“Leave politics out of football as it clearly doesn’t belong there”, is the most common sentence from people on the extreme right wing who want to enjoy a football match. It’s all about the 90 minutes on the pitch, nothing more and nothing less, seems to be the credo they are following (and by extension want everybody else to follow). However, football has challenged the ideals within society many times and it will continue to do so. Kicker magazine founder and German football pioneer Walther Bensemann was aware of football’ significance, as he regarded the game as a means of furthering understanding among nations and the promotion of tolerance.
This deeply held believe by Bensemann clearly leaves room for political impression both on the pitch and in the stands. However, having your own ideals and world views challenged whilst regarding yourself as part of a homogeneous group of fans seemingly strikes a nerve for many on the right. Over the last couple years the Refugees Welcome campaign and Christian Streich’s eloquent political commentary have been reminders of what political activism and speech coming from the world of football can be at its best. Last weekend the Hertha BSC players made another powerful political statement by taking the knee at the start of the football match against Schalke.
The origins of taking the knee
NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick made headlines when he took the knee during the national anthem in 2016. It was his way of protesting the police violence black communities in the States were facing on a daily basis. In a post match interview the 29-year-old explained his actions:
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
It was statement like these which made Kaepernick a polarising figure within US sports. After his contract expired last season no team or NFL owner would go anywhere near him. Even though several spots opened up others were preferred. NFL commentators like Bob Costas have stated that it wasn’t due to a lack of talent that Kaepernick now is out of a job.
Last month president Trump inflamed tensions by stating that players taking the knee were “sons of bitches” and that NFL owners should fire them. In a response to the president’s remarks many teams decided to take the knee or stay in the locker room during the national anthem. In the president’s speech Kaepernick and the other players were highlighted as persons who disrespected American values and the country’s heritage.
Whilst former president Barack Obama expressed some reservation to Kapernick’s protests, he acknowledged the realities to which the former San Francisco 49’ers quarterback was speaking. Trump and his cabinet, on the other hand, seem to be incapable of this. Instead they had Vice President Mike Pence make a very public protest of his own when he walked out of the San Francisco 49ers v Indianapolis Colts game following the player’s protest.
The significance of Hertha’s decision
According to several reports within the German press, it was the club officials themselves who had the idea of Hertha’s players joining the protest. Upon asking the players if they’d like to take the knee ahead of the Schalke game, the entire group of players agreed. The reasons for that decision were made clear on the club’s twitter channel after kick off.
— Hertha Berlin (@HerthaBSC_EN) October 14, 2017
After the match defender Sebastian Langkamp explained the team’s actions:
“We are not living in the 18th century, but in the 21st century. However, there are still a few people out there who haven’t gotten that far ideologically speaking. If we can provide them with a lesson, that is a good thing.”
The spectators at the match were informed of the team’s protest ahead of the match:
“Berlin is colourful! Hertha BSC stands for diversity and against violence! Based on that we are backing the protests by the American athletes and we are standing up against discrimination. We want Berlin to be an open minded city in the future as well!”
On the one hand side the club is showing their support for the fight of Kapernick and others. More significantly, however, they are also interpreting their actions as an important message to the current political climate within Germany. Police violence aimed at black people isn’t a problem within Germany, but being open minded and tolerant is an important message in the current political climate.
Right wing politics and football – A touchy subject
Last month’s German election showed clearly that right wing tendencies are on the rise. The far right party AfD (Alternative for Germany) managed to grab a whopping 13% of the vote with their anti immigrant platform. The people who voice their discontent at political messages being part of football are getting more plentiful it turns out. Football’s popularity is a somewhat tricky subject matter for the party. Last March AfD politician Frank Scheermesser visited Hertha’s match against Borussia Dortmund. After the game Scheersmesser grabbed a quick photo with left back Marvin Plattenhardt, without telling the player who he is and what he actually represents.
Upon the AfD’s decision to publish the photo on Twitter, Plattenhardt swung into action and tweeted that he wanted the photo removed. Nothing happened until the left back threatened legal action. For right wing politicians in suits, it is key to be seen as part of society in order to further their appeal. Being seen as an outlier costs votes after all, so grabbing the limelight with a footballer is good business in that regard.
However, the problem for the AfD is that most footballers don’t want anything to do with them. And furthermore, the far right elements dominating the party have in the past expressed frustration of how “Ungerman” the national team has become. During an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung party vice chair Alexander Gauland uttered the statement that former Hertha player Jerome Boateng was a good footballer, but that “people don’t want to have him as a neighbour”.
After initially apologising for his remarks, Gauland said that people like Boateng “always are going to remain foreign to us”. Afterwards the 75-year-old stated that he preferred the national team of the 1970s, as it included so many great German names.
Considering the rise of far right populism, the fact that footballers are taunted for their cultural background and their skin colour and the wish of these right wing politicians to be seen near football matches, Hertha’s decision sends a powerful message within a German context as well. Some people might want political speech removed from football, but in a day and age where Alexander Gauland is a member of parliament, standing up for diversity by taking the knee sends a powerful message.