Not the big league

Racism is endemic in German soccer, from the bottom to the top

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Sports and integration: Do they mix? Source: DPA

“When we win, I am German. When we lose, I am an immigrant,” Mesut Özil wrote as he retired from the German national team this week. It’s a sad statement because it shows the racism that still exists in German society and sport. But, as surprising as this sounds, the statement also shows his privilege as a national player.

In 2012, I was working on a story about Türkiyemspor, an amateur soccer club founded in the 1970s by Turkish immigrants in Kreuzberg, Berlin. The club has always been a vital organization for migrants in what was one of the city’s most impoverished districts. It was one of the top amateur teams in Berlin and often represented the city in regional competitions around north-eastern Germany; Türkiyemspor was also awarded many prizes for its community work, including from the German Football Association.

Despite all these successes, Türkiyemspor’s team occasionally ended up training in Berlin city parks rather than on one of Kreuzberg’s city-owned soccer pitches. As a protest, the team once trained outside the Kreuzberg Town Hall in 2008.

But teams that ranked far below them and teams that weren’t involved in community programs didn’t have these problems, and I wanted to know why. Fans of the club were unequivocal. “It’s structural racism,” one told me. “Nothing more, nothing less. Because we have no lobby, we have no people on the inside… It’s so frustrating to see how the German majority looks at us.”

I didn’t believe him. I even suspected that he and other fans might have developed some sort of complex or conspiracy theory. I felt I needed a pinch of salt.

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Türkiyemspor in action. Source: DPA

So I called the then-deputy mayor of Kreuzberg to talk about how soccer pitches are assigned — specifically, the in-demand grass pitches that are required to play at the highest levels. He spoke about how much money the district was spending to make sure Türkiyemspor had a place to play after the club’s promotion to a regional league. He also talked about how they were never satisfied.

“The problem is that when a team doesn’t get what they want, they always feel discriminated against,” he said, noting how other teams were complaining that Türkiyemspor was getting preferential treatment.

But let’s be clear. From 2008 to 2010, Türkiyemspor was quite simply the top amateur soccer team in Berlin. Any team that complained about Türkiyemspor only needed to be shown the league standings. Yet somehow the attitude persisted that “these Turks” were gaming the system to gain benefits over well-established German teams.

I decided to change the subject slightly. I asked the deputy mayor about the importance of Türkiyemspor’s significant social work among the migrant communities in the district he represents. His answer astonished me.

“We have lots and lots of teams with Turkish names,” he said. “There’s Agrispor (sic), Al-Deriemspor (sic) and Türkiyemspor of course. So it’s not as though Türkiyemspor is the only team that overwhelmingly has players of Turkish origins.”

Barely disguised racist slurs on the terraces

Thing is, there are no such teams as Agrispor or Al-Deriemspor. There does seem to have been a Berlin soccer team called Agrispor in the past, but I can’t find any record of their games. And regarding Al-Deriemspor, I think he meant Al-Dersimspor, a team formed in 1993 by Alawite migrants.

There were, and are, other Turkish teams, of course. Hürtürkel is based just down the road in Neukölln. It briefly considered changing its name to something more German-sounding because it believed the soccer authorities discriminated against it: “Then they will have to treat us fairly,” said the club’s co-founder Zafer Külekci in 2004.

And Türkspor is Berlin’s first team founded by Turkish migrants. Nonetheless, the deputy mayor, in his conversation with me, felt he needed to invent a couple of new teams. “I’m getting the feeling that you think we’re somehow discriminating against Türkiyemspor,” he had said to me moments earlier. I hadn’t been thinking that. But I certainly was by the end of the interview.

On the terraces, too, one constantly hears barely disguised slurs about teams formed by migrants. Those people, it is implied, are ill-disciplined and aggressive; they don’t speak proper German; they are favored by the umpires because they’ll accuse us of racism. When a German amateur team folds for financial reasons — as they frequently do — it’s seen as a fact of life at these low-budget levels. But when a Turkish-sounding team fails, it’s because it must have been unprofessional.

As the deputy mayor said: “The problem that Türkiyemspor has is that, in the past, it had a management team that didn’t perhaps always work so professionally.” Come on. It’s amateur soccer. If an amateur team has  professional management, it doesn’t stay amateur very long.

Mesut Özil was the lucky one

So for all of the bizarrely naïve mistakes Mesut Özil has made in recent months, let’s not forget how monumentally brave it was to make the criticisms he has made. The abuse he has always received for not being German enough will now increase exponentially.

But those who can read his statement without feeling white-hot fury should also be aware that he has actually had it easy. For years before and after winning the World Cup for Germany, he was allowed to believe that he was accepted as a German. There are thousands of less successful soccer players, and millions of other people with foreign roots, who spend their entire lives hoping in vain for just a fraction of that.

The German Football Association, and German society as a whole, now has the opportunity for some honest introspection. Are the problems really concentrated in the head of the beast, with association chief Reinhard Grindel? Or do they extend all the way down to the beast’s toes, to those small-minded local officials — and all the others — who will highlight the bad, rather than the good, in all those athletes who can never be German enough for other Germans?

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