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National Soccer Team Redefines What it Means to Be German

Diana FongJune 20, 2006

As nearly one-quarter of the German soccer team have foreign roots, cheering for the home boys means coming to terms with a Germany that has become increasingly diverse ethnically. Or does it?

Swiss-born Neuville celebrates victory with Odonkor, whose father's from GhanaImage: picture-alliance/dpa

In the opening match against Costa Rica, the two goals scored by Polish-born Miroslav Klose gave Germany, the striker's adopted country, a 4-2 victory. The 1-0 match against Poland, which was punctuated by missed chances for both Klose and fellow attacker Lukas Podolski against their country of origin, was saved at injury time by Swiss-born Oliver Neuville, who slid in a low cross from David Odonkor, whose father hails from Ghana.

The team boasts another forward, Gerald Asamoah, who is Ghanaian-born, but became naturalized in time to play for Germany in the last World Cup in 2002. Kevin Kuranyi, who was dropped from the squad last May, was born in Brazil. Patrick Owomoyela, an alternate, is of Nigerian extraction.

Five out of six strikers have foreign roots

Sport, Fußball, WM06 Gerald Asamoah
Gerald Asamoah calls himself "the blackest player" ever on the German teamImage: AP

Interestingly, five out of six strikers on the German national team have foreign roots -- in countries which happened to have qualified for this World Cup tournament -- Poland, Switzerland and Ghana. Under different circumstances, the forwards could have even been playing for the other side.

"Many people thought I should play for Ghana but it was my decision to do what I feel best," Asamoah, who jocularly describes himself as "the blackest player" ever to join the German team, told The Independent of London. "It's an honor to play for Germany."

Before Asamoah, only two dark-skinned players, Erwin Kostedde and Jimmy Hartwig, sons of black American GIs, wore the white jersey of the West German squad in the 1970s, but were then subjected to racist taunts as national players.

Racism in soccer

Even Asamoah, who now plays for the premier club Schalke, once had insults and bananas hurled at him in the eastern city of Cottbus. Unfortunately the ugly face of soccer recently reared its head when the right-wing National Party produced a photograph of him with a banner headline "No Gerald, you are not Germany."

"That really hurt me," Asamoah told reporters. "The fight against right-wing radicals could be something for the future, when I have ended my soccer career."

Saufen für das Reich
Neo-Nazi skinheadsImage: AP

He would have his work cut out for him.

"Though racism is not much more prevalent in Germany, compared to neighboring countries, the element of racial violence, with over 100 deaths, has risen since unification," said Andreas Merx, a project specialist who writes about soccer and integration for the Heinrich Böll Foundation. "In the East, where there are relatively fewer foreigners, blacks and dark-skinned individuals are more visible, so anyone who simply looks different is targeted by right-wing extremists."

A national team that reflects ethnic diversity

In a nation of 82 million, 19 percent of all inhabitants in Germany come from a migrant background, according to the Federal Bureau of Statistics.

"So it is about time that the national soccer team reflected the ethnic diversity of this nation," said Hans-Georg Soeffner, who heads a project on assimilation in the soccer milieu at the University of Konstanz. "Furthermore, success in soccer offers a good chance of upward mobility for immigrant families, who tend to come from a lower socio-economic background."

Turks underrepresented at the national level

Türkische Fußball Fans in Kreuzberg
Cheering for Turkey, not Germany, in BerlinImage: AP

Oddly enough, the Turks, the biggest migrant community in Germany, have hardly been represented on the German team, with the exception of former national player Mehmet Scholl, whose father is Turkish.

One problem is that many top Turkish players who qualify for German citizenship choose to play for the land of their forebears.

"They play for Turkey instead, partly because of the clever, relentless efforts of the Turkish Soccer Association, which actively recruits high level talent in Germany and Europe," Merx said. "But discrimination by German teammates in the lower divisions is also another reason for dropping out of German leagues altogether."

Even Poles are slighted in Germany, often the butt of jokes as petty car thieves who take away jobs from self-respecting Germans. However, those who make it to the top have not only become positive role models for a younger generation, but receive the adulation of millions of German soccer fans everywhere.

As an advertising spot summed it up: "Gerald…you are Germany!"