I was waiting for the Smiths fan to arrive at the Jahn-Sportpark on Sunday. He was late, and space was getting scarcer alongside the running track. The first time I ever went to watch BFC Dynamo play one of the things I noticed was a banner unfurled along one of the tattered and frayed edges of the Sportforum, their home in Hohenschönhausen, that said simply, “There is a light that never goes out”. A couple of years later it was pointed out to me by someone more perceptive that this was an actual reflection on a dynamo, a device that, as long as it keeps turning, will always provide such a light. It ruined all of the images running through my mind of a foppish, floppy quiffed youth with pasty skin, too many poetry books in his “meat is murder” scrawled cloth bag and a back pocket full of gladioli, hanging it up diligently before every home game.
But the “There is a light…” banner is, surely, still a reference that can only be linked back to The Smiths, and in many ways (outside of the literal meaning) it makes perfect sense; not only in the representation of the fans of a club who have never given up despite the (often self-inflicted) miseries that have dogged them throughout their history in the united Germany.
There is a tendency among fans to hark back to a golden age of English football in the 1980s, when stadiums were loud and the game seemed more real, but they boiled over with a thuggish malevolence that was eating the peoples game alive. This is reflected not just among the more, shall we say, boisterous elements of fans nowadays, but even in the new football literati (11 Freunde, the fantastic bible of the new wave of football hipsterism have even deified the monosyllabic hooligan soft-core skin flick “The Football Factory” as being worthy of a branded DVD reprint).
I often find myself parroting out the old cliché that the best thing about German football in the 21st century is that it remains like football “used to be”. But it is difficult to separate the drunken, fag smoke-hued romance of what used to be called the “First Division” with the nastier side of things. This was a time when the National Front used to hand out leaflets outside of certain stadia, and when normal fans in their thousands started going less and less because of the ever present threat of being either caught up in a violent and terrifying terrace charge, or of a mean-eyed, jobsworth policeman with too much power, too few brain cells and too much unswerving support from a state that reviled the entertainments of the working classes taking a dislike to them.
From a distance it is easy to see where the romance lies, and similarly indeed, if there is one thing that the misery of England in the 1980s brought us it was in the music of the hundreds of bands that The Smiths were at the vanguard of. Now, with an equally divisive and self-serving government in charge in England, for whom pretending to like modern football is a necessary evil designed to win favour at the ballot box, it is tempting to cast a jealous glance backwards again to when the game was demonised, when the fans were called animals and the music was a thousand times better than the putrid stink of a thousand identikit indie bands forged in the hellish mines of rock-schools the country over nowadays.
But then maybe the reason for the fond reminiscence over here is that football stands at a similar crossroads. On Sunday, before the “There’s a light…” banner had been hung at BFC Dynamo’s massive cup clash against VfB Stuttgart the streets of Prenzlauer Berg were a thronging mass, but one joined also by the pack of wild dogs that were journalists off their usual beat desperately casting glances around for the slightest hint of trouble with which to satisfy rapacious editors and a readership ever happy to condemn and demonise football fans.
I must point out that these were not the usual journalists, the ruddy-faced football scribes who make a living out of writing about the game that they undoubtedly love, and who have always treated me, as a foreign writer writing in a foreign language, with utmost respect and kindness. But in certain sections of the press through the buildup to the game the focus had been cast solely on the prospect of a repeat of the trouble that flared at the last time BFC played in the big cup, the DFB Pokal, at the Jahn-Sportpark versus Kaiserslautern. One got the impression that they were as keen for it to happen as BFC themselves were desperate not to let it.
The storming of the Kaiserslautern end at the end of that cup tie set BFC back years. They had been working hard on their image, exemplified by their youth policies and a public commitment to stamping out racism in the stadium written weekly in the club programme. They seemed to be trying so hard, like Sisyphus, to push that rock up the mountain but as soon as they got an opportunity on the big stage to show that they were changing, it just rolled back down on them as a mess of boneheaded morons, many of whom never attended their home fixtures in the fifth division, saw that stage as one that was theirs by rights to use as they deemed fit.
Now I am no blind defender of Dynamo – there are undoubtedly still some pretty nasty fans at the club, and their hard work must continue unabated – but on Sunday their club could be rightly proud of them all, as evidenced by the fact that one writer had to travel back on the S-Bahn, rubbernecking from the safety of the back carriage, to report that some fans were singing some hideous songs and glorying in Germany’s dubious past. Put simply, and this is not to excuse any rightwing behaviour, a couple of arseholes travelling back from a game of football is simply not news.
Their team had been unlucky to lose 2-0 to the Bundesliga side, and they had fought gainfully until the end, but they were, understandably, just lacking that final touch, that decisive piece of class to make the difference. The performances of Kevin Gutsche and Björn Brunnemann, amongst many others, did not deserve to lead to them slinking out of the cup, but at least their showing, and the peaceful atmosphere could ensure that the papers would be forced to at least try concentrate on the game itself.
Football needs teams like BFC, it needs its pantomime villains as much as it needs its paragons of virtue, but what it doesn’t need is a malignant rightwing presence that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when the press only concentrate on the bad things at the club.
Hopefully the continuing cleaning up of BFC Dynamo’s image will allow the unremarked upon work of so many of their youth coaches in the poorer districts of Berlin to teach their charges about the benefits of inclusion, and about team spirit and respect for oneself and for others to continue. Hopefully their fans will be able to intimidatingly roar on their team without us and them reverting to that mindset of the 1980s that succeeds only to dredge up the pond life of humanity for the front pages and colouring all of their fans as being the same.
Hopefully Big Mouth won’t strike again and that the hope of a chink of light at the heart of one of Germany’s most reviled sides will continue to go unextinguished.