When (West) Germany won the World Cup in 1954, 1974 and 1990, all of the players were fair-skinned and had German ancestors. By the time German soccer triumphed a fourth time, in 2014, the squad looked different. The skin tones reflected the world. The family names sounded not only German but also Turkish, Tunisian, Ghanaian and Albanian.
Now the boys are off again, with decent odds of winning a fifth title. This time, almost one in three has foreign parents and thus, as Germans say, a “migrant background.” That’s a slightly higher ratio than in German society as a whole, but it is signals the trend. Can soccer teach society about “integration”?
One lesson is simply a reminder: Yes, integration is often fraught with tension. That’s because it exposes the vulnerability of cultural identity — both in the host nation and in the individual. Take, for instance, the brouhaha about a recent meeting between two German players with Turkish roots and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the wannabe sultan of Turkey.
One of the pair, Ilkay Gündogan, gave Erdogan a jersey on which he had scribbled: “With respect to my president.” That was an odd choice of words for an athlete playing for a country whose president is named Steinmeier. Last time Mr. Gündogan was on the pitch, the German fans booed him. A sign of integration failing?
Not really. This ambiguity about identity is simply one side effect of diversity. Other immigrant nations, such as Canada, America or Israel, have long understood that human beings can have plural loyalties without being disloyal. I happen to be a so-called “hyphenated American” (a German-American dual citizen). Most of the time I find that enriching, occasionally confusing. As Walt Whitman put it: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” So is, and does, Germany.
Another lesson is about how open minds prevail over closed ones. Alexander Gauland, a leader of the Alternative for Germany, once remarked that Jerome Boateng, a German player of African extraction, might kick a ball pretty well, but surely was not somebody Germans would want as a neighbor. Vast numbers of Germans promptly let Gauland know that they’d in fact love Boateng as a neighbor; it’s Gauland they wouldn’t want.
Boateng, as it happens, has since developed into one of the German team’s leaders. Not because he is black, but because he is talented, poised and respected. And that is the ultimate lesson: When integration works, it ceases to be a topic. As an issue, it becomes boring.
At that point, a team, or an entire country, celebrates not only the value but the sheer joy of diversity. It forms the backdrop of an open society that offers maximum opportunity to all its members. In that spirit, to all 23: Good luck.
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