Brian Blickenstaff in Pacific Standard (Photo: 360b/Shutterstock):
FOOTBALL IN GERMANY IS influential in a way that is difficult to overstate—and, in the United States, difficult to find a comparison for. The DFB, Germany’s Football Association, the sport’s governing body, is the world’s largest. “[It] has almost 7 million members now,” says Uli Hesse, a German football historian and author of Tor! The Story of German Football. (Seven million is about 8.7 percent of the German population.) “You know the saying over here is that the three biggest sports in Germany are football, football, and football.”
Only the top four or five divisions overseen by the DFB are professional or semi-professional and therefore subject to the meritocratic integration of that world. The rest—about 25,000 clubs—are amateur. In Germany’s largest cities, according to Gerd Dembowski, a German researcher who has specialized in football culture for 20 years, almost 50 percent of those amateur teams at the junior and senior levels are composed of players coming “from the roots of the Guestarbeiter.”
“If [those players] stopped playing football,” Dembrowski says, “football would not be here anymore.”
One of the DFB’s jobs is to cast a wide net in search of the country’s best players. At the amateur level, teams are sometimes segregated or set up by specific ethnic groups—like Turks or Poles—which can create tension on the soccer field that goes beyond a desire to win or lose. For the DFB to properly carry out its mission, the organizations must run a league system that’s inclusive, and that means addressing ethnic tensions and other integration issues at the grassroots level.
“[The DFB] are investing in long-term development right now,” Dembowski says. “They’re not investing any more in the easy ways of saying no to racism. They do this, of course … but they also invest in the lower leagues, more and more. They invest money and they invest in giving the privileges to the people. For a long time, it was the Germans saying, ‘Oh, they have to adapt. They have to become like us. They have to change. They have to approach us.’ But now the German Football Association and the other players who are involved in football as institutions, they show openly that, ‘We have to change, too.’ People coming from [elsewhere] change the whole.”
The idea that ethnic Germans have a responsibility to adapt to immigrants has taken hold in other parts of German society too. In this way, the DFB, and the symbolism of the national team, have a real impact on German culture as a whole.