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Seven decades after Holocaust, neo-Nazis use soccer to preach Hitler's hate

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Fans of the German soccer team Kaiserslautern hold up Israeli flags to protest against anti-Semitism prior to the Bundesliga match between FC Kaiserslautern and VfL Wolfsburg in March last year.

Nearly seven decades after the Holocaust, young soccer fans in Germany have become targets of neo-Nazis who preach the hatred of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich.

“Again and again we see neo-Nazi presence in [sports] fan clubs and my office asks that action be taken against them,” said Winfriede Schreiber, head of the Brandenburg branch of the German government’s intelligence service. “For example, we see the fan club in [the German city] Cottbus consisting of a lot of neo-Nazis. We asked the football club to do something about this.”

At her office in Brandenburg, a state in eastern Germany, Schreiber monitors extremism and reports evidence of hate crimes to prosecutors.

“The neo-Nazis now look like everyone else,” Schreiber said. “Gone are the jackboots and black leather jackets that used to make it easy to expose them. Now they blend into the local population.”

According to Schreiber, the neo-Nazis subscribe to Hitler’s views and extol his one-time deputy, Rudolf Hess.

“The danger the neo-Nazis pose is that they are against democracy and they work to alienate young people from democracy,” she said. “They have made ‘Juden’ [Jews] a curse word even if there are no Jews playing on the soccer field.”

Jens Teschke, a spokesman for Germany's interior ministry, which is responsible for domestic security, said neo-Nazi activities are visible throughout Germany, but strongest in the country's east.

“Neo-Nazis take young soccer fans to homes built in the Nazi times as holiday retreats for elite members of Hitler’s party,” Teschke said. “They laud the Nazi era and the legacy of this era.”

According to Teschke, the German government launched programs in January 2011 to make soccer coaches more aware of neo-Nazi tactics.

The problem is not limited to Germany. 

In England, fans of London-based Tottenham Hotspur -- which boasts a strong Jewish following -- have been subjected to anti-Semitic abuse for many years. In November, supporters of West Ham United "hissed on several occasions, mocking the mass execution of Jews during the Second World War," the U.K.'s Telegraph newspaper reported. "While the hissing, shamefully, is nothing new, Tottenham fans were also subjected to a chant of 'Adolf Hitler, he's coming for you.'"

Only days earlier, an American college student suffered a foot-long stab wound and a punctured lung when a mob of up to 50 masked men armed with knives and baseball bats attacked Tottenham Hotspur fans before a Europa League match in Rome.

Witnesses told local media that the attackers shouted "Jews, Jews" as they laid siege to the bar. 

"The coordinated attack ... appears to have been motivated at least in part by anti-Semitism," the Telegraph reported.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center also recently highlighted the issue's growth. "The problem of anti-Semitic abuse at soccer matches which until recently has been limited to Eastern Europe, has been revived in Western Europe," it said in a report.

Prime targets of anti-Semitism on the soccer field are the Makkabi teams, Jewish athletic clubs located in 15 German cities.

“Every Makkabi team in Germany is confronted with anti-Semitism, as are teams with Jewish roots,” said Deidre Berger, director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) in Berlin, an advocacy group.

Soccer coach Claudio Oppenberg, who is Jewish, said his team also faced anti-Semitism from Muslim immigrants.

According to Oppenberg, who’s coached Tus Makkabi Berlin for seven years, only two members of the current team are Jewish. The rest are from North Africa and Turkey.

During a game last March, Oppenberg said members of a Turkish team shouted at fellow Turks on the Makkabi team: “How can you play for these damned Jews?”

The Turkish team beat the Makkabis 1-0. Oppenberg said the Turkish coach confronted him after the game and said: “We f---d you Jews.” 

Oppenberg filed charges with the German Football Federation and the Turkish coach was suspended for a year.

“If you have racism and anti-Semitism in society, then you will have it in football too,” said Alex Feuerherdt, a soccer referee and freelance writer.

Donald Snyder, a veteran NBC News producer for more than 25 years, is a special correspondent for NBCNews.com. 

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