superb atmosphere (brought to you by those very fans) is at a crossroads is once again beyond doubt. I say some because in recent years, due to just physically not being able to put more bodies in the stands the league and DFL have upped their expansionists efforts in the Americas, China and Africa, and forayed into the world of higher TV rights. But as one weekend shows, those efforts must not come at the cost of alienating fans.

“We’ve arrived in an unrealistic realm, but it’s currently reality” - Christian Streich via Jonathan Harding’s Mensch

One can only hope that the chance for some sort of dialogue between the affected parties, in this reality is not unrealistic.

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