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Racism in Soccer: Player Silences German Racists With Hitler Salute

Mired in betting scandals, riven by infighting and alarmed by recent poor performances on the pitch, German soccer needs anything but more controversy in the few months remaining before it hosts the World Cup. But some recent cases of blatant racism are doing further damage to its image.

Nigerian player Adebowale Ogungbure, of fourth division FC Sachsen Leipzig is sick of racist abuse against him at matches.
SPIEGEL ONLINE

Nigerian player Adebowale Ogungbure, of fourth division FC Sachsen Leipzig is sick of racist abuse against him at matches.

It started with a Hitler salute. Two eastern German soccer teams in the fourth division, FC Sachsen Leipzig and Hallesche FC, had just drawn 2-2 on March 25 in Halle, and the fans weren't happy.

Leipzig's Nigerian midfielder Adebowale Ogungbure was walking off the pitch when hooligans ran up to him, spat at him and called him "Dirty Nigger," "Shit Nigger" and "Ape." He ignored it and walked on. Then, when he passed the main stand and heard fans making whooping monkey noises at him, he decided he'd had enough. He put two fingers above his mouth to symbolise a Hitler moustache and stuck out his right arm in a Nazi salute to the crowd.

Given their behavior, one might think they would have appreciated the gesture and even returned it. But a Halle supporter attacked him from behind with a corner flag and another grabbed him in a stranglehold. Ogungbure pushed them away as a teammate intervened and dragged him towards the tunnel, to the safety of the changing rooms.

"I was just so angry, I didn't care. I could have been killed but I had to do something," Ogungbure told SPIEGEL ONLINE last week. "I thought to myself, what can I do to get them as angry as they have made me? Then when I lifted my arm I saw the anger in their faces and I started to laugh."

"I've faced some sort of racist abuse at about half the matches I've played," he said, but the spitting was too much on March 25. "I've never seen anyone spit at a dog or a cat in Germany -- why should I be spat at?"

The story took a grotesque turn when Ogungbure was charged with "unconstitutional behavior" for making the Hitler salute, which is illegal in Germany. The public prosecutor's office wisely dropped proceedings within 24 hours. But the incident made nationwide headlines and spurred a flurry of reports suggesting racist abuse is rife in the lower leagues where crowds are smaller and fewer police are present.

Rolf Heller, president of FC Sachsen Leipzig, played down the incident and said it was an isolated case. "This has nothing whatsoever to do with right wing extremism, it is just misguided fervor on the part of the fans," he said. Ogungbure said he informed Heller long ago about the hostility he faces. His answer: "They only want to wind you up."

FIFA toughens penalties

The case came to the attention of the governing body of world football, FIFA, which recently implemented tougher penalties for clubs whose fans engage in racist behavior. Possible sanctions now include match suspensions, the deduction of points, relegation or elimination from competitions.

The new rules were introduced in response to recent acts of racism in the top Spanish and Italian leagues but FIFA Secretary-General Urs Linsi told German newspaper Tagesspiegel last week: "We will of course also make sure that something like this is punished in Germany's fourth division as well."

So clubs had better start getting their act together, because greeting black players with ape noises and riling against foreigners is a frequent occurrence, especially, it appears, at matches involving teams from eastern Germany where unemployment is high and support for far-right parties has been strongest in recent years.

Last weekend at a lower division match between Hamburg St. Pauli and eastern club Chemnitz FC, visiting Chemnitz fans stormed Turkish-owned stores chanting "Sieg Heil" and waving imitation Nazi flags. Some shouted: "We're going to build a subway from St Pauli to Auschwitz."

Such behavior is bad enough at any time, but especially damaging now with Germany trying to project a cosmopolitan image under a World Cup slogan: "A Time to Make Friends."

Neo-Nazis plan to spoil World Cup

German officials last week admitted the far right may try to capitalize on the month-long World Cup, which starts July 9. Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said neo-Nazi groups were planning to use the tournament to raise their profile.

German national team player Patrick Owomoyela (center) during a match between Germany and Turkey. The German home strip, red in this case, usually consists of a white shirt and black shorts.
DPA

German national team player Patrick Owomoyela (center) during a match between Germany and Turkey. The German home strip, red in this case, usually consists of a white shirt and black shorts.

The far-right NPD party and other neo-Nazi groups apparently want to stage a "freedom of speech" march in Gelsenkirchen, in the Ruhr Valley, and further demonstrations in Leipzig, Berlin, and Nuremberg, to show solidarity with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has openly denied the Holocaust and suggested that Israel should be "wiped off the map."

The NPD is also already actively fomenting soccer xenophobia by offering a World Cup match fixtures guide that calls for Germany to field only white-skinned players.

The list is headlined "WHITE -- not just a soccer shirt color -- for a real NATIONAL team." It has a picture of a player bearing the number 25 -- the number used by national team player Patrick Owomoyela, who has a Nigerian father.

With reporting by Eva Lodde, Mike Glindmeier, Jens Todt.

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© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2006
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