The Bundesliga is once again providing a model for grassroots, fan-friendly football in England. Last year, it was the German top flight’s club membership model and prudent financial practices that had the English supporters trusts talking after a wave of ancient football clubs with self-interested owners went bankrupt. Today, it’s the Bundesliga’s incorporation of standing terraces at stadiums that is motivating a few fan groups to push for standing sections at Premier League matches.
The issue of standing at football matches involves a tricky mix of culture, sociology, history, economics and politics. Standing terraces have been banned in the top two flights in England since 1994 as part of the Taylor Report, a series of recommendations to the government in light of the Hillsborough stadium crush in 1989 which took the lives of ninety-six people. The idea was to enforce a modicum of separation between fans with American-style all-seater stadiums and provide a safer, more family-friendly environment at football matches.
It wasn’t long however before some fans realized the all-seater model also provided clubs an incentive to charge higher ticket prices for every section in the ground in the absence of a cheaper standing area. Many in England still associate the move to all-seater stadiums with the gentrification of football in England and the astronomical wealth of the Premier League. Now, sixteen years after the Taylor Report and twenty-two years since Hillsborough, English fans point to the Bundesliga as evidence that top flight clubs can provide a cheaper standing section for fans without major safety problems. They believe the only reason clubs could have to maintain a ban on standing terraces is to ensure a higher gate revenues, and not anything having to do with safety.
Depending on your perspective, standing at football matches either brings to mind those glorious old videos of League One crowds swaying together with the scoring of a crucial goal, or the scene from the English version of Fever Pitch when Colin Firth’s girlfriend gets knocked about like a bowling pin at her first Arsenal match. Whatever your point of view, to quote Lawrence Olivier from Marathon Man, the only question that should matter is, is it safe?
It seems to be for the most part so far in Germany. Some would counter there are crucial differences between German and English fan cultures that account for the lack of major crowd incident in standing sections in the Bundesliga—a more genial atmosphere perhaps, less tendency for hooliganism. But a recent article in the New Yorker on crowd science made the case that preventing crushes is a matter of engineering, not culture, that the idea of an “out of control” crowd is a myth and that crushes have far more to do with fluid dynamics than unruly fans.
Chances are reducing the possibility of incident to zero with standing sections is impossible, but if there is a way to allow for standing areas with easy access points and clear, wide exits, it seems like the onus would be on football administrators to provide fans with a choice of seating. Still, debate is far from over on this issue, and for some the raw memories of 1989 still leave an unsettling feeling when it comes to allowing football fans to stand at matches, which also makes the issue political plutonium. Unlike fan ownership models, this facet of the Bundesliga may be harder for everyone in England to—ahem—stand behind.