God squad

Peace and Harmony at 11 Meters

Fussballfest vom BFV
The holy men's soccer game saw passion trump patience on the pitch.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    In a multicultural corner of Berlin, an annual soccer match brings together different faiths and is hungrily watched by their congregations.

  • Facts


    • This year, a rabbi was the referee for the ninth annual meeting between Christians and Muslims on the soccer field.
    • Germany’s mandatory religion tax of 8 percent of income is forcing many Christians to leave their churches.
    • Meanwhile, the number of Muslim worshippers in Berlin has remained constant, and new mosques are being built.
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By half time, the score was 6 to 1 with the imams in the lead. The pastors were sweating.

For anyone who had watched the World Cup this summer, the soccer game between Berlin’s Muslim and Protestant leaders seemed pretty tame. There were no penalty cards or injuries and only a brief clash when the pastors’s 6-foot-3-inch tall goalkeeper and an imam forward locked over the ball.

After a moment of tension, the men grinned and gave each other a quick hug.

The balls passed quickly and crisply between the imams throughout the game. The pastors were reduced to watching.

At the far end of the field, the afternoon moved slowly as most of the action took place near the pastors’ goal.

“I wasn’t bored, just under-challenged,” said the imam goalkeeper, Yasin.

“The game against the imams belongs to the yearly cycle of the church.”

Roland Herpich, Pastor and soccer player

In the end, his team won 8-2.

Reflecting on the skill and technique of the imams, Mr. Yasin said, “We play fairly regularly and we also figured out our strategy beforehand.”

“I think the German (pastors’) team is older, maybe their average age is 45, whereas our players are 10 years younger,” said Khaled Msakni, an imam from a nearby mosque.

The match, which was refereed by a rabbi, was watched by tattooed teens, mothers in headscarves and children whose own soccer games occasionally strayed onto the pitch.

“We only had one extra person and they have plenty of extra players on the sidelines,” said Roland Herpich, a pastor.

“The imams are so much younger and so much livelier,” said Elisabeth Kruse, a pastor who watched from the sidelines. “For me that says it all.”

Despite the disparities, the pastors enjoyed the match. “The game against the imams belongs to the yearly cycle of the church,” said Mr. Herpich.

The imams have been playing against the pastors annually since 2006. “Soccer is good; you sweat together, play together and it brings people together,” said Heribert Süttman, a retired pastor from East Berlin. “It’s really improved relations between the groups.”

“It won’t fix the world but it’s an important signal,“ he said. “And I’m not a sports official. I don’t have to say that.”

As he accepted the trophy on behalf of his team, the imams’ captain praised soccer as a good way to bring people together. “In the past I’d tell the imams that we had an interfaith dialogue planned and they didn’t get too excited,” he said. “Now they’re lining up to play.”

Soccer is just one of the ways the religious leaders work together, and struggle separately, in the diverse borough of Neukölln where the game took place.

“It’s not always easy, especially right now with the crisis in the Middle East,” Ms. Kruse said. “That involves all of us but we stay calm and hold together, and combat radicalism among our different congregations.”

“It’s a struggle to keep everyone open to other beliefs that seem hard to understand but it’s important,” Ms. Kruse said of her work in the diverse borough.

“Pressure from religious authorities is also one of the job’s challenges, also for the imams I believe,” Mr. Süttman said.

A big issue for the pastors is being part of a religion that is losing people fast.

“For us, the numbers are constant, no fewer, no more,” said Burhan Dündar, an imam nicknamed “Maradonna” whose son translated his comments from Turkish into German.

“Soccer is good for young Christian and Muslim men who need people to look up to, role models in their religions. It’s about showing we can play together.”

“It isn’t just about Islam and women in headscarves, it’s about everybody, Jews, Christians and Muslims; the biggest challenge is not to create separations between people,” Mr. Dündar said.

After the game, the forecast storms held off. Berliners unpacked their bratwurst and kebabs and a German pop classic “Is that the same city I once knew” played over the park as people cooked out in the summer evening.


The author is an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition in Berlin. Contact: williams@handelsblatt.com

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