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German World cup patriotism still touchy issue

Lebanese Ibrahim Bassal poses near the four-storey long German flag to show their support for the German national soccer team in the FIFA 2010 World Cup in front of the electronics shop in the district Neukoelln in Berlin, Tuesday, June 29, 2010. Lebanese Ibrahim Bassal poses near the four-storey long German flag to show their support for the German national soccer team in the FIFA 2010 World Cup in front of the electronics shop in the district Neukoelln in Berlin, Tuesday, June 29, 2010. (AP Photo/Jens Meyer)
By Kirsten Grieshaber
Associated Press Writer / July 1, 2010

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BERLIN—Youssef Bassal's heart swelled with pride when he draped an enormous German flag on the building where he runs a cell phone store in support of the World Cup team.

So the Lebanese immigrant was stunned when German leftist groups tore down the 100-square-meter (1000-square-foot) flag -- not just once, but twice.

"I don't understand them at all -- every American or Frenchman would be proud to show their flag and root for their football team," the 39-year-old said at his store in a neighborhood that's home to many Arab immigrants.

"It's not like there's still a swastika on Germany's flag."

It's a paradox rooted in Europe's multicultural world: Immigrants are rallying around Germany's diverse football team that includes players with roots in Turkey, Ghana, Poland, Tunisia, and other countries. But 65 years after the end of World War II, some Germans are still adamantly against any expression of national pride and feel uneasy about cheering "Deutschland, Deutschland" during a World Cup match.

Of course there are millions of Germans, especially from the younger generation, who don't hesitate to paint their faces with the German tricolor on game day. But strikingly, such overt expressions of national pride only appeared widely in the country when it hosted the World Cup four years ago.

At this World Cup, what has caught the eye is that Berlin's immigrant neighborhoods like Neukoelln, Wedding or Kreuzberg sport many more black-red-golden flags on cars, balconies and store fronts than more traditionally German quarters like Mitte or Prenzlauer Berg.

That's largely because this year's team -- a bit like the spectacular French squad that won the World Cup in 1998 -- seems like a celebration of the nation's multiethnic modern-day makeup. The team of 23 includes 11 players with a variety of immigrant roots.

It all reflects the country's transition over the last decades from a largely homogeneous German nation to one where 15 million out of 82 million inhabitants claim immigrant background.

"These players, who are the children of former guestworkers and binational parents ... represent Germany in South Africa on the world's stage," Cem Ozdemir, co-leader of the Green Party and the son of Turkish immigrants, told daily Die Welt.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel lauded the German team's diversity and called it "a role model for the integration" of foreigners, who have often been blamed by mainstream society of living their lives in an isolated "parallel society."

While the entire nation has rallied behind the World Cup team, relations between immigrants and Germans are not always easy.

Just a few days ago, a low-level politician in Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic party suggested an intelligence test for prospective newcomers to assure that they "really benefit our country." The idea was quickly shot down.

While many immigrants complain about racist remarks and xenophobic behavior, many Germans fear terrorist attacks by homegrown terrorists, especially Muslim extremists, after a handful of failed attempts.

To further complicate things, the legacy of the Holocaust still looms large -- even when it comes to sporting events.

Heide Schwartz, a 58-year-old German teacher from Berlin, said even though she liked watching some of the World Cup games with her family, she would never adorn her car with a flag, because "Germany did too many horrible things during the Third Reich to be able cheer out loud for this country."

The German radical leftist group "Autonome WM-Gruppe" went a step further and published a post on the Internet calling for the destruction of Bassal's flag.

Bassal, who moved to Germany 25 years ago, responded to the online threats by organizing a group of five immigrants from Turkey, Egypt and Lebanon to protect the German flag at night. He has also pressed charges against those believed responsible for tearing it down the first time, who were caught by police.

"This flag has nothing to do with politics," Bassal explained. "It's about celebrating our great German team, which is half immigrant anyway."

Indeed, while the team has players like Thomas Mueller and Bastian Schweinsteiger with deep German roots, it also has Sami Khedira, whose father is Tunisian, Polish-born Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski, Ghanian-rooted Jerome Boateng, and Mesut Oezil, whose parents are Turkish.

"Our team is a successful mix," Khedira told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung's Jetzt magazine in a recent interview. "We are playing with this typical Mediterranean ease, but also have a very strong discipline when it comes to the defense."

So far, the scores on the field have proven him right. Germany has advanced to the quarterfinals where it will play Argentina on Saturday and has delighted football fans around the globe with its young, creative team.

Oezil, one of the biggest stars during this World Cup, is reported to murmur Koranic verses before games.

His girlfriend, Anna Maria Lagerblom, made headlines recently for reportedly converting to Islam. But those were nowhere near as big as the ones Oezil got for his left-footed blast that gave Germany a 1-0 victory over Ghana a week ago.

As Germany redefines its identity, it's the immigrants who may be leading the way in teaching Germans how to feel good about themselves.

"We belong here, no matter if the leftists or extreme right does not like us," Bassal said. "In the end we're even going to teach the Germans how to cheer for Germany again."

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