Germany's soccer integration award puts the spotlight on small projects and initiatives that help kids to learn the German language and acquire self-esteem, team spirit and social skills.
There was massive applause for Thomas Murken on Friday afternoon. The teacher from Bremen is one of the winners of this year's integration prize presented by the German Football Association (DFB). His work with his pupils won his primary school a brand new Mercedes Vito van.
Football is an "engine for integration," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who left the daily chaos of eurozone crisis meetings to join the award ceremony in Berlin. Over the past years, Merkel has shown a growing interest in soccer as being Germany's most popular sport, and she's stressed that the annual integration prize serves to put the public's focus on many small projects and initiatives.
This year, for instance, the small suburban club Fontana Finthen from just outside the city of Mainz, was among the winners. Each year the club organizes a training camp for children whose parents don't have enough money to go on holiday – and many of the kids joining the camp have an immigrant background.
Self-esteem and social skills
DFB President Theo Zwanziger pointed out that among the almost seven million members of the association, the number of those with an immigrant background is steadily on the rise. After all, almost 40 percent of all children in Germany come from families where their parents or grandparents came as immigrants to Germany.
The DFB says that participation in a sports club and regular training sessions are crucial for learning the German language and getting more self-esteem as well as team and social skills.
Another factor is that in Germany, like in most other countries, football can be a springboard for social advancement, for acceptance and recognition - it even can be a way to become rich. Germany's national soccer team has the likes of Mesut Özil, Sami Khedira or Jerome Boateng to prove that point and is seen as a prime example for successful integration.
But also on an amateur level, in schools and many small sports projects, the cooperation between Germans and immigrants is working very well, says Oliver Bierhoff, former Germany player and now general manager of the Germany squad. And, he points out, it's important that those success stories are being told.
The former striker is the patron of the integration prize and part of the jury. In this fifth year, there were as many as 176 people or projects competing for the award.
Banker turned kids coach
Teacher Thomas Murken says that for him, the prize is also a recognition and confirmation of an unusual decision he took. A few years ago, the 43-year-old quit his job as a banker and decided to become a primary school teacher. When asked why he went for that surprising career change, Murken smiles and says he simply preferred to work with children.
For two-and-a-half years, he's been teaching at a school in the German city of Bremen, in a part of town often described as a social hotspot. He says that if you respect the rules in a sports game like soccer, it will also help you to respect rules in other situations, both inside and outside of school. Seventy percent of the kids that Murken is working with have an immigrant background. Half of them are actually girls who often have to overcome the resistance that their parents put up against their kids playing sports. But in general, Murken says, his teaching is widely welcomed and accepted by both the children and the parents at his school. When he arrives in the morning, many of the kids greet him soccer style: with a high five.
Author: Bernd Gräßler / ai
Editor: Spencer Kimball