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Eastern German problems play out on the pitch

How its dismal football performance reflects former East Germany's challenges.

According to Arbeit, the dismal condition of eastern German soccer deprives many easterners of a positive source of identification, “something you can be proud of and happy for,” he said. “I think it would be great if fans had more to rally around than their team not being demoted.” FC Union, at least, has that: It is the only eastern team that will jump up a league and play next year in a higher division.

Since unification in 1990, opinion polls have consistently shown that eastern Germans feel themselves to be second class citizens in the Federal Republic. Over 70 percent of eastern Germans say they do not feel like full-fledged German citizens. Every second easterner feels threatened by poverty and a precipitous drop in social status. They make less money, suffer greater joblessness and even have shorter life spans than western Germans.

Another plight that expresses itself on the German soccer pitch is far-right extremism. Although east and west German stadiums alike have been the scenes of ugly fan violence, in the east it has between markedly more pronounced — and explicitly racist. Recent nasty clashes in Dresden, Erfurt, Jena and Berlin resulted in bloodshed and vandalized stadiums. Certain areas outside of Berlin during the 2006 World Cup were designated as “no-go” areas for people of color. This provoked howls of outrage from eastern soccer fans, most of whom are neither violent nor bigoted.

Yet the pattern reflects polls that show higher levels of racism in the NFS. Seven percent of eastern Germans express sympathy with a far right group and 40 percent claim that there are too many “foreigners” in Germany. Only in the NFS have far right parties been able to secure places in regional legislatures.

The German Soccer Federation has taken action to raise the level of the sport in the NFS. In addition to extensive anti-racism and conflict prevention work conducted with fan clubs in the eastern states, it has invested heavily in developing young soccer talent in the east. Since 1996, the new sports-oriented high schools the Federation has sponsored, 15 total, are in the NFS. The first results: the 15- and 16-year old national teams now have more eastern players than ever.

German soccer expert Christoph Biermann, the author of several books on the game, said that fans in the east are more conscious of the east-west divide in soccer than those in the west. “When an easterner sees Michael Ballack playing for the national team,“ explained Biermann, “he’s seen as one of their own. But most people in the west just see him as just another a German soccer player. They don’t pay attention anymore about where he came from. Though more slowly, I think this will happen in the east, too.”

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