The day was June 5th, 1997, four days before Otto Addo’s twenty-first birthday. The skies were overcast in Cottbus, a small town just over 100km southeast of Berlin, where Addo had travelled with his Hannover ’96 squad for the return leg of a crucial promotion playoff match with Energie Cottbus to get to Germany’s second tier of football.
Among Hannover’s traveling team was Dieter Hecking, the current coach of VfL Wolfsburg and Gerald Asamoah. Born in Mapong, Ghana, Asamoah immigrated to Germany in the early nineties and realized the dream of becoming a professional footballer after signing with Hannover. In 1997, he was still a teenager and the match with Cottbus would have been among his first professional matches.
Yet Addo and Asamoah, both of dark skin complexion, were subjected to racist behavior from the crowd over the course of the ninety minutes and beyond. “I was young and unprepared for so much hate. Constantly flying bananas on the pitch, we both were targeted booed and vilified,” Asamoah said of the experience, per FIFA.com. “That was an extreme experience, under which I suffered much and long.”
Despite suffering from one of the darkest aspects of football and hooligan culture of that era, Asamoah overcame the experience and went on to pave the way for many black footballers as the first African-born black footballer to appear for the German national team.
Throughout his career, Asamoah has been subjected to racism on multiple occasions, but that hasn’t stopped him from notching over two-hundred-and-fifty appearances in the Bundesliga for Schalke 04 and scoring six international goals from sixty-three caps for Germany.
Cottbus defeated Hannover on that day and four months afterward, found themselves visiting FC St. Pauli in Germany’s second division.
In the early 1980s, St. Pauli averaged little over 1,500 spectators at their games, but fifteen years later, 15,200 people packed the Millerntor-Stadion to witness the club take on Cottbus. Often, the club filled the 20,000-seater.
What happened in 1981 was the start of an alternative fan culture. The Millerntor-Stadion is located in Hamburg’s dock area, which was the heart of the punk and left-wing movements in the city. Across the street is Hamburg’s infamous Red Light district and nearby, the street of Hafenstraße was lined with buildings famous for housing a squatting protest that year. The city attempted to evict the squatters, yet after many protests, the city gave way.
Many of these people, dissatisfied with hooliganism in German football at the time and visible within the fan culture of Hamburg SV, turned to St. Pauli. “When these people, like me, went to the football ground, we didn’t give our brains away at the entrance doors,” said Sven Brux, St Pauli’s current Stadium Operations Manager, in an interview with Copa90. “We wanted…cheaper tickets for the unemployed and we didn’t want the merchandise store to sell any right-wing stuff.
“We got organized…and it was growing and growing.”
To this day, St. Pauli maintain an anti-racist, anti-fascist, anti-homophobic and anti-sexist ethos and through the thick and thin of their fortunes on the pitch, including recent relegation back to Bundesliga 2, their fan base still thrives within their political message.
Perhaps, then, it wasn’t all that coincidental that Asamoah joined St. Paul in 2010 after a wildly successful decade at Schalke.
Though they parted ways after but a season, the club and player are united again off-the-pitch in a movement within football to support refugees following the Syrian refugee crisis. As millions flock to Europe as an escape from a war-torn region, football has become a vehicle to drive a positive political message.
St. Pauli hosted a pre-season friendly with Borussia Dortmund a few months ago and donated all the proceedings to the cause. Meanwhile, Asamoah started the “Stand Up” campaign with Schalke.
“You get insulted, you get booed,” he said of life as a footballer in an inspiring campaign video. “But still, you walk into the dressing room, get into your car and then you are gone. Afterwards you’ll be surrounded by people who accept you.
“But, those people who are living in a home for refugees, they can be surrounded by 1,000 people, and those people are out there to get them. For me this happened during the course of 90 minutes, for them it’s almost every day.”
The refugee problem is just as much about racism as it is politics. Asamoah recognizes that among the millions of refugees, some of them will grow up to become professional footballers as he did. One of the teenagers striving for that dream is Mohammed Jaddou, former captain of the Syria U17 National Team.
Jaddou left behind his mother and brothers in Syrian to pursue a footballing career in Germany after his team bus was attacked multiple times in Syria and one of his teammates was killed in a bomb attack. “My father wasn’t willing to sacrifice my life for the sake of football,” he said in an emotional interview with Copa90. “The Sports Federation said that if I didn’t play for the national team I would be banned of playing football for life.”
Jaddou was smuggled into Europe on a boat but after the ship malfunctioned, the refugees aboard were forced to wait for rescue.
Just as Germany has taken in the largest number of refugees, their football culture has been the most responsive. At most Bundesliga games, “refugees welcome” banners are never far away.
Now, other clubs across Europe have also started to raise awareness and money for the cause. Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid have all donated over a million pounds to various foundations. Everton gave refugees and asylum seekers the opportunity to walk out as mascots at Goodison Park for their clash against Chelsea. In Italy, AS Roma have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to to the cause and started an initiative called “Football Cares,” prominently featuring their stars Mohammed Salah, Francesco Totti and Edin Dzeko.
“It’s not about Roma it’s about the refugees,” Roma president Jim Pallotta said, per The Guardian. “We’ve already heard from a number of football clubs and also people in other sports. We’ve heard from people in tennis, the NHL and American soccer.”
Porto FC have organized a campaign for that for every ticket sold in the Champions League and Europa League, the home team will donate €1 to support refugees. Over the course of the season, that will equate to over €7m. In a letter to UEFA president Michel Platini, the club say: “The football family has a long tradition in solidarity and social responsibility, so it’s impossible to close our eyes to the drama of the migrants and refugees that are trying to enter European soil.”
From a thirty-eight-year-old international footballer, to a left-wing supporters group and a seventeen-year-old refugee in Germany, we’ve all got something to benefit from a free and accepting world. Football does, too, and that’s why the football community is taking a stand to support the cause.