Football, the great integrator

It is not just at the FIFA World Cup™ that one can witnessing the unifying impact of football. Internationally and domestically, the sport builds bridges between people and gives everyone involved, players and fans, the opportunity to experience togetherness and belonging.

One club which embodies the principles of integration are German fourth division outfit Turkiyemspor Berlin. The club, currently competing in the upper regional league, was formed in 1978 from the "Kreuzberg Gencler Birligi" association, where primarily Turkish immigrants used to get together to play football. The club played in a friendly competition in Berlin for a while, until in 1983 when "BFC Izmirspor" joined the bottom rung of the German competitive leagues, C-level, and promptly won the title in their first season. The success continued over the next few years, with the club building up an unusually large fan base for the level which they were playing at, with as many as 1,000 spectators turning out for matches.

In January 1987, "BFC Izmirspor" changed their name to Turkiyemspor Berlin e.V., since it was no longer just immigrants from around Izmir who were playing. Turkiyemspor won promotion on a regular basis and eventually made it up into the Germany's fourth highest league. After Hertha BSC and Tennis Borussia, the Turkish team are the third-biggest club in the former West Berlin and often attract crowds of several thousand. They even managed a gate of over 12,000 for the visit of Hertha.

Since the 1999-2000 season, they have been playing in the NOFV-Oberliga northern section, after playing one level higher in the regional league in 1994-1995 and a rung lower in the Verbandsliga (association league) in 1998-1999. This year, under the guidance of coach Thomas Herbst, the team was second at the halfway point of the season and has every chance of winning promotion to the regional league.

Turkiyemspor have certainly achieved great things on the pitch, but what is even more impressive is their role in the integration of immigrants. They have become the most famous club of Turkish origin in Germany and now run three men's, 14 junior and three girls' teams, with players of all ethnic origins welcome. In the first team alone, seven different countries are represented, while the coach is of German stock. In recent years the club has also forged strong partnerships with schools, youth clubs and mosques as well as building up a network of anti-racism projects. The development of girls' football sends a further strong message out to the Turkish community.

"This was something that was missing, and we decided three or four years ago that we needed to fill this gap," Firat Tuncay, director of the Berlin amateur club, told FIFA.com. "Now we've got to the stage when we will have our first women's team next season."

This, combined with their many other social projects, was the reason why Turkiyemspor Berlin received the first ever DFB (German Federation) Integration Award in January this year. A jury which included DFB President Dr Theo Zwanziger and National Director of Football Oliver Bierhoff singled out the club which is celebrating its 30th anniversary in April of this year. "It really is impressive to see the kind of commitment and imagination they use to set up projects to promote friendly and fair co-operation within our country," said Dr Zwanziger at the award ceremony.

"It is obviously an honour for us to receive this award," said Firat Tuncay. "It is confirmation of the work we have put in over the years, but we have by no means achieved everything that we set out to, and in the future we will be showing our commitment to social causes. This is where the real work starts."

Little wonder that the club's director already has his plans for 2008 laid out. "Quite apart from the numerous offers of cooperation which we've received over the past few weeks, we will be working very closely with the Berlin police force. We have four or five joint seminars planned for our 500-strong youth section, where we will be looking at doing awareness training and prevention," said Tuncay.

Old Firm join forces
The upper echelons of football are equally aware of the importance of the sport to society. Bundesliga outfit Borussia Dortmund, for example, have shown their commitment via the 'Learning centre for problem students' and 'Street kick' project in underprivileged areas of cities (in cooperation with the urban sport authorities and the Dortmund fan project). The German Football League (DFL) has also begun to develop a more active role in social and community projects, with its most recent schemes including 700,000 players, referees and fans showing racism the red card.

Many top international clubs are getting involved on a similar social level. Record Spanish title winners Real Madrid, for example, launched their 'Just Causes' project last month to aid the social integration of immigrants. Arch-rivals Barcelona arrange an annual futsal tournament designed to help immigrants and marginal groups to integrate themselves into Spain's social fabric.

In Scotland, Glasgow heavyweights Celtic are making an effort to help foreign citizens to integrate, particular those from Asia. The club was founded in the 19th century to feed poor Irish settlers and now the 41-time Scottish champions are turning their attentions to immigrants from the Indian sub-continent. Coaching seminars, guided tours and discussion groups are very much regular fixtures at Celtic Park, while Rangers too have got in the act, staging the UK Asian Champions at Ibrox, while working in schools and community groups with their Old Firm rivals to unite all groups within the community.

Football brings together men and women from all cultures, colours and social backgrounds. The fact that this is not only apparent at major events such as the FIFA World Cup and the UEFA European Championship makes the sport all the more worthwhile. Above all though, it is the little clubs like Turkiyemspor from the German capital of Berlin who make sure that the important social work is carried out, in the background and at the grass roots.