Germany exports soccer projects like other countries export steel or coal. A recent conference has looked at current and future projects abroad where soccer could be used as a diplomatic and regenerating tool.
In countries with little else, soccer brings hope and a community spirit
Sport in general, and specifically soccer, has long been considered a great tool for diplomacy -- something that has not been lost on the German foreign ministry, which invited 22 German coaches to Leipzig for a conference supported by the German Football Association (DFB) and the German Olympic committee to discuss new ways of expanding this theme.
"Just like sport in general, soccer coaches are generally a central element in the creation of understanding between nations in this area," said Peter Dettmar, a leading foreign ministry advocate of diplomacy through sport, at the conference. "These football teachers firstly represent German sport, then German football and finally Germany as a whole."
Dettmar's idea is nothing new. Sports personalities have been used as ambassadors for as long as competitive sport has taken place between nations. But it is an idea that is frequently interpreted and applied in different ways.
The meeting of the 22 coaches, most of whom are based in Asia and Africa, concentrated on promoting Germany in the sporting world ahead of the 2006 World Cup. And it also looked into strengthening international ties through sports and the mutual benefits that arise.
Horst Schmidt, vice president of the organizing committee for the 2006 World Cup, spoke of the give and take needed in dealing with foreign sports federations. It is no secret, he said, that the DFB has been working increasingly closely with the Asian federations and developing a close relationship, without which the World Cup may not have been delivered to Germany.
"The Asians gave us their voice in the executive committee of (world soccer body) FIFA. We wanted to be appreciative of that and have strengthened our efforts in terms of cooperation."
As part of this cooperation, the German national team will play three internationals in the middle of December, against Japan, South Korea and Thailand.
Asian relations a current priority
The DFB is involved in numerous projects in Asia designed to help develop the game and the structures that support it. German coach Thomas Flath has been working with the Asian Football Confederation in Kuala Lumpur for two years, consulting on issues such as organizational structures and the development of youth soccer.
Flath could be an exception in the future: His two-year stint in Malaysia could be one of the last long term positions if the German foreign ministry goes ahead with its plan to increase the number of projects in the world but reduce their duration to no more than eight weeks.
Lack of continuity hinders Africa
While Asia remains a focus for the foreign ministry and DFB, Africa limps behind in terms of the number of projects. The German institutions have found it harder to establish a relationship with the African federations because of the high staff turnover in most of them, meaning that representatives don't stay in the jobs long enough to see through the work. The lack of continuity seems to be the biggest stumbling block.
The latest example of this came during the week after Cameroon lost to Germany in a friendly in Leipzig. The 3-0 defeat heralded the end of coach Winfried Schäfer's three-year tenure over the team and effectively ended the rebuilding work that had brought one African Cup and World Cup qualification in 2002 to the Indominatable Lions. A new coach is expected to start from scratch with the team, which would again set collaborations with Germany back to square one.
Chinese cooperation at a peak
In contrast, sporting relations with China are at a peak. Under the management of experienced coach Eckhard Krautzun, a talent school has been built up in Bad Kissingen where promising Chinese players train with their sights on a successful Olympic tournament in Beijing in 2008.
German coaches also work in China and help in developing players and liaising with the German Bundesliga, promoting talent that may suit the top clubs in Germany.
Germany is not only a shining light in the promotion of the men's game. Germany's women are the reigning world champions and Olympic bronze medallists and, as a result, Germany holds a respected position in the promotion of the women's game around the world.
Problematic promotion of women's projects
But it's no simple matter to travel to some areas of the world where women hold a different position in culture and society and promote sports diplomacy through women's soccer, according to Hans Georg Moldenhauer, vice president of the DFB.
"We cannot simply go, for example, to Teheran or, for example, Indonesia, and begin a women's football project," he said. "Maybe they do not want this at all."
But women's soccer can have as regenerating an effect as male-based projects, given the right environment. In Afghanistan, for example, where women were persecuted under the Taliban regime, German projects have helped a social reshaping process in the wake of the fall of the dictatorship.
Small successes in Afghanistan
Klaus Stärk, a counselor who works with the Afghan Football Association in Kabul, has watched a transformation take place.
"The girls have a surprising interest in the sport. We have made the first steps in Afghanistan," he said. "We have organized one women's tournament in the stadium, although not for viewing by the general public, but this was the first time they had come out from behind their walls."
The Afghan project will be a long development process, Stärk said, but the next steps are already being planned.
"We have had conversations with the DFB to bring a German national player to Kabul, to lead courses, to organize tournaments … but above all we must continue to be very careful in both the political and religious sectors," he said.
If everything goes to plan, German world champion Sylvia Neid could be the first female soccer expert to work in Kabul.