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Political Shadow Hangs Over Germany’s World Cup Preparations

Arsenal's Mesut Ozil has looked sharp in training for Germany
Arsenal's Mesut Ozil has looked sharp in training for Germany

Jerome Boateng was crunching into tackles and spreading passes around as if he’d never been away.

Mesut Özil looked sharp, showing no sign of the knee problem which kept him out of Germany’s final warm-up game against Saudi Arabia.

Even the goalkeeping quandary has been long since solved, with Manuel Neuer in full control of the number one jersey after recovering from a broken foot just in time to oust the unfortunate Marc-André ter Stegen.

The only footballing complaint Joachim Löw could have after Germany’s first training session in Vatutinki, an industrial suburb to the south-west of Moscow city centre, was about the length of the grass.

“At the start of the session, we noticed that the grass is perhaps a few millimetres too long,” he said. “We’ll be sorting that out because it can increase the risk of injury.”

Julian Draxler was one player who got his studs caught in the long turf, but the Paris Saint-Germain winger was able to continue.

Political fallout

Yet while the sporting preparations for “Operation Title Defence” are going well, a political shadow still hangs over the squad as the fallout from Özil and Ilkay Gündogan’s ill-advised photo op with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues.

Ahead of the Saudi Arabia friendly, the German FA (DFB) had attempted – unsuccessfully – to declare the matter finished, but the boos from thousands of fans in Leverkusen suggested it definitely wasn’t.

Now in Russia, Löw and his coaching staff continue to insist that it’s not an issue within the squad - and there’s little reason not to believe that. It’s also understandable that the head coach’s focus is now 100% on footballing matters and not external distractions.

But at the first Germany press conference since arriving in Vatutinki, the DFB, represented by its president, Reinhard Grindel, performed an intriguing about-turn and faced the issue head-on.

“Ilkay Gündogan immediately spoke out, admitted his mistake and did everything he could possibly have done to contextualise what had happened – but he was still booed,” said Grindel. “So there must be something much deeper at work here which goes beyond just these two players.”

Grindel stopped short of referring to explicitly to racism but did refer to a tangible shift in public opinion in Germany linked to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policy, which saw over one million refugees arrive in Germany from 2015 onwards, many fleeing the civil war in Syria.

‘Something has changed’

“In 2014, we had a socio-political situation in Germany in which integration was seen as positive and our national team was a symbol of that diversity,” he said. “But we must recognise that something has changed. People think there are problems and therefore they demand clarity in terms of adherence to our values.”

The German national team’s support does still contain a small right-wing element which raised its head most notably in Lille during Euro 2016 and at an away game in Prague in September 2017. But the demographic at Germany’s home games is much more family-friendly and inclusive.

The boos in Leverkusen may have been a one-off expression of dissatisfaction at Germany’s first home game since the photoshoot. Or, as Grindel was suggesting, they may have been a symptom of a bigger issue – an issue which saw the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party enter parliament in last year’s elections.

The German FA, like many of the country’s clubs, have often been accused of brushing difficult topics under the carpet to avoid tarnishing their shiny brands. So, in a sense, it’s refreshing to see the DFB addressing the current issue.

As for Joachim Löw and the players, there will also be a time to reflect on the bigger issues. But for now, they’re focussed on getting that grass trimmed ahead of Sunday’s opener against Mexico.

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