Merkel, Mesut, and Multikulti: The Politics of Partisanship in Sport

Posted on November 23, 2010


First featured in The Alligator

Angela Merkel’s statement that multiculturalism had ‘utterly failed’ in Germany may have come as a surprise to anyone with even a cursory interest in this summer’s World Cup in South Africa.

It is somewhat more of an eyebrow raise that the comments – made to the youth members of Merkel’s Christian Democrat Party (CDU) in October – were prompted by the Chancellor’s attendance at a Euro 2012 qualifying match featuring the most ethnically diverse national squad in German footballing history and one that had dazzled with their unexpectedly exuberant football only three months previous.

To add irony to insult, it was the fortunes of Mesut Ozil, galaticos and poster-boy of German diversity, that precipitated the uncharacteristically incendiary judgement from the usually ‘safe’ Chancellor.

Merkel sounded the death-knell for ‘multikulti‘ – the slogan of German integration policy popularised in the 1980’s – two weeks after Ozil was the target of jeering from away fans in October’s international between Germany and Turkey in Berlin. Striker Ozil, of third-generation Turkish descent, was booed by fans who saw as a betrayal his decision to don the German eagle over his ancestral star and crescent.

But it was that this sentiment was emanating from the 35,000 predominantly German-born Turkish fans in the Olympiastadion that would have disconcerted the Chancellor and piqued the attention of a nation quarrelling with the impacts of immigration at a time of economic struggle.

Germany did run out 3-0 winners in an atmosphere more reminiscent of Beşiktaş than Berlin, with Ozil scoring the second of the night. After the whistle, the watching Mrs Merkel made an unannounced detour into the home side’s changing room to congratulate Joachim Low’s team and more specifically – and cynically – for a photo opportunity and public show of solidarity with the maligned Ozil, a move for which she was reported to have later apologised for in private.

Oct 3rd 2010: Mesut Ozil is greeted by the German Chancellor after he scores in a 3-0 win against Turkey in Berlin. Merkel was later criticised by the president of German Football Federation (DFB) for entering the dressing-room and using the players for political gain

Questioning the loyalty of minorities to their host nations through the lens of sporting allegiance is nothing new however.  It is an issue that often re-emerges during the staging of international tournaments and was famously immortalised in the ‘Tebbit Test’, when in 1990, then Tory MP Norman Tebbit devised a measure of racial and cultural assimilation in Britain by querying whether ethnic minority communities supported England or their country of origin in cricket. Or in Tebbit’s words:

“are you still harking back to where you came from or where you are?”

Berlin is home to the largest Turkish community in Germany – estimated at around 300,000 – and on match-night, the ‘away’ contingent outnumbered native home support. To apply Tebbit’s straightforwardly crude measurement, those German-born Turkish fans – and by extension the 2.5 million strong diaspora throughout the country – are very much harking back to ‘where they came from’.

This is a phenomena made curious by the fact that Germany’s current senior football squad contains not only Ozil, but players who can map their origins as far wide as Tunisia, Nigeria, Ghana, Brazil, Bosnia, Spain and Poland. Not only were Germany the envy of most developed footballing nations for their ability to harness young players into a coherent and experience-defying side, but the multi-racial and multi-ethnic composition of Die Mannschaft was a reflection of the wider societal success of German multikulti.

By contrast, England have no players from the Asian sub-continent in their senior or under-21 squads, Palermo-born Mario Balotelli became only the first player of African-origin to play for the Azure in 2009, and current World and European champions Spain were devoid of any racial minority in the record-breaking teams under Luis Aragones and Vicente del Bosque.

The experiences of France’s national game offer the most instructive comparison with Germany to date. Les Bleus have long had a unprecedented number of black and North African international footballers, many of whom are also members of the country’s substantial Muslim population.

But France also stands as the most potent example of the disparity between the presence of minorities on the pitch and the continued antagonisms of integration off it.

The success of elite sports academies in tapping the diversity of the country’s sporting talent belies the experiences of those of sub-Saharan and Maghrebian-origin that have been dubbed an ‘under-class’ in French society.

Zinedine Zidane, the most outstanding footballer of his generation and son of Algerian parents, may have had his silhouette illuminated onto the Arc de Triomphe in 1998, but communities such as his inner-city neighbourhood in Marseille suffer wider societal discrimination, are chronically under-represented at elite levels outside of sport, and have suffered impingements on their civil liberties in the name of ‘assimilation’ under Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-wing government.

Angela Merkel’s attempts at ‘doing a Tebbit’ were neither  knee-jerk nor reactionary, but came amidst a series of high-profile declarations of the continued separateness of Germany’s Turkish and largely Muslim immigrant population.

The country’s internal dialogue about immigration was sparked in August, when board member of the central Bundesbank Thilo Sarrazin, claimed in a book that Muslims bought down Germany’s average intelligence and:

“no immigrant group other than Muslims is so strongly connected with claims on the welfare state and crime”.

Despite resigning, polls conducted in the wake of the public storm showed that Sarrazin’s divisive sentiments struck a sympathetic chord amongst many ordinary Germans.

Merkel has also been confronted by pressure from within her own conservative ranks. Leader of the CSU – the Christian Democrats sister party in Bavaria – Horst Seehofer, declared the erstwhile official state policy of multikulti as ‘dead’ and insisted that integration meant an assimilation and acceptance of Germany’s Judeo-Christian heritage.

The peculiar 30 year arc of immigration in modern Germany exacerbates tensions on both sides. A majority of the now settled Turkish population were encouraged to enter the country during the 1980’s to plug chronic labour shortages and were given the inauspicious title of ‘guest workers’. Governments expected that as migrant labourers they would eventually return to their country of origin having amassed short-term livings – an expectation that has not been fulfilled. Germany may continue to suffer deficits in skilled labour but Turkish communities are seen as the guests who have over-stayed their welcome.

The partisanship of second and third generation German Turks to their countries of origin – not only in sport – is both a symptom of dislocation and evidence of a spreading socio-political malaise in a continent that teeters on the edge of an economic precipice. The Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland are latest European nations to elect or re-elect right-wing nationalist governments. Having sporting heroes and idols of diverse races and ethnicities smacks of hollow symbolism to those whose everyday encounters and lived experiences as minorities is on the margins of mainstream society.

Mesut Ozil, like Zidane, is representative of only one side of the multi-faceted cube of European multiculturalism. French and German national football stand decades ahead of their respective boardrooms, courts, and governmental offices. But the onus is on the rest of society to catch-up, if they are ever to pass the Tebbit test.

Posted in: Football, Islam, Soccer, Sport