Tennis balls stop play but protests at Union Berlin show that German football is reaching a deciding set

As fans of Union Berlin and vfl Wolfsburg made their way to the Stadion An der Alten Försterei in Köpenick, they may have been the only ones who knew they weren’t attending a football game.

They were attending a protest.

On Friday night, fans in Dortmund and Hamburg used bicycle locks on goalposts, chocolate coins and tennis balls to protest against DFL proposals for private investment in marketing revenue.

In response, the DFL released a provocative statement on Saturday morning, asking fans to “not indulge in horror scenarios” and stop protesting.

The DFL statement explained why private investment was a good thing, explaining that the competition would be unaffected and any “strategic partnership” would have no shares and no influence over the competition. It was purely business and growth.

It fell on deaf ears.

As the game in Berlin reached the 26th minute, an entertaining but goalless match remained that way for the next hour as tennis balls rained down on the pitch from all sides of the stadium.

It was initiated by the Waldseite which houses Union ultras and their tennis balls surrounded goalkeeper, Frederik Rönnow.

Stewards took on the role of ball boys as they scuttled around the 18-yard box trying to contain the chaos.
It was like a parody of Wimbledon but Strawberries and Champagne were replaced by Bratwurst and Bier.

The players mingled and chatted as the officials waited and waited and waited.

The ball boys filled buckets to the brim as the tennis balls kept flying onto the pitch.

As the clock struck 38:54, the game looked like it would re-start but the fans had a point to prove.

The game stopped as quickly as it had re-started.

Tennis balls moved from the Waldseite around the terracing.

After a few more minutes, the match was suspended and players returned to their changing rooms.

According to Union Berlin midfielder, Alex Král after the game, they didn’t do much. The message was to stay warm, stay focused, they had a football game to win.

Officially, he and his teammates don’t have an opinion on the DFL proposals, not many players seem to have an opinion on most things going on in football, but Union club president, Dirk Zingler has been very clear about his club’s opposition to private investment.

Union Berlin were one of three Bundesliga clubs that voted against a “strategic partner” and Zingler has called for a transparent vote to address fan concerns.

Until then, the protests are likely to continue.

In Berlin, the protests were only at the halfway stage.

The players stayed in the changing rooms for approximately 20 minutes until re-emerging to a mixture of whistles, jeers and cheers.

After a brief warm-up, the game re-started for no more than a minute when Wolfsburg fans joined in the protest.

The fans were united as they sang in expletives against the DFL and unfurled banners communicating their collective views more robustly.

In case there was any doubt about how they felt, the Union Berlin banners stated:

“Private equity locusts with no influence? Don’t take us for fools! DFL-certified investors: co-financed by Saudi blood money. How you make a bed is how you lie!”

The Wolfsburg banner was just as emphatic:

“Blackstone [the likely strategic partner]: get your fingers out of our sport”

Eventually, the tennis balls ran out and the match re-commenced with 21 minutes of added time to the first half.
In the 70th minute of the first half Union Berlin capitalised.

After another stoppage, this time for an injury, Danilho Doekhi headed in a corner from five yards.

It was a moment of relief in an otherwise confrontational affair.

Fans continued to use various creative ways to disparage the DFL and the stands were littered with insulting displays and songs opposing the governing body and their proposals.

German fan groups are rarely in agreement but the DFL is the common enemy that has brought them together.

As the match continued, minus the tennis balls, home and away fans sang together in support of their game.

Chants of “Fußball” bounced back and forth between Union and Wolfsburg fans, reinforcing their point: this is their game.

Union Berlin held on for a vital win but this was a day when football was secondary to politics and protests.

An hour later, fan protests were again in the spotlight.

Bayer 04 Leverkusen welcomed Bayern Munich in what was billed as the highlight of the Bundesliga season.

League leaders versus Bavarian titans.

However, kick-off was delayed as fans again disrupted proceedings.

Fans threw objects including sweets and small rubber balls, waiting for staff to clear away one wave of objects before throwing more.

It caused a delay of around ten minutes before the game kicked off.

Evidently, the protests are not any closer to nearing their end and unless the DFL start showing that they are listening, the protests are likely to escalate.

The tennis balls ran out at Union Berlin just in time to prevent postponement.

Soon, the tennis balls may not run out.

GGFN | Oscar O’Mara

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