FC Bayern signs Musiala, Davies, Mane

From this silent space

Read article contents
Increase size

No one watching football should feel excluded. How do people with a hearing impairment or who are deaf refer to FC Bayern players? Our fan club "Red Deaf" has carried out pioneering work and developed signs for the players - enabling a one-two with the world in which they live.

This story begins with a faux-pas. Originally, the editors had planned to publish the cover of the current issue of "51" with the headline "Let's get loud". It was deemed a good idea, not because Jennifer Lopez's hit would immediately stick in your head, but because of the multi-layered message of the headline, which is often referred to as a meta-level. The cover was intended to grab everyone's attention, to express that we now ought to speak up together to draw attention to an issue that is unfortunately all too seldom heard in society. However, the well-intentioned idea is pulverised as charmingly as it is emphatically at the very first meeting with the fan club "Red Deaf FC Bayern".

FC Bayern fan club Red Deaf
A formidable team: Micky, Stefan, Martina, Toni, Markus and Rudi (from left) during their visit to Säbener Straße.

The cover with Serge Gnabry is terrific, says chair Martina Bechtold, and the fan club members are enthusiastic - but could the headline please be changed? To be honest, it feels discriminatory. "We understand what the statement is meant to achieve," translates sign language interpreter Daniel Rose, "but we're concerned with its perspective. Loud is a difficult word for deaf people - for us the word doesn't exist. We can't hear."

This, of course, puts paid to the original idea, complete with apologies from the editors, which Micky, at the side of fan club president Martina smilingly brushes away: "No insecurities, please! We're easy-going - don't worry about putting your foot in it." The thing is, he explains, "We... we live in a hearing world - but no one lives in our world. You can ask us anything you want. The truth is that it's actually nice that we're sitting here together and communicating with each other, and that we're able to realise a terrific project together. We're part of it. This is how the FC Bayern family feels!"

We live in a hearing world - but no one lives in our world.

Micky Meincke

It's a Friday afternoon at the Säbener Straße facility. Sign language interpreter Daniel does an extraordinary job over more than three hours, tirelessly making boundaries visible with his gestures - and breaking them down at the same time. There are two worlds, that of the deaf and the hearing, and encounters like this are far too rare, so unintentional faux pas are almost inevitable. Most of the conversation this afternoon is soundless - and perhaps all the more expressive for that very reason.

Sign Alphonso Davies FC Bayern
With pace: Alphonso Davies moves one hand briskly forward - because, on the pitch, he leaves everyone standing.

Martina Bechtold and a group of deaf people, with the help of Kim Krämer, the club's disabled fan representative, who was also present that afternoon, spent several months developing the names of FC Bayern players in sign language. "Today, once again, I am very, very proud of my FC Bayern," says Stefan, who has been a fan of the Reds since he was a child, when he still lived in North Rhine-Westphalia: "We were allowed to undertake this project on our own two feet, which really means a lot to us. That's why FC Bayern is FC Bayern." Until now, they've had to spell out the players in sign language, but in future there will be dedicated names that hearing fans will also be able to learn easily - which will facilitate the dialogue or, to a certain extent, actually make it possible in the first place. "My heart is soaring," Stefan translates, "I have shivers down my spine today." He's not the only one.

The beginning: a WhatsApp group

Initially, they set up a WhatsApp group and started working out the names via video messages. Among other things, the research led them through the internet and onto the players' social media channels. They studied the games on TV or in the stadium and eagerly leafed through the newspapers. Often, sign language is based on physical appearance, explains Rudi, who strokes his goatee when he introduces himself - and will therefore never shave it off. However, they planned to incorporate the sporting characteristics as well, in order to develop more varied and striking images. At the beginning of the year, they met in person at the centre for the deaf to finalise the preliminary work together. For a good three hours, they took a detailed look at each individual player, using a video projector and a large screen. Did they ever argue? No, they didn't, says Markus, grinning: "Let's just call them democratic disagreements."

Sign Serge Gnabry FC Bayern
The sign for Serge Gnabry - his iconic goal celebration - was an easy one to agree on.

In the end, they agreed on a draft for each player. Yann Sommer and Thomas Müller were easy because their names were already determined by the season (summer) and profession (miller). With Sadio Mané, the group adopted the sign already given to him by the Senegalese Sports Federation, "because they had already given him an identity," as Micky explains. Alphonso Davies was also easy to characterise due to his pace, as were Serge Gnabry and Jamal Musiala through their goal celebrations, and Kingsley Coman, too, who is so nimble in tight spaces. A few player names are still to be finalised, eg Dayot Upamecano, who has the provisional name "defence", while there are a number of alternatives for Leroy Sané. The players can also ultimately veto a suggestion.

"If someone isn't happy with their sign, we'll think of another one," Martina explains, and with a new arrival like Daley Blind, they'll take their time anyway to filter out his special characteristics. The Dutchman is generally a good example that sign language is also evolving: Until recently, Toni explains, people would have simply used the gesture for "blind" in the sense of not being able to see. But the world is becoming increasingly aware of discrimination, and racism is also an important issue among the deaf, since for a long time people had to focus on phenotypical characteristics for understandable reasons. "Just like with spoken language, our sign language is evolving," Micky explains, "we live in a time where people are more aware of many things. I think it's good that, nowadays, we discuss political correctness and of course take it into account."

Sign Sadio Mané FC Bayern
International brand - Sadio Mané had already been given a deaf identity in Senegal.

Although there is no official copyright in sign language, the unanimous opinion on the subject of interpretive sovereignty within the group headed up by Martina is that the names for the Bayern players should apply everywhere else in future. There are dialects and, not least, international differences, and it often depends on the perspective (a Dortmund fan has a different perspective on the German record champions than a supporter of the Reds) - but signs developed by FC Bayern fans for their own players represent an indisputable statement that should be recognised. "With this, we're giving our players an identity in our language," Markus explains, "FC Bayern is our club, so our language should also apply." In the next phase, they will also apply themselves to the women's football team as well as the FC Bayern basketball players.

We're giving our players an identity in our language.

Markus Posset

It's conceivable that in future the sign language names will be shown on the video walls when the team line-up is announced before each match. Toni has a few practical tips on general communication between fans from both worlds: "The signing space is like a screen between the head and the belly button. This is where everything takes place, you basically talk along, as the viseme, or mouth image also plays a role, and you should never work against the light, Martina notes, as this makes it more difficult to see. Nuances are often crucial, Stefan explains: with Yann Sommer, for example, you should also display a summery facial expression, otherwise the gesture means something else. In general, deaf people are good observers. With Joshua Kimmich, Rudi noticed one day that he often raises an eyebrow. The others didn't notice that for a long time either, but they agreed with him. That's how the midfield motor's sign came about.

Sign Matthijs de Ligt FC Bayern
The number 4 jersey and his heart at FC Bayern: Matthijs de Ligt.

Vibrations in the stadium

By necessity, deaf people need to have a fine antennae as observers when they visit the stadium. It's impossible to imagine being in that special silent space - how does it feel for Martina and the others when they're in the Allianz Arena? "When we sit close to the Südkurve and the fans there get lively, we feel the vibrations," Markus describes, "that's very, very good - we can tell: Something's happening!" The conversation is now in a sensitive area, it's about perception and the desire for mutual understanding. When the fans sing "Stand up if you're for Bayern!", everyone stands up - "but we don't know why everyone stands up", Markus continues, "there's a feeling of being excluded". He says the same applies to all the stadium announcements relating to the match and also to the clips on the display: "We want to understand all that as well, whether it's announcements about pyrotechnics or the advertisements during the half-time break: People who are able to hear can decide whether they listen or not. That's exactly the choice we would like to have as well." Stefan gives another example: "If Serge Gnabry scores a goal, everyone in the stadium screams his name - by now also having a sign for him, we can join in the cheering in our own way. We feel more like part of the crowd. And if others adopted the sign as well, a sense of togetherness would grow. We wouldn't be silent."

We want to go to places where we can experience the atmosphere.

Martina Bechtold

The "Red Deaf FC Bayern" fan club, founded in 2005, currently has 97 members. They are scattered all over Germany, and anyone can easily become a member via the fan club's home page. Once a year there's a general meeting, and the board is elected every two years. Martina has been running the club for ten years. At home games, they have their own table in the Paulaner Treff, and deaf fans of visiting teams often drop by here because they maintain many friendly contacts - Markus even offers guided tours of the club museum, and they visit their counterparts on away trips. Not everything at these meetings revolves around football, Martina says. They also go hiking together in the mountains (some in jerseys and traditional costumes), they recently went bowling, and their Christmas parties always take place in different places because they like to see something new. "The community is very important to us," says Martina, "we also want to socialise and go to places where we can experience the atmosphere."

Sign Yann Sommer FC Bayern
Goalkeeper Yann Sommer's sign: the sun coming up.

In this respect, the FC Bayern annual general meeting is always a highlight, because unlike at other clubs, where deaf fans sometimes have to follow the proceedings with an interpreter in a room next door, they have seats in the front row, and Daniel, along with colleagues, translates everything that President Herbert Hainer, CEO Oliver Kahn and the other members of the club management say on stage. Stefan enthuses about how Uli Hoeneß is seated a few seats from them, not five metres away - "and that we can experience the whole atmosphere in the middle of the hall. It's nice that we're not shunted off to the back somewhere." The USA and actually the whole of Europe are much further ahead on this issue than Germany, says Micky, which makes it all the nicer that the FCB annual general meeting is a good example of inclusion in action: "FC Bayern is a very social club."

Common language level

Because that's ultimately what it's all about for every one of us: Not to be excluded. To be acknowledged. To be seen, to be heard. Micky loves studying the fans' faces after the final whistle in the Allianz Arena: this joy, this happiness after a win and these emotions after a defeat, which he experiences in the same way. Markus says he doesn't read the newspaper for days after losing a game. You just feel connected when it comes to FC Bayern; hearing and deaf fans alike get frustrated. At the end of the conversation, Rudi makes a sign that is meant to express "Mia san mia". His outstretched index finger moves in front of his chest - at the level where the heart beats. Rudi uses the High German formulation analogous to "Wir sind wir" (We are us) - but the fan club plans to develop its own sign in the coming months. One that expresses the Bavarian understanding of themselves, reflects the club's identity and stands for a football family from which no one is excluded, where you can say anything to each other because there is now also a common language level - and with time, fewer and fewer faux-pas. 

© Photos: Peter Schreiber, Hannes Rohrer, Sebastian Gabriel, Roman Lang

This article appeared in the current issue of the FC Bayern members' magazine "51" (in German).