“When high-fiving after the game, there are often insults, angry looks, even when you go into the dressing room. The winning team usually provokes.” For 14-year-old Elias, provocative insults around his football and handball games are completely normal – and have been for several years. “It starts at the age of 12,” he explains to Deutsche Welle. So far, however, it has remained with aggressive verbal behavior, he has not experienced a brutal beating. “But you can imagine it happening.”
It happened in Frankfurt. At the international youth football tournament “German Cup” there was a fatal violent incident on the Pentecost weekend. 15-year-old Paul from Berlin died from his severe brain injuries. Many parents are now asking themselves: How safe is my child playing football? And was it just a matter of time before something like this happened?
Criminologist: Violence in youth football is increasing
In Germany, more than 24,500 football clubs with almost 150,000 teams are organized in the German Football Association (DFB). A large number of games take place week after week, as well as tournaments, including international ones. Piet Keusen is tournament spokesman for the U19 Champions Trophy in Düsseldorf, which is held over Easter and is aimed at young teams from well-known clubs.
In 20 years, he has never had a problem with violence at this tournament, Keusen told DW. Since the players hope to make the professional squad, they could not afford it. And possible problem cases are no longer there at that age. So is the problem of violence a problem in amateur football?
Criminologist Thaya Vester is researching exactly this topic at the University of Tübingen and advises the DFB. In recent years she has observed the trend that violence is more common in the youth leagues, she told DW: “It used to be a problem mainly in the men’s division and the A and B youth. Now the C and D youth affected. Even with the very little ones, there are already conflicts – but that’s where the parents and the trainers in particular are the problem.”
Psychologist: Affect control in adolescents decreases
So it starts with children’s football, where parents and coaches have an important role model function. But why is violence among young people escalating so much at the moment – at least it feels so? A lack of affect control and various influences such as video games and virtual reality could lead to such violent acts, explains psychologist Marion Sulprizio from the German Sport University in Cologne. The person who has the misfire is not aware of the consequences of his act. Also not with punches or kicks against the head.
Mental illnesses, including aggressiveness among young people, also increased during the corona pandemic. Age and gender also played a role. Because during puberty, the body is bursting with strength and new neuronal networks are formed in the brain, says Sulprizio. “Sometimes it is also said that it is the total construction site up there in the head.”
How to counter this? In this context, it is above all necessary to pay more attention to the behavior of the players and to set up contact points for abnormal behavior. “There are now child protection officers in the clubs who take care of such things.” A culture of respect must develop.
Violence prevention must take place locally
Criminologist Vester believes that coaches and clubs need to intervene much earlier and set clear boundaries. “In situations like this, it’s important that there are people who cool down the events and don’t fan them further. Pack formations in particular should be stopped much earlier. But responsibilities have to be defined for this so that someone feels responsible for it.”
Folders are already mandatory for certain amateur games. In addition, every club can enforce its house rules and a referee can order that spectators have to leave the facility, explains Andreas Kotira. He is district referee chairman in Kempen-Krefeld and in his 39 years of experience as a referee he has spoken quite a few serious words to short-tempered players or spectators. “I recognize quite quickly when there’s a lot of fanfare going on, and I also stop it. So I go there and ask: Where are the folders? Please keep it quiet here.” This social competence is also becoming increasingly important in referee training.
Kotira also sees the responsibility in the clubs, which should better train their players and coaches in social skills in order to prevent violence – including against referees. In a pilot project at Bayer Uerdingen, he himself made junior players aware of refereeing. “So that they can just understand how difficult it is to be a referee.” According to Kotira, the project is a complete success, and other clubs have already expressed their interest.
In Germany there are some such prevention approaches, but implementation often fails, criticizes criminologist Vester. She calls for certain guidelines that the DFB should set in its responsibility as the umbrella organization. But for them, the respective club is also responsible: “The actual prevention of violence must then take place on site.”