Every year, an initiative honors German footballers for their social engagement abroad. This year's award ceremony in Berlin drew big names and made it clear that Germany has long transcended borders.
On a surprisingly hot and sweaty night in Berlin's Mitte district, former national football players in fancy suits clinked glasses with FIFA referees, reporters and politicians for the presentation of this year's German Football Ambassador award.
The initiative honors German players and coaches whose work promotes the development of football and society abroad and reflects a positive image of Germany and its values. Past winners of the prize include Sami Khedira (2013), Andre Schürrle (2014) and Mesut Özil (2015).
Making an impact
Football plays an increasingly important role in bridging borders, particularly in Europe. So perhaps it's telling that the winner of this year's award, Gernot Rohr, a former professional footballer in Europe and manager of Burkina Faso's national team, is not just German, but also holds a French passport.
Born and raised in Germany, Rohr moved to France in his early 20s and immediately became a regular player for Bordeaux, with whom he managed to win three championship titles.
He later moved to Africa where he made an impact on football in three different African countries, coaching the national teams of Gabon, Niger and Burkina Faso – at times under life threatening conditions. He managed to lead a functioning team in Burkina Faso, despite the unstable political situation there.
With the prize money, he will support the football school of the German-Burkinan Association in Burkina Farso's capital of Ouagadougou, where up to 80 young students can live but which has been badly injured after the revolution.
"I’m surprised people here still know about me after I have been gone for so many years," he said at the ceremony, laughing. He dedicated the award to his great uncle, who was the first German professional football player to move to France in 1934 and who was later caught by the Nazis and had to spend time in a concentration camp. "This award is for him and my father, who managed to teach us children important values."
Rohr's old friend and former German national player Dieter Müller gave a personal and emotional laudatory speech packed with old memories and anecdotes, in which he praised Rohr's humor and positive outlook in life, which according to Müller made him the ambassador he is being recognized as now.
More than just a game
Germany's political and sporting communities were in attendance at the event, and the first guest on stage was none other than German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. He opened the night with what would become the common theme: the statement that football is more than just a game.
"Sports and culture can have a social power," Steinmeier said. "But that power doesn't just emerge by itself, it needs people who are committed to football with all of their heart and who bring its positive spirit to society, who manage to unite people because of football."
That feeling of unity became obvious when Steinmeier welcomed his French counterpart on stage with the words: "The love and passion we share for football connects us far beyond our foreign policy." He did, however, make clear that that doesn't mean he won't cheer for Germany to win the UEFA European Football Championship, which kicks off on June 10 in France.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault took the opportunity to declare - in perfect German - how much he is looking forward to welcoming all of Europe to France for this year's European Championships, which he called a challenge after last year's terrorist attacks in Paris. "But it's a good challenge, we want to organize a celebration of football, friendship and freedom," he said. "Civilization, freedom and unity are our answer to the terrorists." The speech drew the biggest applause of the night.
Ayrault went on to say that this is also the reason why an award like the German Football Ambassador is so important. “I think it's beautiful that we are honoring values like solidarity and fair play today. We need that in times like these."
Frank-Walter Steinmeier was in Paris when the terrorist attacks happened. "I was in the stadium that night," he said, pausing and looking over to Ayrault. "I will never in my life forget November 13. But I want to watch a different sort of football game in that stadium so I am looking forward to retuning to Paris this summer and to witness football as a celebration of happiness again."
Funding for social projects
Each year, an expert jury of six gathers to choose the winner of the German Football Ambassador award. Nominations are based on social engagement and positive contribution to society through football. But before a final decision is made, Roland Bischof, the founder of the initiative, visits the nominees with his team for several days to watch their social work in person, rather than just calling up the winners and sending over some money. "That’s not what this award is about," Bischof said at the ceremony.
Once the decision is made, the initiative supports the winners with money for their social projects. In the past years, the funding was used to rebuild football fields in Nepal and Sudan, to build homes for female footballers in Namibia and to support schools in poor neighborhoods in Jamaica.
Two more prizes were awarded at the ceremony. The Public Award goes to one of 11 selected German footballers playing abroad and is decided by a public online vote. This year's winner is 22-year-old German-Turkish footballer Emre Can, who currently plays as a midfielder for Liverpool FC.
The Prize of Honor, which is awarded to a player or coach who has made an extraordinary contribution to football abroad, was given to former German national player Karl-Heinz Schnellinger, who played for A.C. Milan for years, where he won every important international title.
Transcending the pitch
In the end, everyone at the ceremony agreed how important it is to acknowledge the social power of football and the people who drive that power forward.
"Football transports values, openness and transparency and is a fantastic vehicle to communicate human rights, civil rights and liberties," said Peter Limbourg, DW's Director General.
And Urs Meier, former FIFA referee from Switzerland, put it this way: "It's so important to integrate people and not to edge people out. Football is a way to do that because it happens in people's hearts, not in people's heads. And that's why it does what politics often fails to do: it brings people together and creates values. And that’s exactly what the ambassadors awarded here are already doing."