The Dictaphone that had served me so well going half way around the world holds a fatal flaw. Christian Arbeit was talking with the excitement of a schoolboy about what he, and over 250 others, including fan representatives of 49 clubs, had achieved last Thursday. Together they had made a start. Together football fans from across the country were starting to stick up for each other.
But all I can hear is the buzzing of the phone line on the recording of our interview. Why is it that they can build a pigsty dream for capitalists in the desert, with golf courses and seven star hotels, yet can’t put an effective air circulation system into the smoking room at Doha airport? How come the fans of Schalke and Dortmund can share a room and come to a constructive dialogue about working together, yet in the digital age my recording of Christian’s words on the very subject are as comprehensible as a fart in the night sky? I suppose it doesn’t really matter anyway. The important thing, as he described to me, is that they sat down together, talking without bias in a room temporarily silenced against the prying ears of Twitter or of rolling cameras. And talk they did.
That the fans’ summit in Berlin last Thursday happened at all is an achievement in itself.
The late president of Atlético Madrid, Vicente Calderón, once said:“Football keeps people from thinking about more dangerous things.” And football can be a surprisingly effective opiate. However briefly, it can numb the senses in the rush of a victory, or a moment of visceral beauty – in the immediate orgasmic release of a goal, with eyes closed and fists pumping, outside realities can fade from view for a second that seems to last for an hour.
But at that time Spain was still ruled by the iron fist of General Franco, and while Calderón meant that the people used football as a diversion from the brutality of everyday life, the fans of his own club, the fans of Athletic Bilbao, the fans of FC Barcelona and of countless hundreds of others would argue that the precise opposite of this was true. Football allowed them a place to think of more dangerous things, to sing their dangerous songs about dangerous concepts such as freedom and independence in their dangerous, outlawed languages that had too many dangerous x’s and too few soft and cowardly vowels.
Yes, there are some dangerous things going on in this very country that are worth thinking about too, but if we can take one thing from the recent inquiry into the Hillsborough football disaster, it is that gross negligence on a national scale, alloyed with a politically led, but media driven, assertion that football fans are animals (with all their animal chanting, animal herding instincts and animal rutting) will end in tragedy. It took the deaths of 96 innocent people, followed by the unceasingly brave determination of a community to uncover the truth to the public that had been lied to for so long, to learn this hardest of lessons: that if you have predetermined that they are already animals, then the logical conclusion, in the end, is that they could well end up dying like them – in cages, in piles, inhumanly, in indignity.
This is why Thursday’s meeting at the Alte Försterei was so important. It was organised by the fans to discuss their growing demonisation by the press, and their continued marginalisation by the authorities. Although it was held at the home of 1. FC Union, Arbeit, the clubs press speaker, was keen to point out that he, as moderator, and every single participant was there as a football fan, not as an appendage to, or representative of their clubs. They were there to speak openly, and most importantly together, about the ties that bind them together, not the fickle fortunes that divide them in the stands on a Saturday afternoon (or a Friday tea time, a Monday night or over Sunday brunch, depending on the whims of the TV schedules).
Of course not everyone agreed with everything said. This was just a beginning, a dialogue, a sign that they can work together for everyone’s advantage. The red and white tent behind the stadium that in itself neatly embodies what can be achieved when football fans work together held a circus of different performers. A picture of a Hertha and a Union fan sat next to each other inside of it, quietly listening, spoke volumes.
What came out of the summit was a document, thrashed out past 7pm, as the fans reached their sweetest bitter ends. It united them in their defence of standing areas in the stadia of Germany, and that it should be the clubs themselves who control security policy as their own individual needs dictate. It said that they had agreed it was necessary for more dialogue, for more access to the DFB and the DFL for the clubs, and particularly those clubs’ fan representatives. It said that the issue of Pyrotechnics in the stadia will not go away, and that putting one’s fingers in one’s ears and outright banning them will not work – or at least that it is in everybody’s favour to have a discussion, the very discussions that the authorities had walked away from a couple of years ago. It also, stated their opposition to all football violence.
To put a Rumsfeldian twist on things, importantly, they agreed that they might not all agree, but that it was good that they had agreed that they would try and agree more in the future.
Arbeit himself was a shadow at the end, having travelled back overnight from Union’s loss in Offenbach. He wrapped up the proceedings with a yawn, but also with the knowledge that should Union and Dynamo Dresden fans clash on the following Sunday, then all of this would have been wasted hot air.
That this didn’t happen was a credit to both sets of fans. They were maybe just enjoying themselves trying not to think about other, more dangerous things.