FEW FOOTBALLERS IN HISTORY – few individuals, for that matter – have had their sport impact upon their life quite like Gerald Asamoah, though the Germany international was hardly your average footballer. His was a life that never afforded him the chance to be average.
When Asamoah moved to Germany in 1989 as a 10-year-old, black footballer and the European nation rarely mixed, though not for the want of trying. Borussia Dortmund’s Erwin Kostedde, the son of a United States soldier, had been the first black player to try out life in the German top tier, but he faced such intense racism from Dortmund fans that he opted to only play in away games.
Jimmy Hartwig, also the son of a United States soldier, faced the same tribulations in 1979 for Hamburg. While England and France had made significant strides to thwart racism – despite its abundant ugliness even at the time – and had integrated black footballers into their midst, the blight clung to the Bundesliga, weeding out those that tried to stamp it out.
Asamoah might not have seen himself as a “black saviour” in the German league, as he put it, but he did want to make an impression, “just so that a few idiots realise that a black person can do something good for Germany”.
It may seem simple, but these things rarely are. Asamoah touched down in the top tier of German football when he made the move to Schalke in 1999, and it was here that he would make his stand. Aside from fighting racism, Asamoah was also faced with a new battle – that of his own life.
In November 1998, while playing in a second-division game for Hannover, a club he had just helped gain promotion, Asamoah collapsed on the pitch. Doctors told Asamoah that his heart septum was too thick, and they urged him to stop playing football for his own safety. The Ghanaian-born midfielder admitted that every time he took to the pitch he was “playing with his own life”, but despite all of the forces attempting to hold him back he continued to push through, knowing that there was a defibrillator just off the pitch should anything ever happen.
Taking these battles in his stride, Asamoah continuously turned down offers to represent Ghana, despite his family’s insistence that he don the colours of their ancestral homeland. Instead, Asamoah held out for a call from Germany, which he duly accepted, knowing full well that no black footballer had ever represented unified Germany at full international level. At the time, new head coach Rudi Völler was in the midst of his revolution of a stale German side, and he turned to Asamoah for help.
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Asamoah pierced that racial barrier when he debuted for Die Mannschaft against Slovakia in front of 20,000 fans at Werder Bremen’s Weserstadion. He treated the supporters to a show as he slotted home a spectacular goal, dribbling through the Slovak defence to cap the win. The ecstatic German crowd gave Asamoah a standing ovation as he was honorarily subbed off. The headline in the following morning’s Bild read ‘Asamoah wakes up a tired Germany’ – one with a hint of double entendre.
Asamoah may not have set out to break down racial barriers when he started kicking around a ball as a child, but he was accomplishing just that. Prior to the 2002 World Cup, he noted how often he was recognised in Germany, and how friendly people were, telling him that they paid more attention to the German team now that he was representing them. Many of these supporters, he noted, were black.
The Ghanaian-turned-German winger was quickly becoming a fan favourite through his exploits with Schalke, a club that he guided to numerous honours over his 11-year career, including two DFB-Pokals as well as one now-defunct DFL-Ligapoka. He would have snagged the Royal Blues their first ever Bundesliga title in 2001, too, had Patrik Andersson not drilled home a 92nd-minute free-kick to hand Bayern Munich the league.
Asamoah was not the most naturally-gifted player out there, nor was he your typical maestro. But he did play every match with an undying determination that embedded him into the hearts of his supporters. He continued to smile, despite the obstacles and the risks involved with him simply enjoying a game of football, something that can easily be taken for granted.
His career seemed to be on cruise control as he continued to put in season after season of inspired performances, all the while winning subtle victory after subtle victory along the way over both his health and the racism that had once been so prevalent.
Despite the strides Asamoah made in breaking down barriers within Germany, there were always going to be hiccups in the process. After successfully representing Germany at both the 2002 and 2006 World Cups and establishing himself as an unlikely icon, Asamoah was the target of a disgruntled bunch of Hansa Rostock fans.
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As Schalke shellacked their fellow Germans 9-1, racist chants rained down from the Rostock supporters’ section, leading to a hefty fine levied on the visiting side. It was the type of episode that was supposed to have been left in the past. But while this isolated incident was a blight on a positive trend towards ending racism, they had certainly become fewer and further between, and they continue to do so.
Even as it steadily improves, Asamoah is still focused on eradicating this senseless hatred completely. To this day he works at the Rosa Parks School in Germany, where he speaks with young students about racism and xenophobia. He can be found singing happy birthday to Rosa Parks and dancing, in his usual exuberant fashion, smiling as always.
Asamoah’s grand send-off from Schalke was scheduled to take place on 14 November 2015. Over 60,000 crammed into Veltins-Arena during the international break to watch a farewell game for a long-time favorite, but the festivities were nearly cancelled. It was on the previous night that Paris had fallen victim to one of Europe’s worst terrorist attacks in recent memory, grinding much of central Europe to a halt.
Many figured that the event would be cancelled, but Schalke president Clemens Tönnies had other ideas. In fact, he highlighted how decisive they were in their decision to press on with the farewell match, saying that to cancel would be to allow the terrorists to win. “We have to fight,” he concluded. The match would continue as planned.
And so, Asamoah dropped out of the sky saddled in a parachute, waving a French flag to show solidarity with the people of Paris. It didn’t take long after he touched down for the smiley footballer to break down in tears. The crowd welcomed him as they 381 times before, onto a pitch that he had left such a profound impact on in his 11 years of dedicated service to the club and to his country. He and his son, Jaden, would go on to score in that match, giving the Schalke All-Stars a 5-4 win.
Proceeding to play that farewell match and continue as planned is the only fitting way that Asamoah could have been sent off properly. For him, every match was a battle against senseless hatred and against his doctor’s diagnosis, but he refused to be stopped. “We have to fight.” It’s a sentiment that resonated with Gerald Asamoah throughout his entire career.
By Josh Sippie @sppenator101