Posted on June 25, 2024

For Turkish Germans, Heart Overrules Home at Euro 2024

Tariq Panja and Rory Smith, New York Times, June 22, 2024

Erkan Aykan does not require a second invitation to share his claim to fame. He grew up in a Turkish family in Gelsenkirchen, an industrial city nestled in the heart of Germany’s Ruhr valley. Somewhat more famously, so did Ilkay Gundogan, the captain of the country’s soccer team. “I know his cousins,” he said, proudly.

Listening politely, perhaps a touch indulgently, his brother Talha waits for Erkan to finish, and then immediately one-ups him. “He was in my class at school,” Talha said of Gundogan. “I played soccer with him when we were kids.”

The speed with which both men set about establishing their Gundogan credentials illustrated their pride in having a connection with the Germany captain, and their satisfaction at seeing him now leading their country at the European Championship.

Yet that loyalty goes only so far. Both brothers want Gundogan to do well this month, they said. But like millions of other Germans of Turkish descent, they want someone else to win the tournament. “Only Turkey,” they said in unison when asked who they would be supporting in Euro 2024. “We live here. We were born here. But our hearts are in Turkey.”

That sense of shared pride — obvious in the Turkish flags and Turkey jerseys that are omnipresent this month in Germany’s streets and stadiums — reflects the sheer scale of Germany’s Turkish, or Turkish-descended, population. At more than seven million, Germany’s Turkish community makes up the biggest minority group in Europe’s largest country.


Germany’s Turkish community is a legacy of the years when the nation opened its doors to guest workers — or gastarbeiterto help rebuild its shattered country after World War II.

Many of those workers stayed, starting families that now extend into their second, third or fourth generations. Every major city in Germany, and plenty of minor ones, has at least one neighborhood with a distinctly Turkish feel {snip}

“The topics are Turkish, the food is Turkish, the culture is more Turkish,” he said, casting his mind back to his childhood. In Berlin now, he said, there are plenty of people for whom the “barbershop is Turkish, your supermarket is Turkish, your dinner is in a Turkish restaurant.”


That phenomenon can be a little baffling to those whose affiliations are rather more straightforward. Zeynep Bakan, 25, who works in the German soccer museum in Dortmund, was wearing German team apparel, but only as a professional necessity: She is from Istanbul.

“They go to German schools, they go out to German clubs, they watch German soccer, they’re so focused on German things,” she said of Germans with Turkish heritage. “And then at the end of the day, they are saying they are Turkish.”

She emphasized her point with one of the museum’s exhibits: a photograph of Mesut Özil, a key member of the Germany team that won the 2014 World Cup, posing with the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in 2018.

The image caused considerable controversy at the time — the backlash was so severe that Özil quit the German national team over it, saying he was sick of being treated as a “German when we win, and an immigrant when we lose.”

Gundogan was jeered for months for posing in a similar photograph, but Ms. Bakan said that she believed the image itself encapsulated why so many second-, third- or fourth-generation Turks feel the pull of their ancestral homeland. “They are this photo,” she said.


Others, though, feel a different pull. Five members of Turkey’s squad at this tournament were born in Germany. Like Gundogan, the Turkey captain Hakan Calhanoglu grew up in Gelsenkirchen. (Several more Turkey players were born in the Netherlands and Austria, as were many fans in Dortmund.)