Rüdiger’s treatment a damning representation of modern Germany | Jonathan Liew

Estimated read time 6 min read

Antonio Rüdiger was eight years old the first time he had to ask his father what the N-word meant, because the kids at school were using it. He remembers running over to an old white lady in his neighbourhood, offering to help carry her shopping bags, and seeing the look of pure terror in her eyes. He remembers growing up playing football on the concrete pitches of Berlin, and being told he didn’t belong there, to go back to Africa.

But these were the bad old days. The dark ages. A more benighted era of Germany society. And of course, Rüdiger is now a star of the German national team in a home European Championship, their best player in the 2-0 win over Denmark last Saturday and the key to Friday’s quarter-final against Spain. Times have changed. Attitudes, surely, have shifted.

“Footballer Rüdiger outs himself as a radical Islamist!” screamed a popular German right-wing YouTuber this week. “This man has no place in our national team,” declared Beatrix von Storch, the MP and deputy leader of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party. “Islamism in the German starting eleven this evening,” wrote Julian Reichelt, the former editor of Bild and now the editor of Nius, a kind of equivalent to GB News.

Then there was the member of the AfD’s youth wing, interviewed on television at the party’s conference in Essen a few days ago, who stated on camera that Rüdiger should be “expelled”. Not from the team, not from the camp, but from Germany itself. And before what promises to be the match of the tournament, a game that feels – one way or the other – like the crux of Germany 2024, a reminder that among this fiercely united squad, some players are playing for higher stakes than others.

This much, naturally, Rüdiger is already used to. From his earliest days in German football, he was cognisant of the ways in which society’s ingrained racism would be coded and coddled, more creatively framed. “As soon as you have a few bad games, the press starts digging, and now what do they call you?” he wrote in a 2021 Players Tribune article. “Antonio Rüdiger, from Berlin-Neukölln.”

Even now, with Rüdiger enjoying his most productive international tournament, the knives are out for him in a way they so rarely are for others. Every gesture and word is parsed and scrutinised for anything that might inspire some cheap right-wing outrage. After the Denmark game it was a throwaway comment that Germany should have “killed” the game earlier. Days of hand-wringing commentary and social media fury ensued.

Back in March, meanwhile, it was Fingergate. At the start of Ramadan, Rüdiger posted a picture of himself with his index finger raised, wishing “a blessed Ramadan to all Muslims around the world”. For Reichelt, however, it was not a gesture of solidarity but an “Islamist salute, which the whole world has known since the horror of the ISIS terrorists”. Rüdiger and the German football association filed a complaint to the public prosecutor, but in many ways the damage was already done: for a small but increasingly emboldened subset of German society, Rüdiger had been successfully recast as the “other”, a dangerous outsider, even a traitor in the midst.
And of course this is all part of a broader strategy, a concerted effort to position football as a frontline in the struggle for the soul of the nation. On social media, disinformation and flat-out untruths have been propagated by far-right accounts and allowed to flourish largely unchallenged. One viral video shows a prayer room in the fan zone in Berlin, with the (false) suggestion that it has been installed for Muslims alone. Another widely shared post rages at the ban on German flags in fan parks, a ban that does not and has never existed.

Antonio Rüdiger celebrates a Germany victoryView image in fullscreen

While it’s easy to dismiss this kind of stuff as the kind of desperate nonsense barely worth dignifying with comment – and you know, when has fringe far-right German nationalism ever really hurt anyone? – there is a subtext here, and by identifying it now we can all spare ourselves a lot of performative shock later. “This team is not a national team, but a politically correct mercenary troupe,” the MEP Maximilian Krah declared before the start of the Euros.

Because so far the racists and nativists have encountered one major issue: Germany are absolutely smashing it. The national flags are billowing from car aerials and apartment blocks. A proudly diverse and forward-looking team have cruised into the quarter-finals playing smart modern football and turning their diversity into a strength. “With every victory, good Germany wins,” the journalist Hajo Schumacher declared on a television talkshow on Tuesday night. “Every victory counts. This is modern Germany. This is a new Germany.”

And yet even this leans into dangerous tropes, the unspoken compact that people of colour must somehow prove their worth in order to be accepted by a white-majority society. Brandishing a winning German team and a champion centre-half as evidence of the merits of multiculturalism is all very well until – you know – they stop winning. Until Rüdiger misjudges a high ball. Until Jamal Musiala misses a penalty. That will be the point at which we find out if “new Germany” is elementally different from the old one.

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Rüdiger, of course, has always understood this. That in most European societies his basic humanity will always be regarded, in part, as a transaction. In his Players’ Tribune article he reflected on the Chelsea fans who showered him with vitriol for his supposed part in the sacking of Frank Lampard, only to change their tune months later when he led them to the Champions League title. “Do you think they took a long look in the mirror?” he writes. “Maybe. Maybe not. But I know that we’re winning. So now I’m useful to them. Maybe I’m even a human being in their eyes.”

The real shame here is that Rüdiger is easily good enough and compelling enough and entertaining enough on the pitch to be appreciated on his own terms. From Stuttgart to Roma to Chelsea to Madrid, this is a player whose commitment and personality and taste for the dramatic have long made him one of the most watchable players in the game, a riposte to the idea that attackers are football’s expressionists and defenders its silent yeomen. Take his wild celebration after making a crucial tackle late in the Denmark game, fists pumping, eyes wide, letting out a roar of pure alpha energy.

This is a player at the peak of his powers, chasing the pinnacle of his career, who should at the very least be able to count on a blank canvas, a nation united behind him. For reasons only tangentially connected to him, that has rarely been the case. Often it is said, with a trite liberal blitheness, that Rüdiger represents modern Germany. In a way, so does his treatment.

Source: theguardian.com

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