FC Köln in London: did the media get it wrong?

FC KOLN Fans London

Our caseworker Amanda Jacks wrote about her experiences at last week's Europa League tie at the Emirates. In an accompanying feature, Cologne-based journalist Matt Ford thinks the British media misjudged the German fans. Here he explains why...

The outrage began even before the Europa League game between Arsenal and 1.FC Köln. 

The Daily Mail reported that “thousands of ticketless Cologne fans fought with riot police.”

The Daily Express was one of many to splash the word “Chaos” across the front page. John Cross of the Daily Mirror wrote that a “night of shame at the Emirates was a sorry throwback to the shameful spectre of football’s 1980s hooligan days” under the headline: “Fear and Fire as Cologne fans storm the Emirates.”

According to them, kick-off had been delayed after an invading army of 20,000 drunk, violent, barbaric German football fans attempted to storm the stadium.

The German media were no different. In the immediate aftermath, Cologne’s local Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger said “Hooligans plunge Cologne’s Euro return into chaos.” Local tabloid Express said: “Thousands of ticketless Cologne fans overwhelmed the police.” BILD called it a “night of shame for German football.”

But that’s simply not what happened, as the reports of journalists who stood outside the away end and witnessed what happened testify. The thousands of ticketless Cologne fans didn’t overwhelm or fight with the police. They waited patiently and calmly in the rain and sang their carnival songs.

Nor did they all storm the stadium. A tiny minority of about 30-40 ultras attempted to. Out of 20,000. And it didn’t work. Within minutes, the police had the situation under control and made five arrests. Five. Out of 20,000.

The travelling supporters could hardly be described as “yobs” either. For the club’s biggest game in a quarter of a century, it wasn’t just the boisterous, young, male ultras who travelled. 1.FC Köln is so deeply embedded in the culture of Cologne that half the city had migrated. Young and old, rich and poor, male and female, entire families.

"Whatever happens, one thing is clear. The most beautiful thing we have is our city, where we stick together, whatever happens,” they sang in an ode to their home town.

But one can only assume that Mr Cross and their German tabloid colleagues penned their pieces during the hour’s delay from inside the comfortable Media Centre at the Emirates Stadium or from behind the desks in their offices back home. Judging by their conclusions, they couldn’t have stood in the rain, engaging with the

Cologne fans or watching what was happening outside the away end turnstiles.

Yet other journalists did, and more measured, informed reports emerged after the final whistle. Experienced football writer Andy Mitten said in GQ magazine that the Cologne supporters “weren’t like the drunken rabble of Glasgow Rangers fans who descended on Manchester for the 2008 UEFA Cup final, but in control and pleasant to be around.”

Sam Wallace of the Telegraph wrote: “Cologne's behaviour was nothing like football's dark ages - it was a group of passionate fans desperate to watch their club.”

As for me, I work as a football journalist in Cologne. I follow “FC” most weeks, know many of their fans personally and marched with them from their meeting point at Highbury Fields to the Emirates. As I wrote for Deutsche Welle, I consider the picture painted by the British media to be a complete exaggeration.

German colleagues at the match saw it differently too. Süddeutsche Zeitung’s Philipp Selldorf wrote: “Night of shame? A disproportionate exaggeration. There was a failed attempt to storm the turnstiles followed by a short skirmish and a few flares – nothing more than a regular Bundesliga match. The march through town, accompanied by just a few bobbies rather than massed riot police, was harmless. The atmosphere during the game and afterwards was happy and peaceful.”

I also spoke to Spiegel’s Hendrik Buchheister at the game. “Given that so many people had waited 25 years and travelled to London to wait in the rain not knowing whether they’d be allowed in at all, the situation was largely peaceful,” he wrote.

Magazine 11Freunde called the whole day “A celebration of football” and said that Cologne had visited “a football world which seems to have been wiped clean with disinfectant.”

Unlike in Britain, some of the German tabloids eventually revised their initial reports. The Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger admitted: “That was no mob of violent freaks – quite the opposite.” Local Express later said: “No, there were no street battles. Much of what was reported came from authors who weren’t outside the away end, where only a tiny group of incorrigible idiots tarnished a great picture of the club.”

No such revision or apology has yet come from the British media, where the rush by journalists to direct blame at the supporters themselves carries worrying undertones that really do hark back to football’s darkest days.

In all those years that Cologne fans have been waiting to see their team play in Europe, Liverpool fans have been battling to absolve their loved ones from blame for their own deaths at Hillsborough. As had been widely reported – and legally proven in court - that blame came from a narrative driven by a British press who were only too keen to demonise football fans on behalf of this country’s elite.

Consequently, changes were made to British football which have seen whole generations and whole social classes all but banished from our football stadia, which have been transformed into theatres of passive entertainment for those who can afford it.

The culture in Germany couldn’t be more different. A season ticket on Cologne’s south stand costs 165 euros and, consequently, the terrace is populated by younger supporters from all social classes and backgrounds. In accordance with German football’s 50+1 rule, the supporters’ groups have a direct influence in the running of their club.
Indeed, following recent developments in German football, they have even tabled a motion at next month’s AGM to prevent the sale of any of the club’s shares to an outside investor without the explicit consent of the membership. Their club literally belongs to them and their city, not to oligarchs, sheikhs, Chinese businessmen or American venture-capitalists.

But in their reporting of what happened at the Emirates on Thursday, the British football media showed that nothing has changed. Through their condemnation of a lively, vibrant football culture, they demonstrated that they are in thrall to an English football system which is scared of precisely that.

With the support of a compliant media, successive governments covered up the truth about Hillsborough in order to replace independently-thinking, actively engaged football supporters with passive consumers who will shut up, open their wallets and be entertained.

Cologne’s travelling support represented the antithesis of that vision and the British media, reliant on the Premier League’s billions for their very existence, were only too happy to condemn them. For that, they ought to be ashamed.

As Ian Stirling of the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust tweeted: “Cologne fans reminded us of what we lost as supporters. The media reports remind us of why we lost it.”

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