How Germany wound up fighting an unwinnable battle against racism ahead of Euro 2024

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As Germany prepare to face Scotland at Euro 2024, they find themselves at the front lines of their country’s battle against racism.

In a perfect world, the members of the Germany squad that open Euro 2024 against Scotland on Friday evening would be able to focus solely on starting a home tournament with a win. Instead, the national team has found itself front and centre of a broader debate about German multiculturalism which is taking place against a backdrop of far-right political gains and questions over whether the team should have more white players. Life as the host nation is seldom simply about playing football.

At the beginning of June, head coach Julian Nagelsmann found himself asked about a survey undertaken by public broadcaster ARD, which found that 21% of Germans would prefer to have a less diverse national squad. Nagelsmann’s response was unequivocal enough – it was, he said, “madness” that such a question would even be asked.

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“We need to wake up a bit,” he told the assembled media. “There are people in Europe who've had to flee because of war, economic factors, environmental disasters, people who simply want to be taken in. We have to ask what are we doing at the moment?

“I always find it bizarre that we all go on vacation to get to know other cultures and then other cultures come here and we complain about it… We're playing a European Championship for everyone in the country. And anyone who can play top football is invited to be a national player and give their all for their country. And that's what we're doing. And I hope I never have to read about such a survey again.”

Captain Joshua Kimmich also weighed in, correctly pointing out that the survey was “racist,” but that such a question could be put to the German public by a state broadcaster highlights the direction that discourse over diversity and immigration is taking – and that was thrown into an even sharper relief by the results of the recent European elections.

The far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, who stand on a nationalist anti-immigration and particularly anti-Islam platform, won 15.9% of the popular vote and will be the second largest of the parties representing Germany in the European parliament. Meanwhile, a 2023 survey published by the German Centre for Integration and Migration Research found startling evidence of the prevalence of racism in German society – more than half of Black respondents to the survey reported experiencing racism, with nearly 20% reporting that they were subject to repeated threats or harassment. Meanwhile, 13% of Muslims and 12% of people from Asian communities reported targeted harassment and abuse multiple times per year.

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These societal problems probably should not be placed upon the shoulders of professional footballers, of course, but as is always the case when the national team heads to a major tournament (and especially when they are hosts) they become an unwitting exemplar for the country they represent. Their squad is not necessarily the most diverse in German history – 18 members of the final 26-man squad are white, with five Black players and three of Turkish heritage – but now that captain and coach have spoken out strongly against racism, they will likely find that their results are taken as an indicator of the success or failure of German multiculturalism more broadly.

That rather absurd parallel between a country’s societal make-up and its football team was most famously drawn with the France side that won the World Cup on home soil in 1998 – the ‘Black, Bleu et Beur’ team whose stunning victory was achieved off the back of star turns by Black and Arab players and was, as such, held up as a beacon for what successful multiculturalism can achieve.

Their success led to a surge of positivity regarding racial integration in France as a whole, but it was short-lived. Four years later, the French far-right, led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, surged into second place in the general elections – and now, 26 years on from the ‘Rainbow Team’ of Zinedine Zidane, Marcel Desailly and Lilian Thuram whose victory bathed Paris in such a warm glow, the French far-right under Le Pen’s daughter Marine have come second in consecutive general elections and forced president Emmanuel Macron to call a snap election after their own successes in the European vote.

In short, football provides a caricature of a country’s situation but victories in a major tournament do not provide a lasting salve for deep-rooted social problems – despite which, defeat can potentially aggravate them. Just look at the surge of racism on social media in England when three Black players missed penalties in the final of Euro 2020.

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So that extra layer of pressure is now placed on the shoulders of a German team who, up to around six months ago, inspired very little confidence. They have lost their opening match at the last three major tournaments, crashing out in the group stages of the last two World Cups and being comfortably beaten by England in the last 16 of the last Euros three years ago. As the Joachim Löw era fizzled out and Hansi Flick failed to reignite the spark, the archetypal aura of Teutonic confidence faded.

But back-to-back friendly wins over France and the Netherlands in the spring have fuelled the notion of a resurgent side whose strategy under Naglesmann has evolved to evoke some of the methods of this season’s successful Bayer Leverkusen and VfB Stuttgart sides. Slightly less convincing performances in warm-up matches against Greece and Ukraine, combined with some concerning recent mistakes by first-choice goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, have failed to dampen enthusiasm or quell expectations.

In a BBC interview released on Friday morning, former Germany and Aston Villa midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger - one of few openly gay former male professional footballers – was asked about whether the tournament and national side can make a lasting impact, especially in light of the 2006 World Cup in Germany, often recalled as an especially inclusive and welcoming tournament:

“I would not expect that from the German team… to have a long-lasting change because we live in the times we live in. They are difficult for a lot of people. But the ambition can be making it four weeks or one month of pure joy.

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“Can we use… football as a platform to bring people together? In 2006 we didn’t put in much effort to talk about diversity or sustainability, it sort of happened naturally. But now they are key topics in our society… We have to really try to promote it because there are tendencies – these values are not shared by everybody. We want to set a really high standard.”

Hitzlsperger highlights the double standard that exists – the team can’t really change anything in the long term, but they still need to stand up and be counted in order to help make things better anyway. Win and a sticking plaster is placed on the wound. Lose and they pour salt on it. As if the pressure to win the tournament wasn’t quite enough on its own.

Germany enter Euro 2024 as third favourites with the bookmakers and will be expected to beat Scotland when the curtain comes up. Do so and the optimism will flow, at least for as long as they keep winning. Take down the whole thing and it will be one in the eye for the AfD and for bigotry more broadly, and a short-term proof of concept for multiculturalism.

Fail, and you have to worry about the chances that it won’t be the 18 white players in the squad who take the blame. Just ask Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho about what their work getting England’s men to a first major final in 55 years counted for after they missed their spot kicks at Wembley.

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