Berlin is bedecked in soccer balls. Atop telephone booths, decorating the TV tower, overshadowing the famous Brandenburg Gate, the familiar ball has just about taken over as Germany hosts this year’s World Cup of soccer. For the first time in decades, Germany is hosting an international sports event. But the monthlong event, which begins Friday, is much more than fun and games.
“Sport is always political,” says Daniel Wildmann, deputy director of the Leo Baeck Institute in London. “This doesn’t mean it is bad or good. It is part of society and we have to take it into consideration.”
Germany sees the games, which conclude July 9, as a chance to prove to 3 million visitors that it can host a major event without incident.
But in order to do so it must tame the racism that is a part of soccer culture and plagues contemporary German society, even though it is rejected by the mainstream.
In the run-up to the games, the German news media has been full of talk about anti-Semitism and xenophobia among some soccer fans; dire warnings to visitors to avoid “foreigner-free” zones in former East Germany; and arguments over whether Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad should be allowed to attend the games and be arrested on charges of Holocaust denial — a crime in Germany — if he shows up.
Neo-Nazis plan to show their solidarity with Ahmadinejad by welcoming the Iranian team when it plays in Leipzig on June 21.
All the above — not to mention the fears of terrorism — certainly are chilling.
The way Germany handles such matters is “a kind of mirror of how society functions,” said Raphael Gross, director of the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt.
The treatment of Jews and other minorities “is like a litmus test of the society and that is also true for the championship.”
But even as the world of soccer becomes more global, with players from Africa competing for top European soccer teams, eradicating racism has proven difficult.
Most racism is directed against Africans, but in Holland, Dutch fans — especially opponents of Amsterdam’s Ajax club, which is identified in the public mind with Jews — often shout things like, “Hamas, Hamas, hang the Jews in the gas.”
Earlier this year in Italy, one player, Paolo Di Canio, earned notoriety and suspensions for giving the Hitler salute to his team’s fans.
Germany is no different. About a week before the tournament, a newsmagazine show on the RTL television network focused on hooliganism in Germany’s lower-level soccer leagues.
With a hidden camera, the program’s editor, Burkhard Kress, filmed fans in the former East German city of Magdeburg singing the “Auschwitz song” — “We are building a U-bahn train, we are building a U-bahn, from Magdeburg to Auschwitz.”
Soccer fans in other German cities also sing the tune, substituting their city for Magdeburg.
In a statement on its Web site, the Magdeburg team’s fan club complained that Kress had taken the film without permission, and said it was not representative.
But “everyone responsible in the stadium knows what is up,” Kress told JTA. “Most trainers also know that something has to happen, and that fan work must be done because this is the testing ground for neo-Nazis.”
Martin Endemann of Football Against Racism in Europe agrees.
“The clubs and the soccer associations have to acknowledge the problem, because most of the time they are saying it is not as bad as it was before,” he said.
The World Cup motto, “A Time to Make Friends,” is meant to boost Germany’s public image, Franz Beckenbauer, president of the World Cup organizing committee, recently told reporters.
But making friends will take place under strict scrutiny, said Germany’s Interior Minister, Wolfgang Schauble.
A National Cooperation and Information Center will oversee security around the clock — and some of the 32 participating nations are supplying some 500 liaison officers to help German police nab foreign troublemakers.
Because of Germany’s Nazi past, the problem has drawn special attention here, but while observers say Germany’s top leagues have succeeded in reducing racism and anti-Semitism among fans, some of the secondary leagues have not tackled the problem.
“I would say that now everyone is afraid of looking at the present problem because somehow it points to their past,” says Wildmann. “The point is not so much whether there is a World Cup or not, the point is whether the German sports organizations are willing to come to terms with their past or not.”
Two exhibits on the history of Jews in German soccer — one currently on display in the Jewish museums of Frankfurt and Furth, the other one to go up after the World Cup at the Centrum Judaicum in Berlin — highlight intriguing Jewish aspects of Germany’s soccer history.
German soccer history was often marked by tolerance and openness, said Daniela Eisenstein, director of the Jewish Museum of Furth, which co-curated the exhibit “Kick it Like Kissinger. A Soccer Alphabet,” on display through early September.
While German gymnastics clubs were historically closed to Jews, soccer — championed here by Walther Bensemann, son of a Berlin Jewish banker — was an open sport until the Nazi period, Eisenstein said.
Bensemann, who organized the first international soccer game between Germany and France between the wars, “believed in the power of soccer to bring people together,” Eisenstein said. “And I think he would be an optimist today.”
The upcoming soccer exhibit at the Centrum Judaicum — “Kickers, Fighters and Legends — Jews in German Football” — similarly deals with the Jewish roots of German soccer and the fate of Jewish athletes during the Nazi period.
Most Germans “prefer not to deal with this aspect of history,” Swantje Schollmeyer, curator of the Berlin exhibit, said.
Last year, the German Soccer Association published “Football Under the Swastika,” but “only after pressure from German historians,” she said.
Eisenstein said she believes attitudes are changing among German soccer clubs and fans, “and the positive ideals of soccer definitely outweigh these other aspects.”
But just in case, teams during the quarter-finals will be carrying banners against discrimination and team captains will read statements against racism and xenophobia before kickoff, Schauble said.
What will happen after everyone goes home? Racism and xenophobia at the tournament is not the sole issue, Endemann says: “The problem is that people go out on the street and beat up Jewish people and blacks and Asians,” he said.
Sports is not just “some kind of island where everyone can meet” and party, Wildmann said. “As long as you don’t look back in anger, as long as you don’t have a critical look at your past, you will stick to this idea of the island.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.