Jerome Boateng: Someone Like Me
It all began in May 2010 when a late tackle by Kevin-Prince Boateng on Michael Ballack in the FA Cup Final led to an ankle injury of Germany’s former captain, which consequently ruled him out of the World Cup. Football fans in Germany were in shock and quickly turned Kevin-Prince Boateng (who would play for Ghana’s national team in the World Cup) into a villain.
In the midst of all the ugliness that followed, I asked myself what a situation like this must have felt like for Jerome Boateng, player in the German national team and the younger half-brother of Kevin-Prince. The media happily played its part in positioning them as “bad brother vs. good brother” - up to a point where the two stopped talking. When the brothers met during the group stage of the World Cup, playing for opposing teams, they didn’t even look at each other when they shook hands. (Luckily, they have long reconciled)
The Brothers Boateng
I started to take an interest in Jerome Boateng’s career, even more so when he joined Bayern Munich in 2011. One year later, Michael Horeni published his book “Die Brüder Boateng” (The Brothers Boateng) that tells the unusual story of the three brothers growing up in Berlin, dreaming about becoming professional football players. In the book, Jerome Boateng shares stories from his youth, how he had to deal with racism on the pitch, and how it used to make him cry. This resonated with me - as the daughter of an Indonesian mother and German father, I understood perfectly how it feels like to be attacked or ridiculed because of the different color of your skin.
But Boateng didn’t let anyone stand in his way. Over the years, he became the best centre-back in Germany. Together with Mats Hummels as congenial partner and an outstanding Manuel Neuer in goal, our defense became one of the showpieces of the national team. When Germany finally lifted the World Cup trophy in 2014, it was well-deserved as it had been a long time in the making. People who think about the final against Argentina will perhaps instantly think of a battled, bruised and bleeding Bastian Schweinsteiger - I do, too. But warrior vibes and fighting spirit aside, it was Jerome Boateng who played the best game of his life; he was as solid as a rock, found everywhere on the pitch, clearing, blocking and tackling, leaving his opponents in despair.
Germany’s favorite neighbor
With the World Cup title under his belt (as well as a historical treble with Bayern Munich in 2013), Jerome Boateng flourished even more under the guidance of Pep Guardiola on club level. God knows I have had many issues with Pep, but he made Jerome Boateng a better player. A brilliant one. It was gratifying to see him play on such a high level - to know that he had gone from “always on the brink of getting sent off” to “irreplaceable for both club and country”.
In 2016, shortly before the Euro Cup, Jerome Boateng found himself in the spotlight, albeit not for sporting reasons. Racism reared its ugly head again, and came disguised as Alexander Gauland from right-wing party AfD. He appallingly stated in an interview that people in Germany would respect Boateng as a football player, but wouldn’t want to have him as their next-door neighbor. Football fans in Germany were quick to dismiss Gauland and reassure Boateng that they would absolutely love to have him as a neighbor. Social media was awash with professions of sympathy, and I was truly happy and relieved to see this wave of solidarity. A few months later, Boateng was named Germany’s 2016 Footballer of the Year - a rare accomplishment for a defender.
Then came the World Cup 2018, an abysmal experience for every German player (and fan) involved. Jerome Boateng, not at his peak anymore due to a couple of injuries he had suffered, and Germany crashed out of the tournament, hapless and helpless. As the team didn’t even manage to survive the group stage, a heated debate took hold over Germany, caused by the drama surrounding Mesut Özil - which was painful for me, too, as I explained before in another post.
During that time, I found myself disillusioned as all my favorite players from the World Cup-winning team 2014 failed to speak up in support of Mesut Özil. I didn’t expect them to condone Özil’s photo with Erdogan, but I desperately wanted them to condemn racism. Instead, Manuel Neuer, Thomas Müller, Toni Kroos, the so-called leaders of the national team, turned their backs on a player who had been their teammate for many years.
Not Jerome Boateng, though. He was the only one who had the guts to publicly defend his friend, to denounce racism in football and to question if Germany as a country was moving in the right direction, regardless of what the public might think of him. Given his own background and experience, perhaps it was the only right thing to do. In that moment, I not only loved him as a football player. I respected him as a person who stands up for what he believes in.
An untimely farewell
Earlier today, Joachim Loew announced that Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels and Thomas Mueller will no longer be playing for the national team. I understand that the coach wants to enter a phase of rebuilding the national team - rightly so - and I also understand that these three players may not perform on the same level anymore as they used to. However, it does feel like Loew is merely trying to save his own skin after having faced much criticism for the way he handled the team over the past two years. There will always be differing opinions about the way it was announced and the timing as well the justification of his decision - Loew may as well be proven right.
For me, however, today is a sad day. I was devastated when Bastian Schweinsteiger, my all-time favorite player, retired from the German national team. But at least, it was his own decision to step down. Boateng, Hummels and Mueller have not been given this choice - three World Cup winners who were such a crucial part of the team in 2014. It just leaves a bitter aftertaste.
The thought of not being able to see Boateng wearing the Germany jersey in the future breaks my heart a little. I will miss his precise tackles, his long passes and crosses and the fact that he always adjusts his socks when he is about to get a yellow card. But more than that, I will miss the person on (and off) the pitch. Jerome Boateng was someone like me, born and raised in Germany, but sometimes dismissed as someone who can never truly belong - because of his background, because of his skin color. It didn’t matter. He came through. He made it. His integrity remained intact. Damn it, he was one of the good ones. And I can’t thank him enough for that.