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Germany's World Cup team builds bridges

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Brotherly love

Germany's World Cup team builds bridges

  • Germans celebrate their World Cup victory over Argentina, July 3.
    SpreePiX - Berlin/FlickrGermans celebrate their World Cup victory over Argentina, July 3.
  • Naldo, Mesut Oezil and Tim Borowski practice for the Werder Bremen team, which plays in the German Bundesliga.
    2e14/FlickrNaldo, Mesut Oezil and Tim Borowski practice for the Werder Bremen team, which plays in the German Bundesliga.
  • Germans celebrate their World Cup victory over Argentina, July 3.
    SpreePiX - Berlin/FlickrGermans celebrate their World Cup victory over Argentina, July 3.
  • Germans celebrate their World Cup victory over Argentina, July 3.
    michellenm/FlickrGermans celebrate their World Cup victory over Argentina, July 3.

BERLIN — At the kiosks in Berlin's heavily migrant neighborhood of Kreuzberg, the contrasting headlines of the German and the diaspora Turkish newspapers long seemed to reflect the incongruent worlds inhabited by everyday Germans and the three million-strong Deutschtuerken (German Turks) who live in Germany.

But the day after the German soccer team's thrashing of England, the front pages shared a rare identical image: the boyish face of Germany's 20-year-old forward Mesut Oezil, mouth wide-open and eyes bulging as he celebrated scoring the game's first goal. 

Oezil, the son of Turkish migrants, was born and grew up in Germany, and he holds both German and Turkish citizenship.

In Kreuzberg, with its ubiquitous kebab stands and Mediterranean grocery shops, the cars were decked out in the German national colors of red, black and gold, and the republic's flags hung from tenement housing windows — sometimes side by side with the red-and-white Turkish flag.

"Finally, this is a German team I can root for," said the Green Party's Ozcan Mutlu, at a talk later that evening. Mutlu, who has Turkish heritage, went on: "The fact that even migrants and their offspring fly the German colors is an overt symbol of how many people with hybrid identities have now, mentally at least, finally arrived in this country."

Never before has there been a German national team as "multikulti" (multicultural) and reflective of Germany's post-Wall demographics as this year's World Cup squad.

Of the 23 players, 11 have foreign roots — or "migration backgrounds" as Germans put it — from Poland, Turkey, Brazil, Bosnia, Ghana and Algeria. The Oezils, Botengs and Trochowskis are the products of labor migrations, mixed marriages, Balkan pogroms and world wars.

This is the first German team to manifest the postwar migration flows that have transformed Germany from a land of Schmidts and Muellers into one in which 20 percent of the population has foreign heritage. 

In cities like Frankfurt and Berlin, half the kids in the school systems have immigrant backgrounds, the largest number Turkish.

But unlike the case in France or the Netherlands, which have long had inclusive notions of citizenship (thus the Zidanes and Gullits who powered those countries to prominent soccer titles in the past), Germany's naturalization laws remained blood-based and highly exclusive until 2000.

Because the center-left government at the time revamped nationality requirements, over a million foreign nationals living in Germany finally became German. In fact, the legislation changed the very definition of German-ness, opening the previously closed nation in an unprecedented way.

Even though almost half of the German Turks, the country's largest migrant nationality, now carry German passports, their integration into the German mainstream has been less dramatic than the overnight rise of Mesut Oezil to national stardom.

The German Turks remain on society's margins, unable to climb the social ladder beyond its lowest rungs. Discrimination factors into most of their daily lives: two-thirds of working people with Turkish backgrounds say they have experienced bias at their job.

In schools, the high school graduation rate and the numbers of Turks advancing to higher education pale in contrast to mainstream Germans.

"I wish German society were as successfully integrated as the soccer team," quipped Mutlu, a staunch critic of the conservative government's integration policies, which he views as timid.

But this team's irresistible charm may be breaking down some of those barriers that have hampered integration in the past. In contrast to the classic German virtues of past national teams — like iron discipline and a teeth-bared fighting spirit — this team, said manager Joachim Loew, shows "exuberance, constant motion, and explosive enthusiasm."

The team's flat hierarchy — with no one superstar or super-vain primadonna – is unlike any past team: Everyone on the field is more or less equal, as important to the victories as the next player.

Germany's cabinet minister for integration, Maria Boehme, said that this mixing of cultures and youthful dynamism is a model for Germany as a whole and is exactly what Germany's economy needs to stay globally competitive.

At his inauguration last week, Germany's new president, Christian Wulff, a conservative Christian Democrat who had in the past resisted immigration, gushed about the winning team and the new-look Deutschland. Specifically, he mentioned "our colorful republic of Germany" and talked about the potential of combining "German discipline and Turkish dribbling."

The "national eleven," as they're called, seems to have won over even long-time skeptics of integration.

"Soccer World Cup makes Germans and Turks into Super Friends," exclaimed the mass circulation Bild-Zeitung, a paper that in the past was no special friend to underprivileged immigrants. The daily bubbled over about the team's exemplar ethnic diversity and the wonder of young Turkish kids burnishing German flags.

It wasn't all that long ago that even everyday Germans cringed at flag-waving, an anti-nationalist reflex ingrained in postwar Germans.

And it was by no means a given that a player like Oezil would choose to play for the German team rather than the Turkish national squad, an option that he had. "We made it clear that you're wanted here and you're at home here," said integration minister Boehme.

Although one study after another shows that many people with migrant backgrounds in fact don't feel at home in today's Germany, the burst of brotherly love that has accompanied the multikulti soccer team's mesmerizing advance to the semifinals might just rub off on Germany as a whole.

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

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