The rainbow flag waving at the German Football Association headquarters. July 18, 2019.
The rainbow flag waving at the German Football Association headquarters. July 18, 2019.

From anti-discrimination to inclusion in German Football

German football works on anti-discrimination, and is seeking the positive side of diversity itself, promoting inclusion and setting an example

Claudia Krobitzsch is the Diversity and Inclusion Manager at the German Football Association (DFB). Having worked across Europe for over a decade as an activist organiser and campaigner fighting racism and discrimination in football with Fare Network, she has amassed unique insights into changes in football communities, at grassroots as well as professional level.

At a time of increasing awareness of racism and discrimination, Claudia spoke with Football Makes History to reflect on the work of anti-discrimination activism in football, the German FA’s policy- and action-making and the role of history in building a more inclusive culture in football at large. Read what Claudia has to say on all these issues:

Change starts with daring to ask

My experience working across Europe has shown me how different many contexts are when it comes to awareness about diversity and inclusion. But one thing appears to be a constant, and that is the importance of daring to ask, engage and listen. For example, in my work in Germany I have noticed that quite a few people did not really know what LGBTQ meant, and they shied away from asking it, fear they would be considered as stupid. But once we got a conversation going, things went quickly! And this is also why activism matters. It is about the starting of a conversation. I have seen well how people organised themselves to drive change, many times these were fan groups. They are strong groups that have set their own standards when it comes to anti-discrimination in the past and they will continue to do so in the future, only looking at the positive end. They help set the wider football agenda.

The shift toward positively valuing diversity

Before I started my position at the DFB was mostly designed to create and run campaigns that deal with racism that happens in stadiums and to counter that. The focus was purely on anti-discrimination role, but after this position became vacant it was restructured to focus more on the positive side, on diversity itself and on promoting diversity it. That new focal point motivated me to apply.The anti-discrimination work is still important, but the work to promote the benefits of inclusion and developing impactful strategies for social inclusion became the driving force. In my many conversations with our 21 regional associations, as well as within the DFB, I work to promote diversity and social inclusion themes, organise meetings and suggest policies. But this is all still fairly new and this is something that hasn’t been very much looked at in the past. Unlike in the US and UK, the role of diversity manager is not common.

Moving beyond incidents

It used to be the case that big organisations, like the DFB, would be hesitant to react quickly to sudden societal changes. But the corona-crisis has shown us that even large bodies like national associations can act on a sense of urgency, which changes the way they act and react to societal issues. Like many others, also the DFB quickly started supporting lots of initiatives that offered support and solidarity to others during this crisis. More so, five years ago when a large number of refugees came to Germany, DFB was very quick to react and launch programmes to help with integration in and through football.

We saw this as well last year, when two racist incidents in the top leagues occurred. This was instantly felt as urgent. Something had to be done in response. It reminded German football communities that racism had never been eliminated. Fighting racism in football is more than just keeping out the far right. Many have realised that across the football sector, processes need to be developed and put in place to effectively counter that racism. This awareness set us on a course for learning and understanding that this is a process that goes beyond just responding to incidents as and when they happen.

On the referee’s choice when racism erupts during a game

One example in this process is my workshop with professional referees about the UEFA three-step protocol. This protocol supports referees to respond to stadium racism by stopping the game and making an announcement, stopping the game for a longer period with the sending the players back to the dressing room and a third step whereby the game can be cancelled and abandoned. There are many implications in these decisions and it is difficult for referees to decide on its implementation. The workshop triggered many questions in that regard. Some asked: “Do I activate the three steps when I hear something or if someone else has heard it? Do I activate it when a player comes to me and complains about something that I haven’t heard?”. I advised them to stop the game even if they did not hear it themselves, which is an act not natural for referees. For many of them it is a strange rule, it doesn’t really fit into everything else that they do. After the workshop we realized that we may have over sensitized them, as during the next matchday suddenly the rule was used in an example where there was no racism but other incidents that they deemed as not acceptable. These were cases of nasty personal offences from the stands, but it was not racism. This example taught us how complicated such a learning process may be.

Remembrance work matters in German football

Many clubs and football communities in Germany use football as a platform for remembrance of the second world war and the Holocaust. This has been used extensively and the DFB is also very active with such remembrance work. For example, each year the under-18 team undertakes an educational visit to Israel, accompanied by the DFB president. During the World Cup in Russia in 2018, there was also an exchange and friendly matches between youth teams with Russia and they visited places of remembrance. That is being done extensively and it is very important.

Toward new appreciation of historical pioneers?

But there is something missing in Germany. It is what I have seen in the UK. It’s the celebration of the good things that have happened in the past. Look at pioneers! The first person of X Y or Z identity in a team. There are thousands of stories like that around the UK (accompanied by) celebrations, exhibitions and even statues. I think we could do more in Germany to create new role models. I think sometimes people still struggle with that. I’m not quite sure whether they still haven’t realized those people are part of the community of football as well, or whether they haven’t realized that there is a benefit in celebrating them. They might shy away because German history makes celebrating the past difficult.

Sense and sensibility in working on race

We have no positive word for *race*, if you speak about it is always a negative word. It evokes feelings of holocaust. Not like in the Anglo-Saxon world where race might be still connected to racism, but where people also celebrated their “race”. They are proud to be X Y or Z. Here it is difficult to talk about those topics because people sometimes are afraid of talking about race in the fear of being called a racist. That makes it difficult to work with the positive things if you are not allowed or if you think you should not talk about differences. There are similar sensitivities when speaking about religion or ethnicity. If you think about it, a history research and education programme at the DFB about pioneers for diversity in our football history, would be very interesting. We have many football museums at clubs in Germany where such a programme could be developed. Of course the Holocaust is such a big and unique event, but there are also other parts of our past that would open opportunities if we were able to speak more about them.

On the practical side of Pride

I am glad to see our work grow on LGBT issues. On the one hand, we try to get more LGBT people in the stadium and make them feel welcome. We have unisex toilets in stadiums where you don’t have to state whether you are male, female or something else. On the other hand we try to work within regional associations to include trans and intersex people in playing organised football. At the moment intersex people can’t play for either the women’s team or the men’s team and trans people can only play in the respective team that aligns with the sex in their passport in the law in Germany you have the opportunity to choose between three genders on the passports since 2018. But sport has not adapted to it yet. If your passport states “diverse” you cannot play. It’s a strange occasion when the law is faster than the reality! Social life hasn’t adjusted yet. It’s great that they did because that puts pressure on public institutions like schools and everyone to deal with it but how can you help those people?

And this conversation happens on different levels. We speak to people from the LGBTQ community. Find out how they experience it. We also speak to NGOs who work in that field and most importantly we speak to the regional FA’s. The cases will come up with them. They call me, asking “this child wants to play in the other team. What can we do?” For now they try to find an individual solution, what might work or might not work because it also depends on the opposing teams. If they don’t accept it, it does not work. That is why we try to find a way of changing the regulations so that everyone has the same regulations – difficult in a federal system. The Berlin FA have already changed it. There intersex and transpeople can choose where they play. 

Let’s remember that we talk about people who might have been playing football for many years. They have their friends and football is where they belong. And then they feel different, seek personal growth and development, but they cannot play anymore because they don’t fit in anymore. I think we should try to give them the opportunity to stay in their safe environment as long as possible because I think they have got many other things to deal with in that process. We should rather be proud that they have chosen football.

Find out more

Learn more about the work that the DFB is doing around diversity and inclusion in this article about the rainbow flag at the DFB HQ in 2019. You can also re-watch this Virtual conference on sexual diversity (trans and inter). Furthermore here is a link to a video about the German U18 football team visiting Jerusalem.

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The rainbow flag waving at the German Football Association headquarters. July 18, 2019.
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Helmut Rahn memorial in Essen, Germany (Photo: Baschti23, Wikimedia Commons).
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