Integration and Sport Multiculturalism – a Means to Success

The German-Tunisian and Hertha star Änis Ben-Hatira supports his “little brothers” at MitternachtsSport nearly every weekend
The German-Tunisian and Hertha star Änis Ben-Hatira supports his “little brothers” at MitternachtsSport nearly every weekend | © MitternachtsSport e. V.

Sport integrates people from all walks of life and backgrounds. In professional sport in particular, heterogeneous teams have proved highly successful.

It’s the little things that sometimes make multiculturalism such treacherous terrain – things like the coin slot on a shopping trolley. That’s a lesson the eight-year-old Miroslav Klose learned on his first visit to a German supermarket. “I didn’t know how to unlock the trolley. I wasn’t aware that you have to put a euro in the slot. So I stood to one side and watched exactly how other people did it.”

Although, to be precise, it was, back in the 1980s, a mark rather than a euro coin that opened the door to the world of consumerism, the young immigrant and future member of Germany’s national football team quickly learned, with the keen eye of the sportsman, how to master the difficulties he encountered in a foreign country.

Football opens doors

Later, it was football more than anything else that opened up the door to his new home Germany – playing for the amateur club SG Blaubach-Diedelkopf from the age of nine to 21 and scoring 71 goals for them, more than any other player.

The incident at the supermarket – “something I’ll never forget” – was recounted by Klose nearly 30 years later when the world champion and World Cup record goal-scorer was presented with the Golden Victoria award by the Deutschlandstiftung Integration (German Integration Foundation) in Berlin. “You are a wonderful example of how we can live together harmoniously in our daily lives,” said Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel. “You have shown that Germany is your home and that at the same time you are proud of your Polish roots.”

Banal and sublime – the two faces of sport

How helpful is sport in managing this balancing act? It’s difficult to give a general answer. There are two sides to sport: a banal side and a sublime side. On the one hand, there are the little ways it enriches our personal, everyday lives; and on the other, there’s its grand and lofty idealisation, celebrating it as some sort of intercultural glue. Sport’s true impact lies somewhere in the middle.

One thing is certain: there is scarcely any other form of communal activity – except, perhaps, music – that is able to bridge differences in such a congenial manner. The sports playing field creates an equality of opportunity that in other areas is rendered impossible by differences in education and language. There’s a good reason why a game is called a match and why we use the word “encounter” to describe a final.

“Cross-cultural commonalities”

“Of all cultural assets, sport boasts the most cross-cultural commonalities,” read a 2006 statement by the German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB). But the integrative effect of organised sport is not something we should take for granted. While the Federal Statistical Office, in its 2013 microcensus, found that about 20 per cent of the people living in Germany had a migration background, the DOSB’s 2013-14 Sports Development Report found that was true of only around six members in the average German sports club – a lower figure than in the previous report.

Among multicultural sports projects, there are a number of award-winning success stories – such as MitternachtsSport, an association co-founded by football world champion Jérôme Boateng, the son of a German mother and a Ghanaian father, in his native city Berlin for street kids with roots in many different countries.

“Sport is not integrative per se”

Outside the world of celebrities, in places where everyday problems loom large, things often don’t look quite as rosy. Alongside clubs with a multicultural orientation, in which people from dozens of different nations engage in sports, there are – particularly in the lower football leagues – numerous clubs organised along ethnic lines where immigrants keep to themselves. The DOSB study on sport and immigration came to this conclusion: “Sport is not integrative per se.”

In the professional leagues, the situation has already changed for the better. At the top level, football has long been a mirror of our migration society – and the professional footballer a perfect example of the global, mobile worker temping in multinational, multicultural project teams – a.k.a. football clubs. Or even in national teams, as France demonstrated in 1998 when it fielded the first team to win the World Cup with players from all five continents. 2014 World Cup winner Germany was also praised for mainstreaming ethnic diversity in the national team and society at large. In the words of Federal President Joachim Gauck, the team‘s “wonderful message” is “the way it quite naturally mirrors our immigration society“.

The foreigner becomes one of us

In the thinking of those involved in top-level sport, this nice idea has a quite pragmatic side: it helps win games. Multiculturalism is a means to success, a way to improve a team, to enrich its style of play. Professional football, that global arena of mobile migrants, is a pioneer for the acceptance of immigrants in society – because they are not perceived as people who are taking something away from us but as people who are giving us something. The foreigner who helps my team is no longer a foreigner – he becomes one of us.