Jérôme Boateng – Noisy Neighbour?
Jonathan Harding foregrounds the question of race in German society, after the Berlin-born son of a Ghanaian immigrant became the first black player to captain the Nationalmannschaft.
Erwin Kostedde, the first black player to play for West Germany back in 1974, told Sport Bild once that if Jérôme Boateng became captain of Germany it would be an “earthquake for Europe because Germany is Germany. Our country has its history.” On 27 March 2018, on a clear night in Berlin, Boateng led out Germany for a friendly international against Brazil. While Boateng has long been a leader in the team, this time he was wearing the captain’s armband from the start of the game. A black man born in Germany’s capital was captaining the defending World Cup champions. Boateng had realised his dream, but no seismic shocks followed this moment of history.
Over the years, Germany has done an impressive job of handling its cultural and historical baggage. This is a country of far more than just beer and strange leather outfits. It is a country of great public services, excellent health care and affordable living — and it is a country run by a woman who oversaw the arrival of over a million refugees.
In many ways though, Germany is still a country with growing pains. The East and West retain cultural and infrastructural differences, and the arrival of so many new faces has presented significant political challenges.
Multicultural Germany is alive, but in many ways the country still suffers from not acknowledging race as a societal structure even though it exists. Germany’s history left it determined to avoid racism in all its forms, which is a positive, but the side effect was the topic of race being removed from public discourse.
Without the space to talk about race, it goes largely unacknowledged. Seeing Boateng as a footballer rather than a person of colour can be read as positive, but there also has to be room to speak about the significance of one of Germany’s best players in the modern era being black.
Until Gerald Asamoah made his debut for Germany in 2001, Kostedde and William “Jimmy” Hartwig had been the only two black men to play for Germany (West Germany in their day). After Asamoah’s debut, Hartwig tellingly said to The Independent:
“I love this country… but despite all this, it hurts when I hear on the television stories about the first black national team player. Maybe that’s because Asamoah is totally black... They have forgotten Erwin Kostedde and they have forgotten me. That is outrageous.”
Seventeen years later, the discourse remains elusive. During coverage of the royal wedding in the UK in May this year, one of Germany’s public broadcasters described Meghan Markle and other black guests as “exotic.” The choir “sang beautifully black” and Markle herself “radiates Afro-American spirit.” Many viewers responded with concern and disbelief, but if one of the country’s leading broadcasters delivered such comments during one of the most-watched events of the year, is it any wonder that Germany is yet to feel comfortable in talking about the significance of Boateng, one of its greatest players of the modern era, being black?
Perhaps because the truth really is uncomfortable. Being a person of colour in Germany is not easy. Resentment, hostility, racism, hate crimes and worse all impact the everyday lives of many people of colour. And this despite the fact that, according to numbers released in 2016 by the Federal Agency for Civic Education, one in five of Germany’s population has a migratory background.
In 2016, the then-deputy leader (now co-leader) of Germany’s anti-immigration party AfD (Alternative für Deutschland), Alexander Gauland, was quoted in the Sunday edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung as saying: “People like him as a footballer, but they don’t want to have a Boateng as their neighbour.” From teammates to politicians, the support Boateng received was widespread and highlighted Germany’s racist corners for what they are: minorities. By 2018 though, the aforementioned AfD won nearly 13% of the popular vote, returning a far-right party to parliament in Germany for the first time since the Second World War.
In a moving article for Handelsblatt, writer and artist Jennifer Neal recalls how developments on a political level affected her personal life as a person of colour. It is clear that for her, the rise of the AfD has not been a surprise. Perhaps it has not been a surprise for Boateng either, whose father told Munich-based tabloid tz that he once confronted another father for shouting across the football pitch “Don’t let that n***** blow you away.” The boys were around seven years old at that time. As Boateng told Sport Bild in 2014: “I have experience of what it is to grow up in Germany with another skin colour.”
Part of the problem is Germany’s inability to have an honest conversation about racism. As Neal writes, Germany “can’t pretend that xenophobes, racists or neo-Nazis only appeared out of thin air during the refugee crisis.” By extension, if there is a struggle to have a conversation about racism in the country, there is also little room to feel comfortable enough to recognise the cultural significance of a black man from Germany being highly successful. Clearly German football fans recognise Boateng’s achievements as a footballer, and most would not think twice about having him as their neighbour, but is it clear how important the colour of his skin is to his success? There must be space to appreciate and respect both Jérôme and his brother Kevin-Prince (31, Eintracht Frankfurt) for being black men born in Berlin to the same Ghanaian father and going on to become successful players in the world’s most popular sport.
“I do feel my African side, but I’ve always wanted to play for Germany,” Boateng told The New York Times in 2014. “It is where I grew up.”
Boateng has faced racism throughout his journey to become one of Germany’s most important footballers. But what he commands more than appreciation for his contribution to the country’s leading sports team is respect for his achievements as a black man.
Between 2013 and 2014, Boateng was the best defender in the world. He won a treble with FC Bayern München, and delivered some of the best defensive performances in recent memory at the World Cup in Brazil, including in the final when facing Lionel Messi. His tackling and passing range are sights to behold. His calm and yet honest approach is to be respected.
The defender will turn 30 after the tournament in Russia this summer, and with injuries threatening to derail another chapter of his career, the defender’s third World Cup is likely to be his last. The world is a different place depending on the colour of your skin, but that has not stopped Boateng from seeing it. That, even in 2018, is worth the greatest recognition of all.