Are Germans getting used to the presence of immigrant players in the national football team?

Immigration is substantially changing the ethnic fabric of European societies. Within the realm of sport, immigration has resulted in a visible de-ethnisation of national teams. These trends hold also true for Germany. However, there are good reasons to ask how Germans deal with challenges to an ethnic vision of the nation. Among scholars of national conceptions of citizenship, Germany is commonly regarded as representing the prototype of an ethnic nation where immigration does not figure and to which membership is only granted on the base of ethnic descent. According to the performance analysis in football, even though Germany became an immigration country during the long-lasting post-war boom, immigration has always been a hotly debated policy issue in Germany. Only after bitter political debate was it possible to adopt a merely limited liberalization of German citizenship laws in 2000.

Ethnicity and the German Football Association

Moreover, it is important to note that the national football team is one of the few national icons in post-war Germany, which is reflected by the fact that matches of the team reach much bigger TV audiences than any other programme in Germany. For a long time, the national football team strongly reflected Germany’s ethnic concept of citizenship. Until the 1990s, the only three multi-ethnic national footballers were children of US soldiers. At least one of them, Jimmy Hartwig, complained about racial discrimination by the German Football Association (DFB). The reluctant stance of the DFB towards multi-ethnic players only changed when the European Court of Justice abandoned nationality restrictions in European club football in 1995. After a multi-ethnic French team won the 1998 World Cup, the DFB became worried about the poor quality of the national team’s play and aimed to capitalise on immigrants’ talents, which served even as an argument in the political battle about the modernization of nationality laws.

After nationality laws had been modernized in 2000, Germany’s status as an immigration country has been increasingly reflected in a multi-ethnic composition of its national football team. As the team plays football that is both modern and attractive, today it is seen as a role model for the successful integration of immigrants in Germany. This also corresponds to the aim that the German Football Association has of making a contribution to cohesion in a multi-ethnic society. However, there have also been several campaigns from right-wing parties against players of African descent in the national team.

Ethnicity and followers of the German national team

Thus, the main reason for undertaking our study was that it is not clear how successful such efforts at integration are. It is known that in the US, some sports fans do not accept the presence of ethnic minorities in “their” teams and prefer not to follow sport rather than give up their discriminatory attitudes. In Meier and Leinwather (2013), we asked whether any signs of similar discrimination on the part of “sports consumers” could be found with regard to the German team. In order to find an answer to this question, the regional viewing figures for all 237 games featuring the German team from 1995 to 2011 were subjected to secondary analysis (Figure 1).

Figure 1 Average TV ratings for different number of out group players

Note:  Based on survey research on the distance between Germans and several ethnic out groups, players of African, Middle East and Turkish descent were considered as most ethnic distant outgroup players.


In our multivariate analyses of 3,792 TV ratings (237 matches × 16 federal states), we controlled for a number of variables measuring the relevance of a match, the quality of the involved teams, uncertainty of the match outcome and the scheduling of the match. According to our results, the increased presence in the German national football team of players with an immigrant background has led to a slight drop in TV viewing figures for live matches featuring the national team. At the same time, however, the public is increasingly acquiring a liking for the multi-ethnic make-up of the national team.

The results of the study show that the presence of players with a greater ethnic distance does indeed appear to have a negative effect on viewing figures, albeit only a slight one. The presence of most ethnically distant players in the national team reduced ratings by around 3%. According to our in-sample predictions, matches without any ethnically distant player participation have received ratings of around 45%, while matches involving ethnic distant players only around 39%. At the same time, however, it became evident that television viewers are increasingly coming to accept the multi-ethnic make-up of the German team.


Overall, the results indicate that the visible changes in the ethnic composition of the German population at large certainly do lead to problems of acceptance. This is not surprising in view of the fact that Germany’s status as an immigration country was long denied, and that immigration in any case always gives rise to fears. But at the same time the results offer an encouraging interpretation – that German society will accept these changes when the enrichment that immigrants bring becomes clearly visible. In addition, the study shows that Germans’ enthusiasm for football cannot be explained as a form of backward-looking nationalism. However, the study does not allow the conclusion to be drawn that the multi-ethnic national team really does effectively reduce prejudices against immigrants. It would take far more detailed studies on the influence that sport has on prejudices to be able to make such statements.

Author’s note: Details of the study are soon to be published in European Sociological Review.


Meier, Henk Erik and Marcel Leinwather (2013), ‘Finally a ‘Taste for Diversity’? National Identity, Consumer Discrimination, and the Multi-ethnic German National Football Team’, European Sociological Review, first published online April 23, 2013, doi:10.1093/esr/jct011.