Offsides: When Nationalists Don’t Like the National Team

In my adopted German home and across Europe, xenophobia and football excellence are running up against each other.

Musa Okwonga

By Musa Okwonga

Mr. Okwonga is a writer, poet and football fanatic. He has published two books on the sport.

CreditIllustration by Antonio De Luca. Photos by Sascha Steinbach/Shutterstock and Miguel Medinamiguel Medina/Getty.

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Germany won the World Cup in 2014 and it has an excellent chance of winning it again this year in Russia. Here in Berlin, where I live, the excitement is rising. My friends’ calendars are filling up with watch parties. Bar owners are moving big TV screens toward the street. My local beer garden is stockpiling booze and sausages, preparing for the hordes of fans hopeful that the German team will advance to victory.

But not everyone in this country is necessarily so happy about the squad that the coach, Joachim Loew, has put together. Of its 23 members, seven have parents of foreign heritage. Some Germans see this as a model of racial unity; others, particularly those who support the far-right Alternative for Germany party, see it as what’s wrong with the country.

One of the team’s stars is Jérôme Boateng, who plays for Bayern Munich and is one of the world’s best defenders. His father is from Ghana. In 2016, Alexander Gauland, Alternative for Germany’s leader, said that though Boateng was a fine player, he was unsure that most Germans would want to live next door to him. The backlash to Gauland’s racist comment was swift.

But in the two years since, both Alternative for Germany and Boateng have only gotten more popular. In federal elections last September, the far-right party took home 13 percent of the vote, nearly tripling its support in the previous election. For his part, Boateng has established himself as one of the team’s leaders, following a stellar performance throughout the European Championships.

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In March, in a friendly match against Brazil, Boateng became the first black man to captain the German national team. I attended that game with a group of friends from the club team I play on. (I’ll probably end up writing more about the club later. Our nickname is the Unicorns.) We had a great time cheering the German team, even though it ended up losing 1-0. But on the way home, some of us — a gathering of supporters both black and white, both German and born abroad — were shown a Nazi salute by a young man as he left the train.

Germany isn’t the only country where rising xenophobia is running up against the realities of national football. In recent months, Britain has been consumed by what’s known as the Windrush scandal, in which it has been revealed that hundreds of British citizens of Caribbean heritage have been threatened with deportation. Some of England’s best footballers, like Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford, are of Caribbean descent. In France, as Rory Smith noted in a recent article for The Times, nonwhite players from Paris’s poorer suburbs form the core of this year’s national team. As one of Smith’s interviewees points out, when these players disappoint, they merely confirm the stereotype of the feckless immigrant; when they succeed, they are treated like exceptions to the rule.

These teams reveal something awkward for modern nationalists: Elite sporting achievements often come at the humiliating price of diversity. So for that reason — plus the fact that Germany is my adopted home — I’ve got a lot of love for the German team heading to Russia this year.

Books News: When Neo-Nazis Marched Through Berlin’s Old Jewish Quarter, a Bookshop Took Notice

“We wanted to take back the public space,” Mr. Braunsdorf recalled on a recent afternoon, between answering one customer’s question about the literary structure of a young adult thriller, and warmly recommending a new novella to another. “At a certain point, you just have to do something.”

In Germany, Mr. Braunsdorf’s efforts are part of a long tradition in which bookstores play an active role in civil society, said Johanna Hahn, director of the German Association of Booksellers in Berlin and Brandenburg.


Jörg Braunsdorf, who runs Tucholsky Bookstore in the old Jewish quarter of Berlin, checked a poster for the neighborhood rally against a neo-Nazi march.

Gordon Welters for The New York Times

“The book industry has always reacted with great sensitivity to the political climate,” she said, “and bookstores are always a place where social change occurs.” In the 1970s at the height of the women’s liberation movement, for example, Germany had large numbers of feminist bookstores. “Now, the theme really seems to be freedom of speech, freedom of opinion. Look at America, look at Turkey — this problem is all over the world.”

In German bookstore circles, the topic of nationalism and fascism is particularly prominent now, Ms. Hahn added. This follows the rise of groups like the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West and Alternative for Germany, or AfD, which won 12.6 percent of the national vote in September, making it the first far-right party to sit in Parliament in 60 years.

“In every book there’s a new perspective,” Ms. Hahn said, “so bookstores automatically fall on the side of openness and diversity.”

But how best to serve customers is up for debate. In one of several panels dealing with the topic at the Leipzig Book Fair in mid-March, some independent sellers said they refused to order books from far-right publishers, while others argued that it is important for customers to be able to stay informed. (There are certain titles that Mr. Braunsdorf does not stock. He may order from some right-wing publishers upon request, but will give the customer a piece of his mind on the topic, first.)

Germany has a healthy number of independent bookstores, thanks largely to a German law that requires all booksellers to sell books at set prices. But Zoë Beck, co-founder of a group called Publishers Against the Right, worries that market-oriented chain stores have weakened bookstores’ role as a place of political debate. “What Jörg Braunsdorf is doing is something I find exemplary,” wrote Ms. Beck, in an email. “The need now is greater than ever.“

For Mr. Braunsdorf, 58, social engagement has always been part of running a bookstore. Originally from Weztlar, a small city in what was then West Germany, Mr. Braunsdorf started working in his 20s at a book collective there run by a group of his young left-wing friends. They did not do much business, but the shop was a meeting place for students and activists: There, they printed fliers decrying nuclear power plants or calling for affordable housing.

Today, 37 years later, Mr. Braunsdorf is still working at a bookstore, but now it’s his own shop, in Berlin, and other political issues have come to the forefront. “None of us expected that this confrontation with fascism would be so close at hand,” he said, alluding to the AfD success in entering Parliament. “I think in the next years we are going to need to not just protest ‘against,’ but really come up with a ‘for.’ What do we want, in our society?”

Mr. Braunsdorf, who has hosted German-Arabic reading events at his shop for refugee children and moderated debates about gentrification, the economy and politics, said he “can’t imagine running a bookstore just as a selling point.”


Neighbors gather at Tucholsky Bookstore to discuss topics such as gentrification and how to respond to neo-Nazi marches.

Gordon Welters for The New York Times

He is not alone. A similar bookstore-run political project made headlines this year, when Heinz Ostermann, who owns the bookstore Leporello in Berlin’s working-class neighborhood of Neukölln, had his car set on fire, for the second time. He had started a local group in 2016 dedicated to fighting the far right. “There’s a lot of solidarity,” said Mr. Ostermann, who added that the attacks, suspected to have been carried out by local right-wing extremists, have not dissuaded him. “I think people in the neighborhood are happy I’m here.”

The same could be said of Mr. Braunsdorf. Last month, as the crowd of protesters grew, Ralf Teepe expressed his appreciation for Mr. Braunsdorf’s bookstore, which he said he visited once a week, in lieu of church, for spiritual enrichment.

Mr. Teepe, a civil servant with the foreign service who recently moved back to Berlin after years in Africa and elsewhere, had joined Mr. Braunsdorf a few blocks from the bookstore. He too wanted to protest the neo-Nazis who were headed to the neighborhood.

“I was born in ’58, and both of my parents were marked by the Nazi period,” Mr. Teepe said. “The older I get, the more I understand how traumatized my father, in particular, was.” He paused to rub his hands together and blow on them for warmth. “Today, 70 years later, you have the feeling for the first time that history could repeat itself. That that’s not out of the question.”

After the black-clad line of right-wingers had passed behind a line of police officers — greeted by chants of “Nazis out!” — the crowds dispersed. Elnura Yivazada, who works in culture management and heard about the protest through the bookstore, took a moment to stay and listen to the last musical act, before heading home to warm up.

“It’s important to show our faces,” she said. “To say, people here won’t just accept this.”

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