The German Foreign Ministry in conjunction with Deutsche Welle and the Goethe Institute has announced the three 2015 German Football Ambassadors. They're Jürgen Klinsmann, Mesut Özil and Thomas Hitzlsperger.
The three awards were presented at a ceremony at the German Foreign Ministry in Berlin on Tuesday evening. The proceedings were interrupted briefly when the news broke that controversial FIFA President Sepp Blatter was stepping down. This led to a lively discussion between German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and the president of the German Football Association, the DFB, Wolfgang Niersbach about ethical responsibility and football.
As the buzz surrounding Blatter subsided somewhat, attention returned to the three winners. Jürgen Klinsmann, Mesut Özil and Thomas Hitzlsperger are a very diverse trio, although they all share one thing in common: an ability to communicate and embody the best aspects of German football abroad.
The exuberant ambassador
The jury's prize for the 2015 German Football Ambassador went to US national team coach Jürgen Klinsmann.
The 50-year-old former striker was one of the best travelled German players of his generation, plying his trade at Inter Milan, Monaco, Tottenham, Sampdoria and Orange County as well as Stuttgart and Bayern in Germany. But his heart clearly belongs to adopted home, the United States.
"I've been living here for more than 17 years," Klinsmann said ahead of the award ceremony. "If you look at where football was here thirty years ago and where it was now, it's a minor miracle."
A decade ago, Klinsmann took over a German national team in disarray and led the Nationalelf to a third-place finish at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Now as coach of the US Men's National Soccer Team, he's tackling what is arguably one of the toughest tasks in the game: trying to get Americans excited about the "other" kind of football.
"I think the most important thing is that the Americans saw with this World Cup how emotional football can be and how it can connect people," Klinsmann said. "I think that 2014 was a real breakthrough. Americans finally understand that football is a really great game."
Among other charitable endeavors, Klinsmann supports an initiative to help disadvantaged children in the US to take up the game of football. And his exuberance and boyish enthusiasm has indeed led to an unprecedented American soccer boom.
The quiet ambassador
The public award for German Football Ambassador went to Arsenal midfielder Mesut Özil.
To say that Özil is a man of few words is an understatement. The painfully shy 26-year-old from the Western German town of Gelsenkirchen is the footballing equivalent of Silent Bob from the Kevin Smith movies.
Özil does his talking on the pitch. Since being brought from Real Madrid to the Gunners for a club-record transfer fee of 50 million pounds in 2013, Özil has helped lead Arsenal to two FA Cups, breaking a nine-year title drought, and keep the London club a fixture in the Champions League.
He's also a World Cup winner with Germany, of course, and what many people don't know is that he donated his prize money from that competition to charity.
"In my job, I can really make a difference in a few ways," Özil said upon accepting the award. "We are very privileged. People who know me will tell you: my goal is to help kids as much as possible. I like to spend time with them. I've already talked to my team of helpers, and we are going to use the money to help young burn victims in Africa."
The courageous ambassador
The winner of the Honorary German Football Ambassador award was Thomas Hitzlsperger.
Over the course of his 12-year professional career the 33-year-old former midfielder split his time between England, Italy and Germany, playing for Aston Villa, Stuttgart, Lazio, West Ham, Wolfsburg and Everton. He also played for the German national team at all youth levels and was capped 52 times for the senior men's side.
Hitzlperger retired from playing in 2013, but he was back in the news the following year when he came out and openly discussed his homosexuality. He is the most prominent former footballer ever to publicly acknowledge being gay and won praise from athletes, politicians and journalists for his courage.
He has also worked for a number of years for projects aimed at combating racism, anti-Semitism and right-wing radicalism and helping HIV-positive children in South Africa.
"The award makes me very proud," Hitzlsperger said after learning he had won the prize. "It's a motivation to keep trying to bring the ideas and values of German football abroad. The exchange of opinions I experienced at my various stations abroad was truly invaluable."