Karsten Blaas explains why a proposed new citizenship law could have major repercussions for football in Germany, at both professional and amateur level
Last September, the Germans got themselves a new government. After a few months in charge, however, the envisaged red and green restructuring of the country turned out to be not much more than old Helmut Kohl with a few squirts of fresh paint. In fact, the only real reform likely to be passed in the near future is a modernisation of Germany’s citizenship law.
This appears long overdue since the current legislation, introduced in 1913, is a little behind its time. Unlike in most European countries, where citizenship is based at least partly on birth, you can only be German if your parents are German or if you have lived in the country for at least 15 years and give up your original passport for a German one. This option has rarely been used by the members of the various minorities.
With the new law in force, those with foreign backgrounds will be able to acquire German citizenship without having to give up their original nationality at the same time. As a side effect, this legislation may help solve some of German football’s problems.
One obvious one, although many still tend to view it as a curiosity, is the state of the national side. France 98 cruelly exposed the limitations of German football, but the example of the French team may also suggest a solution. It is fair to say that without the contribution of players whose origins lie overseas, France would not have won the World Cup. In France, as well as in Holland or England, the mixed composition of the national team has clearly improved the standard of play.
In Germany, because of the citizenship law, it’s a different story. Although footballers from immigrant families have played in this country since their childhood, the broad majority of them are not willing to give up their original nationality and therefore are not eligible for the national team. Indeed, players who learned their trade in Germany and who often speak German better than their native tongue, actually contributed to the downfall of the Germans in 1998. Two members of the Croatian squad that knocked Berti Vogts’s team out of the World Cup (Robert Prosinecki and Nico Kovac) and several of the Turkish team that defeated Germany 1-0 in a recent Euro 2000 qualifier grew up in Germany.
There are currently more than 50 players with “guest worker” roots in the top two divisions, some of them youngsters with great prospects. And their number is likely to increase: of the players who appeared in last year’s Under-18 championship final between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, around 40 per cent were not qualified to play for Germany. The DFB has belatedly become aware of the issue and it was former team coach Berti Vogts who, in a desperate attempt to raise the standard of his side, persuaded various players with a non-German background to join his squads, for instance ex-Man City midfielder Maurizio Gaudino (whose parents come from Naples), Croat-Slovene striker Fredi Bobic and Mustafa Dogan of Fenerbahce.
However, despite the prospect of a rising number of these players and with the new citizenship law coming up, there does not yet seem to be a coherent strategy to incorporate them. On the contrary, until recently the DFB advised regional youth selectors not to pick too many “foreigners”, since they would not be eligible to play for Germany anyway.
But if the DFB and the national team selectors change their attitude and take this opportunity, this would not just improve the Nationalelf and hopefully spare the world more of the crappy football the Germans have come up with in the recent past, it might also help tackle another problem. In the long run, a national side consisting of members of various traditions may provide identification for all groups of society in the same way the French side, if only briefly, helped bridge the divide between white and non-white.
There is indeed a need for a “new climate in this society”, as one journalist put it, because at this point tolerance between the various groups is limited in many areas. Among young people especially, unemployment, insecurity and prejudice create the breeding ground for racial tension. The lack of social interaction shows in lower division football, where the atmosphere is becoming increasingly violent.
Teams are often exclusively composed of one nationality and animosities between entirely German and entirely non-German teams or between teams from two different foreign nations (eg Turks and Kurds, or Serbs and Croats) are battled out every weekend. My local FA’s records tell an alarming story: the number of dismissals, suspensions, abandoned games and attacks on referees have reached an all-time high. Recently, players from my own team were assaulted with corner flags at the end of a match.
Agitators in all camps have an easy job when it comes to instigating hostilities. A Turkish team-mate told me that in several Turkish teams Muslim fundamentalists and nationalists regularly issued pamphlets, while pre-war customs and attitudes are still present in some German clubs. It is only a slim hope, but the new citizenship law and a newly composed national team based on this legislation might help improve the situation to a small extent.
If, in ten years’ time, there is a German superstar by the name of Ali or Mustafa instead of Karl-Heinz or Wolfgang, it can only have positive repercussions on Sunday league pitches where, at the moment, it can be very scary.
From WSC 145 March 1999. What was happening this month