Gerald Asamoah has a special place in the hearts of German fans. After moving to Europe from Ghana aged 12 he went on to become the first Africa-born black player to represent Die Mannschaft, including at two FIFA World Cups™.
At the first of those, Korea/Japan 2002, he finished runner-up wearing the shirt of his adopted nation, while he is also a two-time DFB Cup champion with almost 300 Bundesliga appearances to his name and has earned 43 international caps. The striker also played his part in Germany’s ‘summer fairytale’, in which the hosts finished third at the 2006 FIFA World Cup.
Just a few months after hanging up his boots, the 37-year-old made another major appearance, this time at the FIFA Ballon d’Or 2015 Gala, accepting the FIFA Fair Play Award on behalf of all the football associations and clubs around the world that are working to support refugees. FIFA.com caught up with the former Schalke star for an exclusive interview after the ceremony.
What does this night in Zurich mean to you?
Gerald Asamoah: Ultimately it’s about standing up for something that should be completely normal – opening our hearts to vulnerable people. I know first-hand what it’s like to arrive in a foreign country and be accepted, and that’s why committing to a cause like this makes perfect sense for me. Of course, it’s an honour for me to accept this award on behalf of all the people who fight for these values.
How did football help you personally?
Football has the power to bring people together. It gives you the opportunity to meet people and play against them, no matter what their background. As soon as the game kicks off, you share a common goal – to be successful. Football really helped me when I arrived in Germany from Ghana at the age of 12 because it meant I had contact with people from the start. Although I had my family on the one hand, thanks to football I got to know this other culture first-hand and was immediately made to feel like part of a community by my fellow human beings. That’s why I’m very grateful to the sport; I always say that without it I would never have had the chance to get to where I am today.
Why is it so important for people in that situation to join a sports club as soon as possible?
I didn’t yet speak any German back then, so that’s why I always tell people that the first thing they should do is join a sports club. It gives you a good foundation for taking your first steps into everything from language and integration to shared goals and successes. Besides, playing a sport is always better than sitting in front of the television at home. Football really helped me to stand on my own two feet and learn to make my own decisions, because that’s what you have to do out on the pitch.
What memories do you have of arriving in Germany for the first time?
My father was a refugee who had settled in very well, but although I had a residence permit, it was still a new country for me. As I mentioned before, I didn’t speak a single word of German, the cold weather was completely alien to me and I had really had to be ready to face new challenges. In that situation you definitely need people who can provide support. For example, I met one player during those early days in the sixth grade and even went on to play alongside him for Schalke 04 and Germany. That was Fabian Ernst; he helped me a great deal. Without him I might never have made that leap or mastered the German language as well as I have.
When you see all the guys who play for Germany today and the range of different backgrounds they have, it shows that perhaps I did actually play a part in that – and that makes me very proud!
Did you experience any discrimination?
Yes, plenty! I have always said that nothing changes if nobody speaks out. In my case I was lucky enough to be the first black, African-born footballer to play for Germany, and although I also encountered a lot of negativity, I stood up to it. I was always a role model. Unfortunately it’s difficult to reach those who already have a discriminatory mindset, and that’s why it’s important to show young people with a fresh and unbiased view of the world that all people are equal, regardless of the colour of their skin. That’s something I’ve always tried to convey.
Can you describe some of your experiences?
The more famous I became, the more extreme it got. It was worst after the 2006 World Cup. After that tournament I actually thought that I would really belong and be totally accepted in Germany; after all, the team had a really good World Cup. But suddenly, when I started playing matches with Schalke again a few weeks later, I was once again being whistled and called a ‘nigger’ in the stadium, even by people who were cheering me on just a few weeks earlier! That hurt me so, so much. It was a backward step that left me incredibly disappointed.
Which emotion prevailed at that point: your pride at being the first black man to play for Germany, or the sadness of experiencing more discrimination?
Pride won in the end: the idea of making a difference and showing that you can play for Germany no matter where you come from. It wasn’t an easy decision to follow that path, because I knew it would be difficult. Nevertheless, I didn’t set out intending to change anything at first; I was simply following my gut instinct because I felt so at home in this country. The important thing for me was that the people around me always accepted me for who I am. And when you see all the guys who play for Germany today and the range of different backgrounds they have, it shows that perhaps I did actually play a part in that – and that makes me very proud!
How are you currently getting involved with refugee aid?
I’m very committed to it. There are already all kinds of camps, but at Schalke we’re doing a huge amount to reach out to people. Football unites us! No matter where you come from, you can forget your problems for a while simply by playing our sport. We’ve got to show people that they’re part of our communities, and that’s why I believe football is so vital. The beautiful game has made such a difference. Although 2016 and the years ahead will be tough, we’ve got to fight to ensure that football and its associations and clubs lead the way in making people feel at ease. I’m actively involved in Schalke’s initiatives such as the Kumpelkiste initiative, which collects donations and distributes them to refugees, and we also frequently invite refugees to visit our training ground. At Schalke we’ve also taken a clear position in the current debate with our #standup campaign.
Can you still recall how you felt during your first match for Germany?
It was incredible! I even scored my first goal for Germany during my first international [during a friendly against Slovakia on 29 May 2001]. At first I couldn’t believe it and had no idea what to do. Afterwards I couldn’t sleep all night because I still couldn’t comprehend what had happened that day.