'My Turkey': Berlin, immigration and the amateur football scene

Berlin's Turkish football clubs tell the tale of a local struggle for multiculturalism and integration, far away from the politics of migration.

Catherine Stupp
6 March 2013
Türkiyemspor's emblem. Türkiyemspor/All rights reserved.

Türkiyemspor's emblem. Türkiyemspor/All rights reserved.

Türkiyemspor Berlin is the best-known of Berlin's Turkish-German football clubs. On a recent Sunday, its men's team was set to play Tus Makkabi Berlin, which bills itself as the city's only Jewish club and dates back to the late nineteenth century. According to Murat Dogan, Türkiyemspor's chairman, his club only expects a modest turnout of fans at its games, though thousands used to crowd stadiums during the club's peak in the 1980s and 90s.

The development of minority or Turkish-influenced football clubs in Berlin points to local struggles for multiculturalism that often elude discussions of “integration.” While the politicized term has dominated German political debate, targeting immigration on a national scale, in certain neighbourhoods of Berlin the amateur football clubs mirror the city's migration history. In particular, the football clubs that were founded by Turkish immigrants and continue to bear Turkish names have come to represent the ingrained tensions in Berlin's long-established Turkish communities.

Some amateur football clubs in Berlin have become iconic symbols of specific phases in the city's history, as well as of the neighbourhoods where they're based. The oldest football club in Germany, BFC Germania 1888, plays in the working class area of Tempelhof. Its name alludes to long-standing Germanic roots. Over a century after BFC Germania was founded, Berlin's football landscape includes clubs whose names refer to Germany's largest immigrant group, among them Hilalspor, and BSV Hürtürkel, with Türkiyemspor Berlin being the best known.

Türkiyemspor was founded in 1978 in Berlin's Kreuzberg neighbourhood, which remains a centre of Turkish life in the city today. Dogan, who grew up in the area, recalls the club's early popularity among Turkish-born Berliners, when thousands of fans would pour into stadiums for Türkiyemspor's games. Yet, although Türkiyemspor's name is still synonymous with the sizable Turkish community in Berlin, its fan base has diminished over the last two decades.

Dogan speculates about why fans have lost interest in the club, citing the spread of Turkish television in Germany as one possible motivation. “There was no Turkish television back then. People couldn't follow Turkish football and we were the only connection here, so they came to our games.” Another reason, he adds, were the social effects of German reunification on Turkish and other immigrant groups.

When the Berlin Wall opened in 1989, Türkiyemspor began playing games in former East Germany, where anti-immigrant sentiment is much more prevalent than in former West Germany. To this day, Germany's radical right-wing party is considerably more successful in eastern German states. The team and its fans were often met with racist remarks or were hit with stones at games. The fans eventually stopped coming. “After two years or so, nobody could handle that anymore,” laments Dogan.

Veysel Öner, a trainer for Hilalspor, a smaller team that also plays in Kreuzberg, had similar experiences when he brought his team to games in eastern Germany. He recalls seeing a Turkish flag burnt on the field at one of their away games in the 1990s.

While Berlin's Turkish-German clubs may have only a fraction of the fans that they used to, Germany's professional football teams have been lauded over the past decade for attracting more fans to their games on average than any other professional football league in Europe. Tickets are kept affordable, and even the business model of professional teams - fans maintain 51% of shares in teams, setting a limit to corporate shareholders - is set up to make German football “for the people.” Members of professional and amateur clubs belong to the German Football Association (DFB), which is the largest sports organization in the world. Beyond the dedicated fans of professional teams, football is intensely popular and is played in over 25,000 small amateur clubs throughout the country.

The DFB has invested recently in anti-racism and anti-homophobia campaigns. In the past few years, ads promoting “respect” featured prominently in stadiums. Perhaps due to the organization's size and huge outreach potential, or because of a perceived growth in its members who are immigrants or minorities, the DFB has increasingly prioritized fighting discrimination. In sync with the political lingo that has dominated German media for a number of years, the DFB also promotes integration, the term used tirelessly by German politicians. The National Integration Plan, first introduced by Angela Merkel in 2007, included sports as an arena for potential integration work, naming the DFB as an important partner.

The DFB first created the position of Commissioner for Integration in 2006. Mehmet Matur boasts that he was ahead of the DFB - he became the Berlin Football Association's Commissioner for Integration in 2004. Speaking in the back room of the sporting supply store that he runs with his brother in Berlin's Neukölln neighbourhood, another hub of Turkish life in the German capital, Matur explains why sports are important for integration. “With football, you can reach people, spread values that are important for later, for society. Like punctuality and team spirit. You learn the rules — you have to follow them or you get punished.”

Forty years ago, when the first football clubs founded by Turkish immigrants were cropping up in areas like Kreuzberg and Neukölln, there was no Commissioner for Integration. The first ever integration work, Matur says, came from the networks of immigrants who met through clubs and helped other members get accustomed to Berlin. Now, Matur focuses on making Berlin's amateur clubs more sensitive to issues that affect immigrants and minorities. He also came up with a qualification programme for directors of the city's “ethnic” clubs. Matur created a list of around forty clubs that were predominantly Turkish, Arabic, Croatian, Serbian, Albanian and Greek-run and invited their directors to training sessions where they learned how to obtain non-profit status for their clubs and manage finances. They also practised communication strategies with referees.

While the political agenda driving integration focuses on immigrants learning German and breaking out of what are perceived as isolated migrant communities, Berlin's Turkish-German football clubs are the target group of political debates at the micro level. Türkiyemspor, according to Dogan, is deeply rooted in Kreuzberg. “Since the club was founded, we've represented the neighbourhood. The neighbourhood represents the club. The club and the neighbourhood belong together, they can't be separated.” Dogan rejects labelling Türkiyemspor as a “Turkish” club, arguing instead that it is multicultural, an immigrants' club, that a significant number of players have no Turkish background and that members communicate in German. “The club has transformed itself. We went from being a Turkish club to a Berlin club,” says Dogan, referencing the club's original name “Izmir Spor.” “We went from Turkish players to German players with immigrant backgrounds. That's why this term 'Turkish club' is relative.”

When Izmir Spor acquired more members who were not from Izmir, the club's name was changed to “Türkiyemspor Berlin,” meaning “My Turkey.” Other clubs that once presented themselves as distinctly Turkish have more recently changed their names to sound more German, says Mehmet Matur. “They used to be called Görtürkspör or SV Galatasaray-Berlin and now they're called Rixdorfer SV, named after the old part of Neukölln. They felt that they were at a disadvantage because of their names, that they were treated unfairly. They want to show that they're a German club, that they belong here.” Matur sees name changes like these as a positive development if it makes Turkish-German or “immigrant clubs” more attractive for German members to join.

“Türkiyemspor is a trademark,” says Murat Dogan, adding that the club's Turkish-German appeal attracts members. In a city where some of the century-old football clubs have long claimed connections to the neighbourhoods they call home, Berlin's Turkish-influenced clubs represent both the city's established immigration history and the changing dynamics of neighbourhoods like Kreuzberg or Neukölln, where “integration” could mean German players joining a club with a Turkish name.

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