Germany's soccer team scores a multiracial first

A Ghanaian immigrant is the first athlete of black African descent on the national team.

Gerald Asamoah kicked his way into sports history last month, when he became the first black African-born player to wear the jersey of Germany's national soccer team.

Other Western European countries, notably England and France, have been fielding multiracial national teams for years as a reflection of their immigrant communities. But Germany, which long clutched to the notion that only ethnic Germans should hold citizenship - has been slow to follow suit.

"I'm conscious of what I'm getting into," says Mr. Asamoah, who received German citizenship last summer. "I'm viewed differently than every other player on the field. Everybody expects a lot of me because I'm the first person of color there."

Since his debut match last week, Asamoah shot Germany's first goal in a 2-0 victory over Slovakia.

At first glance, his acceptance onto the national team evokes Jackie Robinson's breakthrough in the '40s into major league baseball - once considered a bastion of white American identity. Black athletes, however, have been playing in Germany's professional soccer leagues for years.

But, by joining the Germany team - once revered as a "cultural treasure" as the newsmagazine Der Spiegel put it - Asamoah is taking on the traditional idea of what it means to be German.

Only a handful of foreign-born athletes of European origin have played for the national soccer team in the past, but Asamoah is the first of African origin. He joins the likes of high-profile black German athletes such as Kofi Amoah Prah, a Berliner of Ghanaian origin who placed fifth in long jump at last year's Sydney Games.

At 12, Asamoah left the same homeland of Mr. Amoah Prah's ancestors and joined his parents, who had immigrated to Germany earlier. As a teen, he worked his way up through the German soccer leagues. Ghana's national team repeatedly wooed the rising star, and for a long time, Asamoah says, he was split in allegiances.

"In the end, I chose Germany," he says. "Now I consider myself German and want to help Germany."

The achievements of black German athletes demonstrate how far the country has come since the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where Adolf Hitler reportedly refused to shake hands with Jesse Owens, the African-American track star who dominated the games with four gold medals.

Still, Asamoah can testify that racism is a constant - if usually latent - companion for blacks in Germany today. "I rose above that," says Asamoah.

At a match in 1997, fans in eastern Germany shouted racist slurs and threw bananas onto the field.

Even as the German media celebrated his ascension to the national team, one newspaper couldn't resist referring to Asamoah as "a warrior from the Ashanti tribe."

Asamoah says he hopes both to serve as a role model for other people of color and to help change "negative" attitudes in German society.

Mike Lee, spokesman for the 51-nation European soccer association, UEFA, in Switzerland, says there is a precedent. "In England I'd say that the development of black players on the national team has definitely played an important role in countering racism. And let's hope it does the same in Germany."

Holger Jenrich, who has written a book on foreign players in Germany's national soccer league, says that's wishful thinking. In his view, foreign-born athletes are appreciated only as long as they perform.

"There are still stadiums in which black players are really harassed," he says. "I can't share the hope that sports would be a trendsetter."

Nevertheless the Bundesliga, Germany's professional soccer league, has seen a dramatic rise in the number of foreign players, from 15 percent in 1993 to 42.6 percent this season.

Other sports leagues, such as ice hockey and handball, likewise have high proportions of athletes from around the globe.

And like almost any other job market, professional sports are subject to the competitions of the global economy. "There's much greater mobility than in other job markets," says Mr. Lee of UEFA. "It's not like we're becoming like other job markets; we're already way ahead of them."

Despite Germany's reluctance to accept immigration as a pillar of a modern economy, foreigners here have long been present not only on playing fields, but in factories, on farms, and as of late, in software companies.

Foreigners make up 9 percent of Germany's population, double the figure of a little more than 30 years ago. There are no official demographics on minorities here, a practice many might consider touchy given the country's actions during World War II.

The rise of foreign-born soccer stars such as Asamoah is perhaps more a reflection of economics than a sudden embrace of multiethnic society. But, it is precisely the economic argument for immigration that has convinced many conservatives here of the need for foreign workers.

"I've decided to try to move something," says Asamoah. "To show that we people of color can do something for Germany" as well.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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