How the left and the right talk differently about the ethnicity of German soccer players

June 7
German national team players Lukas Podolski and Mesut Özil (Martin Meissner/Associated Press)
German national team players Mesut Özil and Lukas Podolski (Martin Meissner/Associated Press)

Today we continue our series on politics, political science and the World Cup (here are posts 123 and 4) with Jacqueline Gehring’s look at media reporting on the multi-ethnic German soccer team. 

National soccer teams can hold a mirror up to a country, revealing the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and where the boundaries are between those of us in a nation and those outside of it.  In Germany, where the national team’s World Cup play is an important nation-building event, discussions about the diversity of the national team reflect larger political debates about the increasing ethnic and racial diversity of Germany’s citizens.  Most Germans would not use the word race to describe diversity since the word has become taboo because of the way the idea was used by the Nazi’s to perpetuate the Holocaust.  Nonetheless, the debate over the diversity of the national team shows that Germans do racialize diverse citizens, and they discuss how “German” diverse citizens really are.

As was noted in this blog recently, soccer clubs that are more diverse perform better in competition.  Although that study focused on club teams, the directors of national soccer programs have also begun aggressive campaigns to diversify their national squads by including an increasing number of dual nationals and naturalized citizens on their rosters.  In Germany, the national football federation undertook a diversification campaign beginning in the late 1990s after seeing the success of the “black, white, and Arab” French national team in the 1998 World Cup. The diversification of the national team rose to national prominence when the 2010 roster included 11 players (out of 23) who could have played for another country.  The aggressive and inventive style of the 2010 team elated German fans and their success (third-place finish) focused the entire country and its media on the team.

At the same time that the football federation was diversifying the national team, the German government was changing its citizenship laws, leading to a more diverse German citizenry.  Those changes made it possible for the children of immigrants to become citizens simply by virtue of being born in German territory.  Giving citizenship to those born in your country seems natural to Americans, but it was a dramatic change in Germany, and it has made over half a million young people of immigrant origin German citizens.

Just because the law says they are German does not mean that most Germans see these “new Germans” as truly German.  My research investigates how the German media, politicians and the players on the national team define German identity in light of the increasing racial and ethnic diversity of the population and of the national team.  Focusing on the highest-circulation newspapers and magazines in Germany, I collected all of the feature articles about the diversity of the national team for the six months before, and the six weeks during, the 2010 World Cup.  I hypothesized that those affiliated with the center-left, who changed the citizenship law, would frame a diverse German team differently than would those on the center-right who opposed opening up citizenship.

Indeed, I found that articles from the center-left emphasized that “new” Germans were multicultural, as did the players themselves.  “New” Germans had both a German and a non-German side, and their non-German side had a major impact on their identity even if they and their parents had been born in Germany.  In media descriptions, their non-German side had an almost biological impact on their play even if they had never played soccer outside Germany.  For example, star player Mesut Özil describes his play as follows:  “My technique and feeling for the ball is the Turkish side to my game.  The discipline, attitude and always-give-your-all is the German part.”

This type of “essentialism” was strategically being practiced by the center-left and by many of the diverse players on the team.  Since ethnic minorities in Germany are always reminded that they are different and are always asked to explain how they can be German, they have chosen to transform the negative connotations associated with being different into positive attributes. If Germans are only going to see you as a Turk and are going to question your claim to German identity, you want to emphasize that your Turkish identity is a positive asset at the same time that you also reassert your German identity.

The center-right framed the diversity of the national team quite differently.  For the center-right, the players on the team were not really “diverse” any longer.  They had transformed themselves into good Germans through hard work and were no different from other Germans.  For example, the German government’s interior minister wrote that “we are talking about the German national team, not multiculturalism. . .  A player like Cacau has worked hard toward getting German citizenship. . . and now he sings the national anthem with all his heart.”

Thus, the center-right felt the need to explain how these players had become German through their commitment to Germany and hard work.  The fact that they felt the need to explain why the players were German implies that they did see the players as different.  Indeed, both the left and right focused only on defending the German identity of players who were seen as racially or ethnically different.  The Polish-German stars of the team were never scrutinized, while the Turkish-German and players of North African and African descent were the focus of a great deal of attention.

My research shows how the changes in German citizenship law have led to changing understandings of German identity.  Both the center-left and the center-right agree that those who are not ethnically German can be German, but they disagree about what it means to be German.  The center-left believes that non-ethnic Germans are both German and have another identity.  The center-right suggests that non-ethnic Germans must become fully German and eradicate other parts of their identity.  Most Germans would say that they do not see race and that there is very little racial discrimination in Germany.  The fact that there was no debate about “‘white” players of immigrant origin and that the media focused only on players who visually do not “look German” suggests that Germans not only see race, they see racial difference as something that is difficult to square with German identity.

Jacqueline S. Gehring is an associate professor of political science at Allegheny College.  Her research focuses on the politics of diversity in Europe and the spread of American-style legal rights to the European Union.  

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