Who were those Germans?

3 Aug

Cacau (Brazilian born) and Podolski (Polish roots)

Sami Khedira (Tunisian roots), Jerome Boateng (Ghanaian roots), and Mesut Özil (Turkish roots)


Looking back I think one of the most notable stories of this World Cup came out of Germany. No, I’m not referring to Paul the psychic octopus, although I do think that he has successfully written his name into football lore. The real story was the surprising ethnic diversity of the German national team. Germany’s team has been compared to the French team that lifted the Cup in 1998 because of their willingness to present a different face of Germany to the world.  This German team broke from the blonde hair, blue eyed, Aryan stereotypes and fielded a team that more accurately reflects the current state of German society. The on field contributions of players who come from immigrant backgrounds was not overlooked by the international media. With names like Boateng, Khedira, Oezil, Cacau, and Podolski amongst more traditional German surnames such as Meuller, Lahm, and Schweinsteiger its no surprise that pundits and fans alike took notice. What’s more, the German style of play was clearly influenced by these new players. I was surprised to see that the conventional German playing style, which is commonly likened to a well-oiled machine, had been broken down and transformed into a more playful style more commonly associated with South American teams. Dare I say that the German side had more flair than the Brazilians this time around? And yet, despite their success in the tournament, the “new look” of the German eleven was quite a hot topic in Germany. They faced opposition from those on the far right for being “un-German” and from those on the far left for just being German. That being said, it seems that apart from these extremes the German public welcomed Löw’s selection with open arms (I’m sure a 4-1 thrashing of England followed by a 4-0 scoreline against Argentina had something to do with it.) One portion of the population had even more reason to celebrate Germany’s success. The immigrant community which has traditionally been rather isolated in Germany rallied behind the German team which some saw as a valorization of their presence in Germany. The success of the team served as a symbol of the positive influence of the immigrant in German society. What a strange twist of fate that a country which, until quite recently, refused to give citizenship even to the German-born children of immigrants now finds itself represented by a squad of 23 players so ethnically diverse that 11 of them could have chosen to play instead for other nations.
The squad’s composition neatly reflects sociopolitical as well as football-specific changes that coincided at the turn of the century. The country liberalized its old, draconian citizenship laws to allow children of immigrants easier access to German passports, while the German FA, spurred into action by a lack of young talent, made a conscious effort to integrate and groom players from the immigrant community.

The Neukölln flag fight

With Germany celebrating as its football team advanced through the World Cup, the flag was flying everywhere in the country. However, one story that caught my attention and which I think sheds some light on the current state of German nationalism has to do with one flag in particular. Ibrahim Bassal, a German of Lebanese descent and the proud owner of a German flag found that some of his neighbors weren’t very fond of the patriotic display hanging in front of his business. You see, Bassal’s flag isn’t just an ordinary German flag, Bassal’s flag is more than just a flag, Bassal’s flag is a glaring statement, sorry, I think I forgot to mention that Bassal’s flag is also five stories tall. The increase of immigrant players on the German national team this time around isn’t entirely responsible for the display, “We have hung little German flags outside for years,” Bassal explains. But this year, he and his cousins decided they would do something different. They placed a special order with a textile company, and soon a giant German flag worth €500 ($616) was hanging on the outside of the building where Bassal’s store is located. Measuring 22 meters tall and 5 meters wide (72 feet by 16 feet), the over-sized banner covers five stories! What compels a man to display his love for Germany in this way? For Bassal, a member of the immigrant community, the flag is a symbol of cultural integration. “We live in Germany and we also belong to Germany,” he explains. But, as Bassal has found out, not everyone in the country is a fan of the patriotic display. One might guess that perhaps those on the far right would be opposed to a “foreigner” hanging such a giant flag outside of his business. However, it turned out to be quite the opposite and it was left-wing activists who were responsible for tearing down Bassal’s giant flag. This perplexed me at first just as Bassal himself simply could not understand why all the protests were coming from the German side. “For the fascists, we are foreigners and for the anarchists, we are, actually, I have no idea what we are to them.”
During the 2010 World Cup, his neighborhood became the scene of what local media called the “Neukölln flag fight.” Just a brief side note, the Neukölln is simply another name for the German flag. Left-wing activists called on sympathizers to destroy the German flags which could be seen everywhere, arguing that they are a symbol of German nationalism. There was a rash of thefts of small flags attached to car windows. Some of those who decorated their vehicles with flags say they decided to only display the flags when they were actually driving their cars. But the loss of a small flag that hangs out the car window hardly compares to what Bassal went through. His flag was torn down twice and each time he has replaced it spending €1,500 in the process. During the day, Bassal said that people from the left-wing scene would come into the shop and berate him. One day a woman rushed in and she wanted to know how Bassal could hang the German flag up in a country with such a history, and said she wanted to round up another group to tear the flag down again. The only option was to call the police, Bassal said.
As I said before, I think this story reveals a great deal about the current state of German nationalism. There are some Germans who are still timid when it comes to openly expressing their patriotism. Should they be? Germany’s image has been stained by the horrors of its past but there are few left in the country that contributed in any meaningful way to those atrocities. For years now Germans have struggled with this sense of guilt, that somehow they are the bad guys when really they are no different from anyone else. Yes, they have had their problems but so has every country. The past World Cup that was held in 2006 has been described as a crucial moment in Germany’s history. It served as a turning point for the country, for one month the world was exposed to the Germany of today. German citizens were happy to open their doors to the world and to try to break down the stereotypes of the “evil” Germans. It was a big moment for Germany and I think many heaved a sigh of relief that they could openly proclaim their love for their homeland. With this World Cup, Bassal’s story shows us that even the immigrant community has gotten behind the black, red, and yellow. I hope that the sense of inclusion that the immigrant community felt during the month of the World Cup will spill over as Germany moves forward and continues to redefine what it means to be a German today.

Khedira walks the line

One of Germany’s new stars is Sami Khedira who has just moved to Real Madrid after a wonderful performance at the World Cup. Khedira, the Stuttgart-born son of a Tunisian steelworker and a German mother, also exemplifies this new Germany. How did Khedira find himself in a squad of such diversity? It turns out that the squad’s composition neatly reflects sociopolitical as well as football-specific changes that coincided at the turn of the century. The country liberalized its old, draconian citizenship laws to allow children of immigrants easier access to German passports, while the German FA, spurred into action by a lack of young talent, made a conscious effort to integrate and groom players from the immigrant community.

Khedira is one of those players who has been forced to “walk the line” between not forgetting where you come from and fully committing yourself to the country your playing for. Players such as Zinedine Zidane have encountered this same predicament. There is a sense of being neither here nor there. Khedira is German but for some German’s he is a foreigner while Khedira is Tunisian but for some Tunisian’s he is a German. He can neither be German nor Tunisian enough to satisfy either group. Khedira regrets losing most of his Arabic language skills (“I had German friends, so I spoke only German”), but there are still strong ties to his father’s homeland. “Tunisia didn’t qualify so I’m their only ‘representative’ here,” he said. “I know that they’re rooting for me there. I can make two countries happy. But my family [in Tunisia] knows that Sami is German and wants to win the World Cup [for Germany].” It turns out that Khedira has become a crucial member of the German team both on and off the pitch. He has inherited the position of team deejay from former Germany international Gerald Asamoah and chosen a morale-boosting song called “Fackeln im Wind” (torches in the wind) for this tournament. It’s by rapper Bushido, a German-Tunisian, like Khedira. “The song was written specifically for the German national team,” Khedira told the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. “It’s a song that deals with the topic of integration. That’s why I got involved with it. Bushido has foreign roots, like many in our team, but he identifies 100 percent with our country.” Khedira may identify 100 percent with Germany but there are some that have complained that he and his teammates who come from immigrant backgrounds have contributed to the formation of an “un-German” national team.

The view from the far right

Members of the far right in Germany have complained that they simply can’t relate to this team and that there are too many “non-German” players. These comments sound the same as those coming from France, as the French have complained about the racial makeup of their national team over the past couple years. Some of the extremists were a little torn when it came to this World Cup, they wanted to cheer on the German team but they just didn’t want someone with a foreign name to score any goals. “I will certainly not cheer at a Cacau goal! But I will never give up for Neuer, Lahm, Schweinsteiger…. Because I love Germany really!” And while Thomas Müller was Germany’s leading goalscorer with five goals, Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose, both born in Poland, contributed six goals together and it was Mesut Özil, a midfielder of Turkish descent, whose goal against Ghana made sure the team got out of the group stage. It’s interesting that those on the right would be willing to forgive the team of it’s mixed background so long as the ones who score the goals and get the glory are as “German” as possible. A goal in a World Cup match brings on a wave of euphoria that spills out of the stadium and washes over fans around the world, one goal can make a player a hero. The thought of a player of immigrant background or a person of immigrant background period catalyzing that sort of happiness seems gravely wrong for those on the far right. The thought of those same players becoming idols for young German children is even more unsettling.

Neo-Nazis hate this new team “because it totally disturbs their entire world view,” historian Detlev Claussen of the University of Hanover told the news source Spiegel online. They want national teams to be based on ethnic purity. In fact, he argues, Germany has long been a country with much diversity and mass immigration going back over 100 years, it just took the national football team a long time to catch up with this reality. Jonas Gabler, a researcher into the far-right and football, agrees that the new multicultural national team makes it extremely difficult for the right-wing extremists to identify with it. “It is an expression of the new understanding of the nation, something the far-right don’t accept at all.” However, “Citizenship is not based on ethnic background but on the constitution, it is enough to accept Germany’s Basic Law to be German.” And that is something that the far-right have a huge difficulty accepting. This is echoed on the far-right Deutscher Standpunkt website: “The squad is not a German national team and those people with dark complexions are the Federal Republic of Germany, but they are not Germany. Not tall and blond, but black, brown, puny and Muslim. What progress!” the article fumes. “In fact one cannot become German, one is German — or not. These new Federal Republic citizens are and will remain foreigners.”

There was an article that appeared in mass circulation that examined which players sang along to the national anthem and discovered that of those with migration background, only Klose sang along. “There was then quite a lot of commentary on the Internet about how we don’t really need people like Özil,” Gabler says. It really is stunning how similar Germany and France have responded to the changes in their national team. French papers conducted a similar study of which players sang along to the national anthem and made a big deal about certain players failing to raise their voices.

Claussen argues that the German Football Federation (DFB) had been pretty reactionary in the past but after the poor showing of the German team in the 2004 European Championship it sought to make it easier for migrants to play for the team. “It made a complete about face,” he argues, “And put everything into multi-culturalism.” Gabler argues, however, that new legislation in the early 1990s and again at the beginning of the decade making it easier to gain German citizenship also played a big part. “The many players with a migration background simply couldn’t play for Germany because they didn’t have the right to a passport,” he says. The changes to citizenship rules opened the way for the DFB to take advantage of the pool of talent in the country. “It realized that it had let players with huge potential get away.”

After the fall

In the end, Germany won. They may have lost to Spain in the semi-finals but they came back to beat Uruguay to win third place. I’ve been checking the German papers to see if there were any racist reactions to Germany’s loss but I think the country escaped relatively unscathed. For the most part it seemed that Joachim Löw (Germany’s coach) stood firmly behind his team and that his confidence was mirrored by the German people as a whole. However, one thing that I noticed was that during the semi-final match against Spain both Boateng and Khedira were taken out. I was a bit distracted during that match so I can’t say whether or not they truly deserved to be taken out but it does seem a bit odd that both of those players were substituted once the team began to lose. They were replaced by “more German” players, perhaps in the hopes that they would try harder because it somehow meant more to them. Other than this, I feel confident when I say that Germany shocked the world with it’s new style and it’s inclusion of players with immigrant backgrounds. I hope that the changes on the field will take place off the field and member of the immigrant community will be celebrated for their contributions to German society as a whole.

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