Friday, May 30, 2014

How German coaches are crushing it at the World Cup

If any of these 6 teams wins in Brazil, Germany could claim a share of the credit.
By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost, May 2014)

BERLIN, Germany — If the jerseys that fans around the world wear to bars are anything to go by, the German World Cup team hasn't captured as many hearts here as have Brazil, Italy or even (yes) France.

But at least this year, everyone loves a German coach.

Counting the German team itself — led by former Bundesliga star Joachim Low — six out of 32 World Cup teams have, or recently had, a German at the helm going into the 2014 championships: Australia, Cameroon, Croatia, Germany, Switzerland and the United States.

(Full disclosure: Australia dumped Holger Osieck in October 2013, and Croatia's Niko Kovac, although he was born in Berlin and came up playing in Germany, is technically Bosnian.)

So what gives? And will the Germans' grinding style spoil what Brazil's Pele called “the beautiful game”?

Fortunately for fans, experts trace the popularity of German coaches to the new prominence of the Bundesliga in Europe's Champions League — which featured an all-German final for the first time in 2013 — and a new style of play.

“Foreign coaches are more or less an exception in the Bundesliga,” says Jens Peters of Fokus Fussball, a popular German soccer blog.

“[The profile of German coaches has grown] through the success of coaches like Jupp Heynckes and Jurgen Klopp, who led their teams to the Champions League Final in 2013, and the success of coaches like Winfried Schafer or Volker Finke with African and Asian teams.”

Meanwhile, fans who remember the German teams of yesteryear and haven't watched the game in a while will be in for a surprise, according to Rafael Wieczorek, coaching director at Coerver Coaching Germany.

“In the past, German soccer was known for 'fight and fitness' because the players didn't have the technical skills to match Brazil or the Netherlands,” he says.

“Now the team has a lot of technically skilled players, so the philosophy has changed.”

That's fine for Low, whose side features dynamic scorers such as Arsenal's Mesut Ozil, Lazio's Miroslav Klose and Bayern Munich teammates Mario Gotze, Toni Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger.

But what about the other German-coached teams in the mix?

Holger Osieck.

In only their fourth World Cup appearance, the Soccerroos replaced Osieck with Greek-Australian Ange Postecoglou hardly six months before the final, after the team lost 6-0, 6-0 to Brazil and France.

They come into Group B as heavy underdogs, facing perennial big guns Spain and the Netherlands with an untested squad that could include as many as 10 players under 22 years old. Hustle may be their only chance.

Volker Finke.

Having replaced former Cameroon international Jean Paul Akono in May 2013, long-term Bundesliga coach Volker Finke arguably has a better chance against Brazil, Croatia and Mexico in Group A.

Pioneering a passing-oriented, pressing style that eschewed superstars, Finke created the “Moneyball” of the Bundesliga and could well make a lot out of a little in Rio. Meanwhile, Finke has an experienced squad of fighters who will run themselves into the ground for the veteran campaigner.

Niko Kovac.

An ethnic Croat whose parents are from Bosnia, Kovac enjoyed a workmanlike career in the Bundesliga before eventually captaining Croatia's 2006 World Cup side and the team that beat England twice at the Euro 2008. When he came on board as coach in October last year, he hinted he'd introduce German discipline and tactics. But the 30-man roster he unveiled in May suggests that he may sacrifice physical play for technical skill, according to the Bleacher Report's Alexandar Holiga.

Ottmar Hitzfeld.

In charge of the Swiss team since 2008, 64-year-old Ottmar Hitzfeld selected no fewer thannine Bundesliga players for this year's World Cup campaign. Starting off against Ecuador in Group E, the “tactical genius” arguably has a better chance this year than in 2010, when Switzerland secured an upset win over Spain but failed to advance to the second round. Like Germany itself, he's adopted a more attacking style to suit creative young players like Bayern Munich's Xherdan Shaqiri, Borussia Monchengladbach's Granit Xhaka and Napoli's Gokhan Inler. Already having announced his retirement, Hitzfeld has also uncharacteristically predicted his boys will “shock the world.”

Jurgen Klinsmann.

A physical player and prolific scorer during his career, Jurgen Klinsmann already lived in California when he coached Germany for the 2006 World Cup, so he was the natural choice to convert America's team of Charlie Hustles into an exciting, attacking force. The change didn't come without ups and downs. Klinsmann had to face down dissent among the ranks and anonymous sniping in the press during qualifying, and reports suggest he's still wrangling his dubious stars despite selecting a host of German-born Americans for the squad. Meanwhile, he faces Ghana and Portugal in Group G before he squares off against Low and Germany — and in this case, familiarity breeds nothing but respect. “Klinsmann and Low together led Germany to third place in 2006,” says Peters of Fussball Fokus. “It would be a surprise if either of them could fool his counterpart with a totally new strategy.”

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The German airport that saved Berlin now divides the city

Residents are set to vote on fate of the Cold War icon Tempelhof.
By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost May 2014)

BERLIN, Germany — On a rare sunny afternoon in May, Berliners in short-shorts and bikini tops loll in the grass between the runways at Tempelhof Airfield, the iconic airport that kept the city's isolated western-controlled zone alive when the Soviet authorities blockaded the city in 1948.

On the tarmac, a line of bicyclists zips past a jogger doing laps, while in the center of the otherwise barren, 300-acre field, gardeners water plants.

“It's incredible,” says 31-year-old Katharina Hohmann, smiling and suntanned, with a toddler playing in the grass.

“The people have developed their own things here, so it's very peaceful and very creative.”

Perhaps not for long.

Closed in 2008 after a public referendum calling for it to be kept open failed to attract enough voters, the neglected Nazi-era airfield has spontaneously evolved into one of the world's strangest city parks: flat, treeless and crisscrossed with runways and floodlights.

But on Sunday, the airfield-turned-park faces another fight for its identity, this time in the form of a public referendum to block plans for a public library and real estate development on the site.

In 1948, Tempelhof helped prevent the Allied-controlled portion of Berlin from becoming part of the Soviet empire, facilitating nearly 300,000 supply runs by the American pilots of the legendary airlift called “Operation Vittles.”

While there are few reminders of the airfield's historical importance on the site, it's part of a battle for the future of the city.

More from GlobalPost: Berlin, the poor man's Vegas

The government's plan would transform Tempelhof from a vast, grassy field into a mixed-use development of apartments, shops, sports fields and a lake.

The Berlin Senate argues that the development will retain some 230 out of 300 acres as open space, and that new apartment buildings are needed to keep pace with an economic boom that’s driving up rental prices across the city.

Opponents of the project, including a citizen's initiative called “100 percent Tempelhof Feld,” are suspicious that the apartments reserved for so-called “middle-income” residents will soon skyrocket in price and the development will speed gentrification of the surrounding neighborhood.

The group gathered 185,000 signatures in order to get the referendum on Sunday's ballot, along with candidates for the European Union parliament elections.

“Affordable housing is not social housing,” says volunteer Nora Salas-Ellanes, who argues that if the government were sincere, it would define its terms more clearly and write them into the development plans.

“[The rental rates are] not ensured, and not guaranteed by law. It's just a saying.”

More from GlobalPost: 4 reasons you should care about the EU elections (even though most Europeans don't)

A recent poll suggests that Berliners — who largely see gentrification as the main threat to their laidback lifestyles — oppose the government project by a 54 to 39 percent margin. But the city's beloved slacker attitude may be the initiative's biggest obstacle in fighting city hall.

To block the government's plan, the referendum requires not only a majority of votes, but a quorum amounting to 25 percent of eligible voters. The same requirement killed the 2008 referendum to keep the old airport running, as well as a referendum in November that called for the city to buy back its electricity grid in the wake of escalating prices.

“Just because we’re winning,” says Salas-Ellanes, “doesn't mean we will win.”

Monday, May 19, 2014

In Germany, no means yes

A regressive definition of rape highlights the country’s stubbornly traditional attitudes toward women.
By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost May 2014)

BERLIN, Germany — No means yes, at least in this country.

When a rape court in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia acquitted the alleged rapist of a 15-year-old girl in 2012, women's rights advocates were outraged.

The ruling found that saying no, or even screaming it, wasn't enough to merit rape charges.

Now findings from a new study indicate that case was hardly unique, despite aEuropean initiative to step up efforts to stop violence against women.

The number of German rape cases ending in convictions has plummeted from 22 percent to 8 percent over the past 20 years, according to a study released by the Hanover-based Criminological Research Institute of Lower Saxony.

“It was only in 1997 that rape within a married couple was found to be punishable.”

Those figures came as a shock to most Germans, who think of their country as a leader in the struggle for women's equality.

However, women's rights advocates weren’t so surprised.

Anita Eckhardt of Germany's Federal Association of Women's Counseling Centers (BFF) says that’s because the country’s legislative process is “very conservative.”

“It was only in 1997 that rape within a married couple was found to be punishable,” she says.

The new report comes at a particularly awkward time for Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A Council of Europe convention on violence against women, due to come into force in August, threatens to highlight the country’s shortcomings, even though Germany wasn’t among the 10 countries that ratified it.

“It’s high time to face the reality of rape cases and to adjust the laws” so that more rape victims get justice, Eckhardt says.

The convention will make fighting violence against women a “legally binding obligation,” compelling countries to change laws, introduce practical measures and allocate resources to the effort.

In Germany, that may require more than a change in the problematic definition of rape, the new study suggests.

Researchers blamed overburdened police forces and an increase in cases reported by victims who knew their alleged attackers for the decline in convictions.

The study also identified dramatic differences in the conviction rates of different states, depending on their relative wealth.

In Germany's three richest states, 24 percent of rape cases end in convictions and the number of rape cases filed has dropped by a third.

In the three poorest states, the number of reported rapes has increased 40 percent, with a measly 4 percent ending in convictions.

Differences in procedure also accounted for the wide variation in conviction rates.

They were significantly higher in states that made it a practice to film victims' statements, rather than simply filing written reports. In North Rhine-Westphalia, for example, it’s not standard procedure to make video recordings.

Activists hope the disturbing figures will act as an embarrassing wakeup call for the political and economic leader of the European Union.

That doesn’t mean there’s been no progress in Germany, however.

Merkel's cabinet is 40 percent female, and her coalition government is pushing for a gender quota requiring that 30 percent of open positions on company supervisory boards be reserved for women.

Currently, women account for around 10 percent of directors on the boards of large German companies, compared with 17 percent at US-based Fortune 500 companies.

But liberal Germany may be sliding backward in other ways when it comes to women's equality.

More from GlobalPost: In Denmark, nothing says EU elections like group sex and random beheadings

There's been virtually no change in popular attitudes about who should raise children — women, of course — according to another recent study.

Fewer men, and more women, today say they'd be willing to relocate for their partners’ careers than a decade ago.

And working women are still derided as “Rabensmuetter,” or “raven mothers” — an allusion to the belief that the birds push their chicks out of the nest before they’re able to fly.

“Many aspects of women’s lives have improved,” Eckhardt says. “But if you look at the structural discrimination that women still experience or at media images and people’s attitudes, we still have a long way to go.”

Friday, May 16, 2014

Artists want to save Syria's children by fostering them in German homes

'We would hardly notice 55,000 children seeking refuge in our country!'

By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost May 2014)

BERLIN, Germany — Today is Day 1,156 of the Syria conflict.

As disgruntled asylum seekers from around the world camp out in the city center — some of them on hunger strike — a group of artist-activists are trying to shame the German government into accepting more refugees from Syria’s civil war.

In an unusual public relations stunt launched this week, the Center for Political Beauty (ZPS) presented an ambitious proposal to foster 55,000 Syrian children in German homes for the duration of the conflict.

The scheme is a modern-day re-imagining of the famous “Children's Train” that enabled around 10,000 Jewish children to escape Nazi Germany and find homes in Britain right before World War II.

ZPS raised the stakes Monday by launching a mock government website introducing the program as if it were real.

Kurt Gutmann, who escaped the Holocaust thanks to the Children's Train, appears in an advertisement for the fake program, saying, “We would hardly notice 55,000 children seeking refuge in our country!”

On Wednesday afternoon, around 100 activists and unwitting supporters of the made-up scheme brought flowers to the Family Affairs Ministry to indicate they would be willing to take in Syrian children.

John Kurtz, a German war correspondent who works with ZPS under a pen name, said the group has already received 600 phone calls from people willing to foster children.

“That's in three days,” he added. “Imagine what would happen if the German government were behind it.”

The group also enlisted Syrian children from the city of Aleppo to appear in a video thanking Family Affairs Minister Manuela Schwesig. It was unveiled earlier this week. (Don’t worry. The kids were in on the scheme.)

On Thursday, the artists planned to set up an information center for would-be foster parents in central Berlin at the site of a memorial to the original Children’s Train.

And on Friday, they'll escort a group of Holocaust survivors who were saved by the 1938 rescue to the chancellor's office, group spokesman Philipp Ruch said.

“We're artists, they can refuse to talk to us,” he said. “But they cannot reject these people.”

The campaign highlights a growing debate in Germany.

Last year, the country saw requests from asylum seekers skyrocket 70 percent. But there are increasing calls to stem the tide.

Refugees and their advocates have been fighting official policies that prevent them from working and force them to live in designated cities — sometimes little more than tented forest encampments. The law that requires them to stay in designated areas while their claims are processed dates from 1982 and applies to all refugees.
For more than a year, refugees fed up with this system have set up camp in the Berlin neighborhood of Kreuzberg. More recently, they staged hunger strikes in tourist areas such as Alexanderplatz and the Brandenburg Gate.

Despite the tense atmosphere, the artists argue Germany can't keep wringing its hands over the daily violence in Syria and pretending there's nothing it can do.

“We really want to have a debate about whether the German government allows enough access for refugees or not," Ruch said. "This debate is now really heating up."

Some 5.5 million children have already been affected by the war — so the scheme would only help one out of 100, according to UNICEF. But it would be a massive — and massively unlikely — step considering that so far Germany has only taken in 5,000 Syrian refugees. It pledged to take in 5,000 more while an estimated 2 million Syrians have scattered throughout the Middle East.

“We want to force the government to say openly, 'No, we're not going to help.'” Kurtz said.

The conflict continues.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

This Palestinian immigrant could become Berlin's next mayor

Can a foreign-born rising star turn the tide for Germany’s declining Social Democrats?

By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost, May 2014)

BERLIN, Germany — Sitting in a diner in the working-class suburb of Spandau, Raed Saleh smiles and nods to acquaintances as he reels off plans for transforming this city.

Getting them right would require finding a balance between tackling social issues and creating wealth, says the 36-year-old Palestinian-born politician. He hopes to be the first immigrant to become mayor of a major German city.

“Social democracy is the art of keeping the gap as small as possible between rich and poor, top and bottom, men and women, healthy and sick,” he says.

That leftist message may not sound like part of a winning strategy for Saleh’s once venerable Social Democratic Party (SPD), which has seen its position in German politics decline in the last decade.

Although the party still controls nine of 16 German state governments, its fortunes have steadily declined under the country’s leadership by the very popular Chancellor Angela Merkel and her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Now with Berlin’s current mayor, the SPD’s Klaus Wowereit, slipping in the polls almost daily, the Social Democrats risk losing even in their stronghold Berlin.

But Saleh, a slim, handsome man with a quick, crooked smile, isn't your typical immigrant — or your average Social Democrat.

Known for singing German folk songs and a tough love strategy for the city's welfare moms, he’s becoming the SPD’s newest hope.

One of nine siblings, Saleh moved here with his family at age 5 and flipped burgers at Burger King before rising to become manager then entering politics.

His street cred may help the SPD, which was once virtually unassailable in Berlin, but is now fighting a rearguard action against the CDU across the country.

Merkel's party extended its lead to 42 percent of the popular vote during last year’s national election compared with 34 percent in 2009, while the SPD flatlined.

“It used to be the party of the urban voters,” says Peter Matuschek, head of political research at the Forsa Polling Institute. “But in general, the SPD is far from the strength it had two or three decades ago.”

Voters believe the party is preoccupied with internecine battles and divorced from community issues, according to a recent Forsa poll conducted for the daily Berliner Zeitung.

In Berlin, no less than two-thirds of respondents say Wowereit has to go.

That has as much to do with the party’s performance as his own mistakes, Matuschek says.

“So far the voters don't see that they're focusing on the everyday issues like education, infrastructure and all the problems the city has,” he says.

An openly gay politician once considered chancellor material, Wowereit presided over Berlin's economic comeback since becoming mayor in 2001. But his fortunes have flagged amid accusations he’s something of a champagne socialist and his tarring by a tax evasion scandal involving his culture secretary, who resigned in February.

However, he’s been hurt the most by his showcase public works project, the building of a new Berlin airport, which is hopelessly behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget.

That doesn’t mean the going will be easy for Saleh. Polls show him trailing two other SPD candidates in the race to replace “Wowie.”

But Saleh — arguably the city’s most charismatic Social Democrat who’s been the party's parliamentary leader since December 2011 — is only just now hitting the headlines. The state elections that will determine the next mayor are scheduled for 2016, more than a year away. And in an increasingly immigrant-oriented city, the candidate promises more than a clean slate.

An old-school grassroots candidate, he's focusing on bread-and-butter issues and community activities polls suggest voters are keen on.

He has already spearheaded a move to buy back the city water infrastructure after a partial privatization in 1999 saw prices skyrocket.

And he's pushing a similar move for the electricity grid.

However, with Merkel's conservatives in ascendance, his biggest appeal, in an unexpected way, could be the color of his skin.

Along with conventional but popular initiatives such as a midnight soccer program that keeps youngsters off the streets and a huge boost in funding for special schools for children from immigrant backgrounds, Saleh's street cred has freed him to push the SPD toward pragmatic policies that sound, well, conservative.

He started a program called “Strong Without Violence” that sends immigrant teenagers on ride-alongs with policemen and trips to Auschwitz in order to make them see themselves as part of Germany's past as well as its future.

After a meeting with Rotterdam's Morocco-born mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb last year, he's also leveraged his immigrant status to push for “tough love” for the city's welfare recipients.

He wants to require families to send their children to nursery school in exchange for receiving benefits, and institute language-proficiency tests for parents like the ones given children.

More from GlobalPost: 3 things everyone should know about Ukraine

The party has already agreed on a $3,500 fine for parents whose children fail to take the test.

That’s a radical change for a party that’s always preached integration but never made much headway achieving it. But such policies work in Rotterdam, says Saleh, who believes they would do just as well here.

“Too often, if you ask a teenager in Berlin where he’s from, he’ll say, 'I'm Serbian' or 'I'm Turkish,' or 'I'm from Nigeria,'” he says. “But if you ask people in Rotterdam, whether they’re children or adults, they’ll tell you they’re Rotterdamers.”

“That's what I want for Berlin.”

Thursday, May 01, 2014

This may be the world's most ironic block party

Berlin has tamed its notorious May Day bash. Does the once-radical holiday still have any political bite?
By Jason Overdorf

May 1, 2014 (GlobalPost)

BERLIN, Germany — “BBQ and rioting (optional).” The sardonic web advertisement for an expat group's May Day party says it all.

Long troubled by violence on the traditional workers’ holiday, Berlin's bohemian Kreuzberg district has managed to turn a rally for left-wing radicals into what may be the world's most ironic block party.

Although diehards may worry that poseur radicals and commercialization threaten to rob the annual proletarian protest of its political bite, Ipek Ipekcioglu, a Turkish-German DJ active in the transformation, says she’s not worried.

“I still consider it a political action, even if it is getting commercialized,” she said. “We shouldn’t forget what May First is about.”

Known for her layered, multicultural tracks, the dark-haired Kreuzburger runs one of 19 stages set up for MyFest, a music festival that’s helped turn the focus of May Day away from time-honored traditions like smashing shop windows.

May Day, or International Workers' Day, was founded to coincide with the traditional pagan celebration of spring and commemorate a tumultuous Chicago strike demanding the institution of the eight-hour workday in 1886. It ended in an anarchist bombing and rioting in Haymarket Square.

The date has long been an important one for left-wing demonstrations around the world, including Berlin, where radicals in 1987 completely took over Kreuzberg — then still in the shadow of the Berlin Wall — forcing police to evacuate for several hours during a battle over squatters' rights.

Across Berlin, activists from left-wing groups such as Antifa still regularly clash with neo-Nazis and occasionally firebomb luxury cars to protest gentrification throughout the year.

As recently as 2009, left-wing radicals from a group known as Autonomous threw stones, bottles and firebombs during a May Day altercation with police that involved as many as 5,000 protesters.

Although police have since succeeded in keeping the peace with a dual strategy of engagement and targeted action, the authorities are hesitant to declare victory even today.

Still, the character of May Day in Kreuzberg seems to be changing as fast as the neighborhood, where yuppies have replaced radicals as landlords are renovating buildings and rents are skyrocketing.

Old-school Kreuzbergers fed up with violence started the change in typical Kreuzberg style, Ipekcioglu says. Tired of being trapped inside their homes, residents “squatted” in the streets, organizing barbecues and street stalls that radicals couldn't attack because they would have appeared to be targeting their own.

As the effort evolved, resident-run initiatives banned stalls from selling glass bottles and organized a crew of local young people to collect empties from the street.

But even if local restaurants and shops are partly taking over, turning the residents' block party into a commercial bonanza, they haven't abandoned politics altogether.

Security for MyFest — the music festival that emerged from the effort — is handled by a leftist-friendly Kreuzberg-based company and a Turkish-owned firm that employs local teens. One of the event's stages is reserved for Antifa (a group dedicated to fighting neo-Nazis), and the music program reflects a neighborhood that’s long been synonymous with the city’s changing ethnic character. One of the acts is a Kurdish queer band.

The city government has offered logistical support and funding.

This year, some 6,000 police officers — including around 2,500 on loan from other cities — will preserve order in the streets.

Not all of them will be in riot gear. Since a study of the 2009 riots suggested that rumors that the police were cracking down on protesters may have actually prompted the conflict, the department has increased the number of uniformed negotiators whose job is to defuse potentially violent altercations.

“We will talk as long as it is possible,” says police spokesman Stefan Redlich, “and we'll talk with anybody who is willing to talk with us.”