Is Jurgen Klinsmann poaching too much talent from Deutschland?
On the evening Germany played Ghana to a thrilling 2–2 draw, a couple of thousand German soccer fans (and one or two Ghana supporters) stood inside the four walls of Heidelberg University’s Marstall—an enormous, 16th century plaza that once served as Heidelberg’s main stable. Today it’s a student center, and on game nights, the open air courtyard is where you want to be if you value the buzz and excitement large crowds bring to World Cup viewing.
When the final whistle blew, the whole Marstall seemed to exhale at once, before the crowd broke into smaller groups to discuss the match and Germany’s next opponent, the U.S., which will be one of the most fascinating fixtures in this World Cup. Eager to get a feeling for how the German fans view the U.S. team and its five players who were born and/or raised and trained in Germany (Jermaine Jones, John Brooks, Timothy Chandler, Fabian Johnson, and Julian Green), I roamed the drunken and rapidly-dispersing crowd to get its take.
“I don’t think it’s a problem,” said Isa Murry, a university student who is married to an American but proudly wore a white T-shirt with a red, gold, and black graphic diagonally across the front. “Right now there are so many players playing for [national] teams where they weren’t born.
“Even in Germany, we have a lot of players who are not even close to being German, and I think that’s completely fine. If [the German-American] players think they should really play for the United States, and that’s their desire, even if they’re raised and born here…that’s fine. Right now it’s more about the game. Everyone knows by now that it’s not just players from their country playing for these teams.”
“When the parents are American but they’re born here then why shouldn’t they be able to play [for the US]?” said Niklass Feil, another student. Feil had on an old German jersey, tight denim shorts, and a St. Louis Rams hat. With his beard, he could have been teleported straight from Silver Lake or Williamsburg. “For us, we have those with origins in Poland or Ghana—Boateng, for example—and why shouldn’t they play for the national team they want to? I find it unimportant if one player has a different background than another.”
Days later, after Brazil’s final group match, I spoke to two friends at a trendy, late-night spot called Bar Central. They were equally dismissive of any controversy surrounding German-American dual nationals. “It’s all a free country,” John said. His friend Ken said it was absolutely, “no problem,” if a player born and trained here played for another country. Neither man gave his last name.
Thomas Ott, a die-hard Hoffenheim supporter who lives in a Heidelberg suburb, had perhaps the most nuanced view of the situation. He told me by e-mail that “neither [Fabian] Johnson nor [Jermaine] Jones would have had a chance to play a World Cup for Germany. Therefore all of the players have a right and obligation to opt for USMNT.”
Ott said the German-American players had still provided competition in the German system, and were therefore a benefit to the German national team, even if they played for another country. So in that sense it’s not a big deal that Germany trained American players.
Ott did, however, think the German football association’s scouts are now worried about the U.S. poaching players. “Until Klinsmann became U.S. coach, the Americans were probably not on the competition radar of [the German Football Association’s] scouts,” he said. “Strong concern is usually directed toward ethnic Turks, who are now an important part of German youth and amateur soccer. Many strong players have opted to play for Turkey, some of them would have had a chance to make into a World Cup roster. The most prominent current player is Hakan Çalhanoğlu, of Hamburg, who opted for Turkey.”
National teams, it seems, are no longer truly national, and whatever controversy that might generate is, at least in my anecdotal view, overblown. But what if Jermaine Jones scores another wundergoal, this time at Germany’s expense?
“For me, it wouldn’t be a big deal if the U.S. beat us,” Feil said. “It’s just a game. I don’t think people should take nationality so seriously.”