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Immigrants helping Germany team says minister

BERLIN (Reuters) - Immigrants have helped give Germany a strong team at the World Cup, the country's Sport Minister Thomas de Maiziere said in a radio interview on Monday.

He said the large number of players of foreign origin in the side was an indication of improving integration in a country of 82 million with a foreign population of about seven million.

"It's tremendous progress -- 11 of the 23 Germany players are from immigrant families," de Maiziere, who is also the Interior Minister, told Deutschlandfunk radio.

"They've worked hard, delivered a great performance. They wanted to become German citizens and they've done that without turning their backs on their home countries," he added. "We've accepted that and they're loved as much as anyone else.

"It's a successful example of integration -- a role model for our country."

The families of Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski came from Poland, Mesut Ozil is of Turkish descent, Sami Khedira's father is from Tunisia, Jerome Boateng's father is Ghanaian and Mario Gomez was born to a Spanish father and German mother.

Guest workers have been coming to Germany for decades but until recently few children of foreigners played for Germany. Before the citizenship law was reformed in 1999, conservative governments had said Germany was not a country of immigrants.

"This soccer team is a successful example of integration," added de Maiziere. "Those who work hard will be accepted and those who have faith (in Germany) will have opportunities."

The national team has been opening itself up since the 1998 World Cup when many in Germany hailed the ethnic diversity of the French side that won the trophy after an all-white German team lost 3-0 to Croatia in the quarter-finals.

(Writing by Erik Kirschbaum, editing by Ken Ferris)