German fans take lead on fight against discrimination

It's been quite a few weeks for Sven Schneider, from the anti-racist group Schalker Fan Initiative. First he watched in disgust as some Germany football fans sang Nazi chants during a match against the Czech Republic, and then in dismay as the far-right party AfD secured its first seats in Germany's Parliament during the general elections.

Undeterred, last weekend Sven was in Karlsruhe to receive the prestigious Julius Hirsch Prize from the German football association for acts of 'integration and tolerance through football'. Julius Hirsch was a Jewish footballer who played for Germany but was later murdered by the Nazis.

Then this weekend the Schalker Fan Initiative, a group of Schalke 04 supporters committed to tackling racism and discrimination, will stage a film festival as part of the Football People action weeks being co-ordinated in 50 countries around Europe and beyond by the Fare network. Former German international and Schalke star Gerald Asamoah features in the film.

As it celebrates its 25th anniversary, it would seem the work of the Schalker Fan Initiative has never been so important.

"We don't have a big Nazi problem at Schalke, perhaps because we have been in existence since 1992," says Sven.

"But with the election, we notice that some people are saying the things that they used to, such as 'you are not allowed to bring politics to the stadium'.

"I guess it's the people who are more on the right wing who say that. People in the middle or on the left don't say it because they don't have a problem with integration. At Schalke, the fan groups are not all left wing but they are all anti-racist.

"We say that the will to combat racism and nationalism has to rise up from the middle of society, not only from the far left. We just consider ourselves to be normal fans who have a problem with discrimination. It's the only chance we have to win this fight!"

The rise of AfD only serves to emphasise the importance of the Fan Initiative, thinks Sven. Following an influx of refugees from war-torn Syria and other countries affected by conflict, he sees more and more people in Germany feeling emboldened to speak out against integration – a chilling reminder of his country's past.

"We have seen a change; people are saying things that maybe a few years ago they would not have said," he says.

"So we see that it is still necessary to combat it on a regular basis; if you stop doing this, things will change for the worse very soon.

"Politicians are making the same mistakes that they did years ago; they do not try to educate the refugees enough – for example helping them to speak German. This is the background to our project, which is for refugees and non-refugees, to help them find out what is typical German language and clichés.

"You see a lot of people who are afraid of the refugees. Schalke was a very industrial district of Gelsenkirchen, with coal and steel industries and now high unemployment. In Schalke itself more than 20% voted for the AfD. So there's a lot of people who are afraid and think their problems come from the refugees, which of course is mostly nonsense."

For the last 14 years, the Schalker Fan Initiative – which is directly responsible for inserting the paragraphs on anti-discrimination into their club's governance code – has been a staunch supporter of the Football People actions weeks, which sees 100,000 people participate in projects and events aimed at tackling discrimination over the next two weeks.

"The work of Fare is very important across Europe," says Sven. "Everything that is done to fight these things is very welcome by us.

"There is a lot of context here, and for example in Poland and Ukraine. We have been to events in those countries and had our banners stolen by people who shouted 'Sieg Heil' and had knives. We know that it's a very big problem, and maybe in eastern Europe it is even worse. But we also made friends with very nice and good people."

"This is the reason for our project. It is something that we have experienced so many times. Football unites people and provides the starting point for things that otherwise, without football, they would not have discussed."

Simon Lansley for Fare network

Report incident