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Why Germany Wants to Look Like Its Soccer Team

In a country where immigrants haven't always been welcome, politicians champion Die Mannschaft as an integrated model of diversity.
(Photo: 360b/Shutterstock)

(Photo: 360b/Shutterstock)

On the evening of June 25, 2008, Germany played one of the most-hyped soccer games in its long, proud history: The semi-finals of the 2008 UEFA European Championship. It wasn’t the country’s most important match—by 2008 Germany had already won both the European Championship and the World Cup three times—but the match carried a new kind of cultural importance. Germany’s opponent was Turkey, a nation from which Germany has received more immigrants than any other. Earlier in 2008, video emerged of two men with immigrant backgrounds (one Turkish and one Greek) brutally attacking an elderly German man in the Munich subway. The attack, which appeared to be ethnically motivated, had piqued anti-immigrant sentiment across Germany. As supporters of each team emerged from their homes to fill Germany’s public-viewing areas, the pre-match news cycle was focused as much on what might happen on the streets that evening as it was on what might happen on the soccer field in Basel.

“My cousins and I wanted to catch the Turkey vs. Germany semi-final outdoors at a public screening, but we were advised against it,” Alima Hotakie says. Hotakie was born in Afghanistan but grew up in Germany before moving to Canada, where she now lives. “There was even an increased police presence everywhere out of fear that the two groups might clash.”

Germany won 3-2 in a supremely entertaining match, featuring a 90th-minute goal from current-Germany captain Philip Lahm, and the expectations of riots and pitched battles turned out to be unfounded. “Not only did [violence] not happen,” Gavin Hicks, a recently-minted Ph.D. in German studies who wrote his dissertation on German soccer, nationalism, and the media, tells me by phone. “But once the German team won, it seemed like people who identified themselves as Turkish were sad—and then they cheered on Germany against Spain anyway.”

“Most Turkish fans were also proud Germany supporters,” Hotakie says. “It was more of a win-win situation rather than a win-lose one.”

"I remember—and I’m 41 years old—when I went to my first school exchanges in France and England, I was greeted with the Hitler salute. That doesn’t happen so often anymore."

After the tournament, which Germany lost in the finals, the German media was left wondering what had happened, both on and off the field: Why hadn’t Germany won the Championship? And why had the community of Turkish-Germans rallied behind the Mannschaft?

The answer to the first question was simple: Spain was and is amazing. The Spaniards went on to win the 2010 World Cup and the 2012 European Championship.

The second question is a little more complicated.

AS GERMANY REBUILT FROM World War II it faced serious shortages in its labor force. Beginning in the 1950s, Germany signed agreements with other countries—mostly in Southern and Eastern Europe—which allowed short-term migration of workers to Germany. Called “Gastarbeiter” or guest workers, the idea was that they’d work for a few years before returning to their home countries. Germany would benefit from their labor, and the workers would return home with money saved. It didn’t always work out that way, however. Many guest workers extended their contracts, time and again, received permanent residency, and brought their families. When these workers began having children in Germany, there wasn’t a clear path to citizenship.

The German government made a change to immigration law in 2000. In short, the Nationality Act of 2000 made it far easier for immigrants to become naturalized citizens. It also made it possible, for the first time, for immigrant children born in Germany to become German citizens at birth, provided their parents meet certain residency requirements.

German immigrant communities, though, still often experience social marginalization, cultural misunderstanding, and suffer from higher unemployment and lower educational achievement, among other social problems. How to solve these integration issues is one of contemporary Germany’s most contentious and talked about subjects—a politisches Megathema. There were six players on Germany’s 2008 European Championship team who were either foreign-born or had a foreign-born parent, and although there were no Turkish-German players, the symbolic inclusiveness was thought to have been enough. As Turkish-German players like Mesut Özil and İlkay Gündoğan joined the team in the years following the 2008 tournament, along with Sami Khedira, a Tunisian-German, the national team’s symbolic importance has increased.

Today it’s not uncommon for politicians, like Chancellor Angela Merkel, to champion the national team’s diversity, to refer to the team as a model for acceptance and integration. She’s not being hyperbolic. There’s an argument to be made today that the German national team isn’t just a symbol of an integrated Germany, but that German soccer is itself one of Germany’s greatest integrative forces.

FOOTBALL IN GERMANY IS influential in a way that is difficult to overstate—and, in the United States, difficult to find a comparison for. The DFB, Germany’s Football Association, the sport’s governing body, is the world’s largest. “[It] has almost 7 million members now,” says Uli Hesse, a German football historian and author of Tor! The Story of German Football. (Seven million is about 8.7 percent of the German population.) “You know the saying over here is that the three biggest sports in Germany are football, football, and football.”

Only the top four or five divisions overseen by the DFB are professional or semi-professional and therefore subject to the meritocratic integration of that world. The rest—about 25,000 clubs—are amateur. In Germany’s largest cities, according to Gerd Dembowski, a German researcher who has specialized in football culture for 20 years, almost 50 percent of those amateur teams at the junior and senior levels are composed of players coming “from the roots of the Guestarbeiter.”

“If [those players] stopped playing football,” Dembrowski says, “football would not be here anymore.”

One of the DFB’s jobs is to cast a wide net in search of the country’s best players. At the amateur level, teams are sometimes segregated or set up by specific ethnic groups—like Turks or Poles—which can create tension on the soccer field that goes beyond a desire to win or lose. For the DFB to properly carry out its mission, the organizations must run a league system that’s inclusive, and that means addressing ethnic tensions and other integration issues at the grassroots level.

“[The DFB] are investing in long-term development right now,” Dembowski says. “They’re not investing any more in the easy ways of saying no to racism. They do this, of course ... but they also invest in the lower leagues, more and more. They invest money and they invest in giving the privileges to the people. For a long time, it was the Germans saying, ‘Oh, they have to adapt. They have to become like us. They have to change. They have to approach us.’ But now the German Football Association and the other players who are involved in football as institutions, they show openly that, ‘We have to change, too.’ People coming from [elsewhere] change the whole.”

The idea that ethnic Germans have a responsibility to adapt to immigrants has taken hold in other parts of German society too. In this way, the DFB, and the symbolism of the national team, have a real impact on German culture as a whole.

There are still skeptics out there. The populist nature of the national team makes it an attractive tool for drawing attention to important social issues, but, paradoxically, it can also be used to whitewash or distract from those same issues. “[The national team] gives us immediately recognizable images of integration that we don’t have to interpret,” Hicks says. “The common man on the street doesn’t have to figure it out. There’s no intellectual work to be done.”

REAL SOCIAL CHANGE MIGHT come as more people in power, both inside and outside of football, realize “multicultural patriotism” is something that’s good for business. Since hosting the 2006 World Cup, the way people around the world view Germany has completely changed. The country seems to be finally emerging from the shadow of its Nazi past. (According to an annual BBC poll, Germany is the world’s “most positively viewed nation.”) The men’s national team is the most prominent, visible representation of that change.

“If you talk to school kids today, students who go to [foreign] exchanges and they say they’re Germans. They’re well appreciated,” Dembowski says. “I remember—and I’m 41 years old—when I went to my first school exchanges in France and England, I was greeted with the Hitler salute. That doesn’t happen so often anymore. How Germany is appreciated or perceived in other countries is different. German institutions, especially football institutions, they see it.”

In 2008, despite both Germany and Turkey failing to win the European Championship, it turned out to be a pivotal moment, an acknowledgment of belonging from Germany’s Turkish community, and a realization among Germans that their country had become a multicultural state.

“Anything else would be absurd really, at this point in time, in the 21st century,” Hesse says. “Such a huge country in central Europe? Anything else would be absurd.”