Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

SPORTS: The World Kicks Around in Germany

Clive Freeman

BERLIN, Apr 14 2006 (IPS) - From Africa to Iceland, from Brazil to South Korea, from Paraguay to Tunisia, a galaxy of foreign stars come to play football in the Bundesliga, Germany’s top soccer league.

That makes Germany a rather appropriate host to the 2006 World Cup to take place June 9 to July 9.

The names of the players are as colourfully different as the countries they come from; they are called Lucio, Ze Roberto, Roque Junior, Marcelino, Santa Cruz, Kovac, Simunic, Bastuerk, Boulahrouz, Samba, Pantelic, Valdez, Babic, Mahdavikia and Asamoah.

More than half the players in Germany’s 18 Bundesliga (premier) teams come from abroad. That marks a dramatic change in the game these past 15 years that players have enjoyed the right to move freely through the soccer market.

The players move freely but expensively. Soccer is big business in Europe, with star foreign performers signing lucrative contracts with powerful clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Arsenal, Manchester United, Juventus Turin, Milan, Olympique Marseille and Olympique Lyon.

Foreign players do not come just to the premier league. They come also to 2.Bundesliga, which has another 18 teams. Clubs battle every year in this second league for the three promotion places up for grabs at the end of the season.

Some of the more talented players are black. But whatever their origin, no club in Germany would get far without foreign players. The same goes for every major European league where clubs chase soccer fame and glory.

Among the Bundesliga clubs, some 40 elite players from 18 different countries are gearing up to play for their national teams now. They will be on almost home turf. Many are no strangers to the 12 arenas chosen for the 32 World Cup matches.

If Brazil advances to the later stages of the tournament as expected, its star players Lucio and Roberto are likely to find at least one of their World Cup matches taking place at the new Alliance Arena, home ground to Bayern Munich and so to them.

Ali Karimi, another Bayern Munich squad member, is also buoyed at the prospect of playing World Cup soccer this summer.

A star of Iran’s national team, he was voted Asia’s player of the year in 2004. Hailed as the Diego Maradona of Iranian soccer, Karimi became famous in the Middle East while playing Dubai’s ‘desert’ league.

Eighteen months ago he sprang a surprise by signing for Bayern Munich. Iran fans are hoping he can lead them to victory in their opening Group D match against Mexico at the Nuremberg Franken stadium Jun. 11. Six days later Iran’s second game opponents will be Portugal in Frankfurt.

Every participating country is going soccer crazy. The ‘Soccer Legionaires’ of Croatia trained by Zlatko Kranicar are due to play their first Group F match Jun. 13 against World Cup holders Brazil at Berlin’s superbly revamped Olympic Stadium. Nine days later the team travels to Stuttgart to play Australia.

Three of Croatia’s key soccer stars – Ivan Klasnic, Josip Simunic and Niko Kovac – play for Bundesliga clubs. Klasnic, a stocky attacking forward, is with Werder Bremen, and Croatia’s captain Kovac and his colleague Simunic are stalwart defenders in the Hertha BSC (Berlin) team.

With the Olympic Stadium serving as Hertha’s home ground these days, Kovac and Simunic have been busily giving Croatian squad members useful tips about playing in the famous arena.

Outwardly the huge granite walls of the stadium still bear strong resemblance to the original arena where Hitler staged the notorious ‘Nazi Games’ in 1936. But its interior has been redesigned and capped by a sleek see-through roof.

The tournament promises to be special for Ghana-born Gerald Asamoah who plays for German club Schalke O4. The sturdily built player became a German citizen several years ago and has now matured into a key member of the national squad, coached by Juergen Klinsmann.

German soccer experts admire his relentless, foraging style of play and his goal-scoring ability. But at matches he is frequently a target of racist abuse. An organisation calling itself the Schutzbund Deutschland (Protective Union Deutschland) recently circulated placards reading, “No Gerald You Are Not German!”

Another German team-mate is Hamburg-born Patrick Owomoyela who is of German-African parentage. A skilful, fast moving defensive player, he plays for Werder Bremen, currently third in the Bundesliga. He too has faced insults and ridicule from right-wing bullies at Bundesliga away games. But both men say the majority of Germans welcome them wherever they go.

To the extent they can help Germany win matches, they will be very German to all of their country.

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