As the eyes of the world yet again re-focus their sights for another nine months of countless nerve jangling and heart wrenching moments on the pitch, there is something that won’t be captured by the cameras this season – the action in the stands.
Like a refugee being mercilessly torn away from their rightful home, over the last decade, football’s core fan base has been pushed further and further away from the beautiful game; pint pots have turned into selfie sticks and the ‘half time pie’ has transformed into a Michelin five star, award winning chef endorsed, three course gourmet meal – a football fan is now an alien amongst the terraces of English football.
The aforementioned commodities, once quintessential and part of a football matches identity, have been ushered out and replaced by much more glamorous and commercially viable options – football is no longer a game, it’s a spectacle for a sycophantic, obedient monkey like, ‘yes man’ audience.
Of course, this transformation into what we know as ‘modern football’ can be indefinitely traced back to 1992, the year that Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Corporation began meddling with the English game. More televised games which will make football easily accessible for anybody from the comfort of their own living room sounds a utopian idea, that is until the realisation that the legacy left behind by the multi-million pound institution has left football a game no longer for the fans, but for a willing customer with a pocket full of cash.
English football’s special relationship with its fans was once the envy of the entire footballing universe, many nations across Europe and beyond have tried to model how they support their teams based on how it was once done on these shores. Now, this once tangible bond between ‘fan’ and ‘football club’, has been barbarically shattered – falling short to western capitalistic greed, a disease which transpires all the way through modern day society.
But, whilst politics is taking the UK on a train-wreck course out of Europe, does the key to reviving the state of England’s football culture lie with one of the three lions’ biggest European adversaries?
Synonymous with the rejection of materialistic capitalism throughout the years, Germany, but in particular the city of Berlin, had long been an opponent to capitalistic greed dictating its affairs – no asset more protected however, than the city’s adopted religion – football.
For many years now, legislation has been put into place to stop football being turned into a corporate industry, ran with the sole intention to make as much money as possible. Federal laws which state the biggest stake holder in a club must be its members, an attempt to prevent corporations having the presiding power when directing a club, is the perfect example of the revolutionary ways the Duetsch Fußsball-Bund (German Football Association) have put the wildfire out, before it has even had chance to spread.
Just look at the reaction throughout all of Germany at the rise to prominence of RB Leipzig – a club funded entirely by energy drink giants Red Bull; the only reason the billion dollar company name doesn’t appear in the club’s title , like their sister clubs Red Bull New York and Salzburg, being because of strict laws set in stone by the DFB surrounding commercial gain through advertising within a club’s naming rights.
An earthquake of anger and disgust has rippled throughout Germany, uniting teams of all colours to join in a display of hatred and protest, showing perfectly how this commercially based football team just isn’t welcome in these parts, merely because that is just not what football is about.
This act of profanity in the eyes of German football fans, something which would undoubtedly would be applauded and praised as ‘a great business venture and the step in the right direction’ should it have happened to a football club from England, has ruptured the fundamental beliefs on how football business is conducted.
Whilst on my travels this summer, I managed to stumble across a pre-season friendly between a mediocre German first division side, and one of European footballs most recognisable forces – Hertha Berlin were playing host to a buoyant and expectant Liverpool side, spearheaded by their own German genius and somewhat lunatic, Jurgen Klopp, and it provided the perfect viewing platform to be reminded on how football should be done.
Located in the suburban areas of West Berlin, the stadium originally built for the infamous 1936 Olympic Games, the historical temple of sport is located a good twenty-five minutes U-Bahn (underground rail) trip from the centre of Berlin. This being said, it didn’t stop the herds of Hertha supporters flocking to see their team, despite it being the middle of summer, and a meaningless pre-season friendly.
As the mid-summer setting sun melted into the verdant Forrest landscape behind Central Europe’s equivalent to Rome’s colosseum, an electric, festival like atmosphere buzzed around the surrounding areas of the stadium; this nothing to play for match had the feel and gravitas of a cup final – the energy was that palpable.
It felt how a football match should naturally feel; raw excitement, passion and an overwhelming sense of benevolence; all of the worries and stresses life spits out, for ninety minutes, are castaway and the monotonous stone walls of the Olympic stadium in Berlin provided a stoic sanctuary for those here to worship their favourite team.
And, to reiterate, this was all just for a pre-season friendly.
Walking out into the mammoth arena, Hertha’s arbitrary pre-match song playing over the PA system, speakers and supporters in perfect harmony, it gave the same feeling a Muslim would experience when travelling to Mecca for their first pilgrimage, or a Catholic would feel when stepping foot inside the walls of the Vatican and being shadowed by St.Peter’s Basilica; an overriding sense of purity and solitude – a soul cleansing exercise.
The ascension to the top of the Olympia-Stadion’s Ost-Kurve, the spiritual home of Hertha BSC ‘ultra’s’, felt almost biblical. Not least because the rich history engrained within this iconic sporting cauldron felt tangible, but also because the noise generated by the 50,000 (or so), Hertha fans which reverberated around the arena was breathtaking. A plethora of hardcore supporters, all in unison, belting out their clubs’ anthem – a moment which produced raw goosebumps.
I had been to hundreds of football matches before (all between English sides), very few had produced this sustained level of atmospheric brilliance throughout the full match – those which had managed it, predominately being matches of significant importance, not a friendly game. And, of course this isn’t exclusive to Hertha Berlin, as the Bundesliga is notorious with some of the worlds best fans; Dortmund’s ‘yellow wall’ being the most infamous, a 25,000 man mountain of devoted football supporters.
Just how out of place would this look in the English premier league? The self proclaimed ‘best league in the world’. A league which revolves around revenue and profit margins, a league which has turned football stadiums into tourist attractions and a league which prioritises global commercial gain over the very people who turn out week after week to keep the game ticking over. It is impossible to tell just how far the pendulum has swung and whether or not, one day it can return full circle and reinstate the loyal herds of English football fans with the respect they so desperately crave and deserve.