Dateline Germany: The Ballack-Boateng Case
Nations used to go to war over all sorts of obscure matters. Does soccer help to channel — and ultimately deflect — such destructive tensions?
- Integration in soccer mirrors integration in society. About one-third of all children growing up in Germany's metropolitan areas have an immigrant background.
- Ballack himself is an example of successful integration — he became the world's most prominent soccer player born in former East Germany.
- As with globalization in general, the internationalization of soccer has its enemies, but it is a process that cannot be reversed — and that ultimately benefits all.
- When Inter Milan won the 2010 Champion's League final, the starting line-up consisted exclusively of foreign-born players.
When the bad news broke, conspiracy theorists were having a field day. This is not just because the incident occurred on English soil — worse yet, at Wembley Stadium, venue of the disputed "Wembley goal" that cost Germany the World Cup in 1966.
Much more intriguingly, Ballack's injury — incurred during the FA Cup Final, which his Chelsea club won against Portsmouth — was the result of a reckless tackle by German-born Kevin-Prince Boateng.
Long known to be a rough guy, Mr. Boateng will play for Ghana, one of Germany's first opponents in the World Cup group stage. With this in mind, it does not take a great stretch of imagination to see why some ardent fans interpreted Boateng's foul as a pre-meditated attempt to take out Germany's most potent weapon.
Before we get carried away with things being blown out of proportion, it is useful to remember that, not so long ago in Europe, wars were started over less vicious attacks on national icons.
Fortunately, today's battles are fought elsewhere. While Ballack's agent already threatened to sue Boateng in court, German fans acted more wisely — and very much 21th-century-like. They are venting their frustration in the social media.
Hundreds of Facebook groups have been established for the sole purpose of Boateng-bashing. Within a few hours, thousands of members joined the "82 million people against Boateng" group.
But when the tone became increasingly racist, membership dropped rapidly — and new groups were created to condemn the radicalism that has entered the debate. Talk about the therapeutic function of social media.
Still, while soccer has an enormous power to unite people across nations, it also provides a breeding ground for xenophobia — if only for a small minority of misguided fans.
When Inter Milan won the 2010 Champion's League final earlier in May, a man in Italy was stabbed to death after an argument about the lack of Italian natives on the team, whose starting line-up consisted exclusively of foreign-born players.
As with globalization in general, the internationalization of soccer has its enemies, but it is a process that cannot be reversed — and that ultimately benefits all.
This is not only true for the clubs but also for the national teams. Ironically, Kevin Boateng's half-brother Jerome plays for the German team. In fact, Germany's provisional 27-player squad for the 2010 World Cup includes ten players — more than one-third — with Ghanaian, Nigerian, Tunisian, Brazilian, Turkish, Spanish or Polish parents.
Some of these parents are featured rooting for the German team together in an anti-racism TV spot produced by the soccer federation DFB, whose slogan is "más integración" (a remarkable choice of language after Germany lost the 2008 Euro Cup to Spain).
In many respects, integration in soccer mirrors integration in society. About one-third of all children growing up in Germany's metropolitan areas have an immigrant background.
For many immigrant kids, the local soccer club is a place of equal opportunity — and a potential starting point on the road to fame. Kevin-Prince Boateng was spotted by a talent scout at the age of seven in one of Berlin's worst neighborhoods.
Even though his Dennis Rodman-like tattoos and foul-proneness have earned him a "bad guy" image in the media well before the Ballack incident, his vita demonstrates that anyone can make it in the soccer world, regardless of ethnicity or socioeconomic background.
France's Zinedine Zidane grew up in a similar immigrant neighborhood in Marseille. He is still viewed as a national hero and admired around the world for his impressive career — despite finishing it off with the infamous head-butt against Italian player Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup.
In a way, Ballack himself is an example of successful integration — he became the world's most prominent soccer player born in former East Germany. Ballack won a dozen national championships with various clubs.
But in international tournaments, he has become the eternal runner-up. He lost two Champions League finals, a World Cup and a Euro final.
From a superstitious perspective, therefore, Ballack's injury may even increase Germany's odds at winning the World Cup this year. The Boateng case would then soon vanish from the German fans' collective memory.