Backstory: Rubbing out racism

Christian Kabs works with German soccer fans to curb unruly behavior in the stands.

Christian Kabs stands at the back of the visitor's section of the soccer stadium here, scanning the legions of Dresden Dynamo fans in their tapestry of yellow and black scarves. Mr. Kabs, a burly man in a hooded sweat shirt, isn't watching the action on the field, which is bogged down in a 0:0 tie between the Dynamos and their arch-rivals, FC Energie Cottbus. He's eyeing the people in the stands, looking for unruly behavior - principally, anyone yelling racial slurs. "It's good," says Kabs, wearing a baseball cap and John Lennon sunglasses, well into the game. "Pretty quiet so far."

Kabs has to have one of the more unusual and difficult jobs in all of sports: He is, in essence, a hall monitor for fans. The sociologist spends his time trying to curb the behavior of some of Europe's most notoriously racist soccer enthusiasts.

As the relatively quiet game here shows - though the hundreds of riot police in the stadium might have something to do with it - Kabs and his colleagues at the Dresden "fan project" are believed to be having an impact. By all accounts, the racist chants and bouts of violence that were once a trademark of Dynamo games have decreased markedly in the past few years. "There's nothing comparable to them in the East [of Germany]," says Veit Pätzug, the author of a new book on Dynamo fans. "They're truly a pilot project."

The comments are encouraging at a time when Germany and the rest of Europe are grappling with racism both inside and outside their soccer stadiums. Indeed, a string of racist attacks against people of color in eastern Germany in the past month has shaken the country just days before it gets ready to host the high-profile World Cup.

Abuse directed at nonwhite players in Spain, Germany, and Italy during the past season has tarnished European soccer's gilded reputation and sent sports officials scrambling to respond. The Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the world governing body and organizer of the World Cup, was concerned enough that it introduced tougher measures to punish clubs and soccer associations that continue to ignore racism in their fan base. Significantly, the moves include fines and docked points against teams whose followers get too rowdy.

As is often the case in Europe, different countries are tackling the problem with different zeal. England has done the most in the past decade. The English Football Association (FA) has launched sensitivity campaigns, worked with courts to impose stadium bans on offending fans, and trained referees to know when to stop a match. A hot line lets fans call anonymously to report racist chants or abuse.

The situation in Italy and Spain is markedly different. Following threats by players to walk off the field in both leagues over the past season, critics expected more action. Instead, the Spanish FA president told a conference on racism not to "make a mountain out of a molehill." "The idea is that if you speak about racism, you will bring racism to the game," says Carlos Nuñez, director of the Spanish organization No Racismo. "It's as if they're not able to see racism is already there."

Germany's response has been as fractured as its recent history. Whereas clubs in the West have had success eradicating racism from the stands, East German soccer clubs are financially dependent on fan bases that often reflect the extremist thinking of larger society. Along with other cities in the East, Dresden has had to deal with virulent right-wing political factions since reunification. The stands at Rudolf-Harbig stadium have even served as a recruiting station for activists. Dynamo fans remember when it seemed the entire stadium was making jungle sounds every time a black player touched the ball. "You're much more anonymous in a stadium," says Marek Lange, a fan since 1991. "It's easier to join in when somebody around you starts making those sounds."

In Dresden, the thinking changed after around 1,500 Dynamo fans charged a woefully undermanned police force of 150 following a match in September 2002, causing thousands of dollars of damage and injuring a mounted police officer. The city freed up money for a position that would coordinate efforts to sensitize young soccer fans. At the time, Kabs was a sociology student who had come to Dresden from northern Bavaria and was working on his thesis on soccer hooliganism. "It was a lucky coincidence," he says.

He applied for the job and got it before finishing up his paper half a year later. The fan project at Dynamo began in March 2003. Three people now work on the initiative: Kabs, project founder Torsten Rudolph, and Sebastian Walleit. The group works out of a two-story gray "fan house" near the Dynamos' stadium in Dresden.

Their central thrust is to get to kids early with an antiviolence, antiracism message. The trio talks to youth groups and provides a room where teens can congregate after school. It organizes soccer tournaments between Dresden fans and teams of immigrant children. Kabs and colleagues will do role-playing with young people in which the teens are asked to defuse a situation, like a violent encounter with a fan or a racist remark in a stadium.

Schools are a central focus, too. Organizers often bring black players, such as Daniel Wansi, a Cameroonian who played for Dynamo in 2005, into classrooms. Once they took students to a traveling exhibit on racism in soccer. "When we began discussing it, you could see that some of them had already been exposed to that sort of [anti-foreigner] thinking," says Kabs of the students. "A lot of their classmates who had immigrant parents were shocked at what was coming out of their mouths."

The biggest challenge may be to reverse what young people have learned sitting around the dinner table at home. An unemployment rate of 18 percent in Saxony, of which Dresden is the capital, contributes to an anger that fuels extremist ideology. Some racism is reinforced by comments posted on Internet chat rooms. "We have a lot of unemployed people here who are extremely frustrated," says Mr. Pätzug. "There are armies of disillusioned [people] who don't reject right-wing philosophies."

Isolated monkey chants still occur occasionally. In the second half of the Cottbus game, Dynamo fans begin chanting "Gypsies FC, Gypsies FC," an insult to Cottbus fans that reveals a lack of sensitivity as much as any visceral hate.

Kabs and his colleagues know there is only so much they can do. For one thing, they're dealing with deep-seated social behaviors. For another, they're doing it on a shoestring budget: The Dynamos sponsored the project with 25,000 euros this season and money may be even tighter next year, after a 15th-place finish by the team.

As the sun begins to set on the Cottbus match, the mood among Dynamo fans is quiet after a scoreless tie. Most are getting ready to make the 10 minute walk, complete with police escort, back to the train station. Kabs is relieved that things on this day went smoothly.

"The problems aren't going to disappear," he says later. "But ... we need to band together and say, 'Ok Dynamo is not a Nazi club and there are many, many people who are sickened by it.' If we accomplish that, it will be a big step."

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