Eintracht Frankfurt have surprised just about everybody this season by making it to the semi-finals of the Europa League. But they’re impressing off the pitch, too, with a fan-centred approach that appears to be paying dividends.
Ahead of their home tie with Chelsea, FSE spoke to Henning Schwarz, the CEO of the Fan Department, and Philipp Reschke, the club’s in-house counsel, who is responsible for security, fan services, and matchday operations.
FSE: What does success in Europe mean for a club such as Eintracht?
Henning Schwarz: For us, it’s the biggest thing that can happen, apart from winning our first title in 30 years and our German cup victory last year. Frankfurt is, after all, a European city. When you walk through the city you can feel how important this is for people, especially since we don’t qualify for Europe every season. We last qualified 6 years ago, so we celebrate each game. Our first match against Marseille was difficult, of course, because we were excluded from the stadium and the city centre. But after making it through the group stage and beating bigger opponents in the knockout rounds, the euphoria has continued to build.
Phillipp Reschke: As an association, we regard every European matchday, whether home or away, as a festive event. Our UEFA Cup win in 1980 is an important part of the club’s DNA. If you treat every game with such reverence, it becomes infectious: the players and coaches are motivated, and the fans put their heart and soul into the spectacle, from the noise-level to the choreography. That creates an even more intense bond between the two. Our board member, Axel Hellmann, said “When the team steps onto the pitch it is as if they have imbibed a magical potion. They consider themselves invincible.” European competitions have a completely different aura. Taking part is something very, very special for everyone involved.
FSE: We don’t get the impression that you consider the Europa League to be a second-class competition?
PR: Europa League games are the pinnacle for us. We only know the other competition from television. But I don’t want to judge other, more experienced clubs. We just have a different experience and outlook.
FSE: Henning, you mentioned that Eintracht fans were excluded from Marseilles earlier in the competition. This must have been a huge blow?
HS: Of course! Being excluded from the stadium was hard enough, but the decree prohibiting Eintracht fans from entering the city was even worse. It was obvious that we should work together with FSE and Association Nationale des Supporters (ANS) to oppose these measures.
PR: There was no long discussion in the club. We consider a municipal ban on football fans to be a completely disproportionate and legally dubious measure. With all sympathy for security concerns, this is not – cannot be – the future of European football. That’s why we opposed it, on principle, even though we knew, given the time period involved, there would be little chance of overturning the ban. It’s a question of principles and precedent: after Marseille is before Marseille. And that is why we have an interest in ensuring that a French administrative court decides on the legality of such a measure. At the moment, we’re in the early stages of the process (we expect it to last for 18-24 months).
FSE: We gather that you are also critical of UEFA’s sanctions for Olympique de Marseille, which were imposed in response to incidents at Europa League matches during the 2017-2018 season?
HS: We can say that we reject collective punishment in whatever form. We have always favoured perpetrator-oriented punishment in the Bundesliga. Participating in a European competition hasn’t changed our opinion.
PR: We recognise that UEFA, as the organiser of a competition with so many cultures, nations and clubs, has a much harder time maintaining a consistent level of order and safety than national associations. But, in the end, the result of this collective punishment, which impacts innocent fans, shows how unhelpful and counterproductive these means of sanction are.
FSE: What services does the club offer for its fans?
HS: We offer travel to every game, including transfers and tickets. This offer is aimed first and foremost at the 52,000 members for whom I work. Seven supporter liaison officers from the club, five of whom work full-time, also travel to away games. We make sure that we cater for fans with impairments, too, of course.
PR: The Frankfurt fan project, is also involved, and sends 3-5 people on away trips. From the pre-planning and distribution of tickets to the journey and as a point of contact on-site, we are there for our fans at every step. We don’t think so much in terms of “Europa League tourists” who would like a nice trip, but rather of the organised fan scene. We coordinate the process and we’re available as contacts whenever we can be. In addition, we act as a buffer to and mediator with the local security forces, especially during the preparation period. This is an important role because they differ not only geographically, but also on the basis of philosophy, deployment strategies, willingness to communicate, culture etc.
We try to prepare the host clubs and cities for our fan scene. Sometimes it works well and sometimes it doesn’t. In this context, we have worked with the Fan Department and FSE to establish a system of legal assistance where local lawyers help fans who have problems on the ground. These lawyers provide timely and high-quality assistance. We want to make sure that no one is left in a dark hole to rot. So far, we’ve had very good experiences with the respective colleagues in Marseille, Rome, Milan and Lisbon.
FSE: Given that UEFA regulations give away fans only 5% of the overall ticket allocation, is the process of distributing tickets difficult?
PR: Yes. In a game like the one at Chelsea, we can’t take all requests into account. That’s just the way it is. But our system privileges the regular away supporters, and we always try to find a way to bring the hard-core fans. This isn’t always easy, but we believe that we have a good system in place. We don’t have a ticket lottery.
FSE: You’ve been spared absurd prices so far: what was the most you have been charged and how do Eintracht set prices for their away sector?
PR: The most expensive game so far was in Milan, where the tickets of the regular contingent cost 30 EUR, while the 8,000 additional tickets we received were a bit more expensive at 40 EUR. This is OK because the host club provided us with more tickets from a higher category at our request. But you’re right, we’re yet to fall prey to exorbitant prices. For our home games, we respond to the pricing policy of each opponent. Our fans only had to pay 5 EUR in the Ukraine, so we charged Shakhtar Donetsk fans the same for the second leg. That´s just the right thing to do.
Image: Eintracht Frankfurt stadium by Valentin B. Kremer.