German clubs refuse to participate in insincere #RefugeesWelcome campaign

#RefugeesWelcome. The campaign is only recently gaining traction — and attention — outside Germany, but the country’s football teams had been doing their part long before the recent crisis prompted fans to drape banners across their stadiums. Clubs ranging from lower-division Dynamo Dresden to Berlin’s Hertha BSC to Borussia Mönchengladbach have been inviting groups of refugees to watch their games for the past few years, and it’s likely I would have found other clubs doing the same if I had I known the right German words to get past the most recent Google hits.

There’s no denying, though, that fan campaigns have prompted even greater responses from their teams. In the past month, Bayern Munich pledged one million euros to open a football school for refugees. Werder Bremen and Bayer Leverkusen offer free training sessions to refugee kids. Schalke has collected clothing and other items for them; HSV allowed Hamburg to use its parking lot as a tenting area for asylum seekers.

Not everyone in Germany is ready to welcome the nation’s influx of refugees with open arms, but there’s no shortage of public support in German soccer stadiums. So why, then, did a campaign to put “Refugees Welcome – We Help” on the sleeves of all 36 teams playing in Germany’s top two divisions backfire so spectacularly?

Last weekend, in addition to the “Refugees Welcome” banners still present in stadium crowds, other signs made an appearance, bearing a hashtag also trending on Twitter: “#BILDnotWelcome.” Bild, one of Germany’s most popular tabloids, had partnered with the German Football League (DFL) to promote its campaign and get the message out via Bundesliga shirts. Considering fans’ vast support for the other ongoing welcome messages, it seemed strange that the paper’s campaign, which looked as though it would only spread the message further, met such stern resistance.

The backlash began when St. Pauli, a second-division club well known for its left-wing leanings, announced it would not wear the logo. The Hamburg-based team, which recently invited more than 1,000 refugees to a friendly against Borussia Dortmund, informed the DFL that it had long been engaged in supporting refugees and would rather continue helping via practical methods:

St. Pauli has been working for weeks to help those people who are currently fleeing to Germany. The friendly game we recently played against Borussia Dortmund, the private efforts of our players and initiatives of our fans are proof of that. We therefore decided it was not necessary to take part in this voluntary action organized by the German Football Association.

Soon, other second-division clubs pulled their support. MSV Duisburg instead chose to wear a specially designed “Refugees Welcome” shirt on Sunday. Kaiserslautern offered more insight into the reason for their boycott, telling The Local they were afraid “the real message was being pushed into the background.” FC Nürnberg, SC Freiburg, Union Berlin, and VfL Bochum also refused to participate in Bild’s campaign.

No first-division teams backed out, but that didn’t stop their fans from voicing their displeasure. Nearly every ground displayed a #BILDnotWelcome banner. Darmstadt fans managed to place theirs prominently during their defeat to Bayern Munich. Dortmund fans sprinkled theirs behind the goal and throughout their supporters’ section.

These fans weren’t pissed about Bild’s desire to further the refugee cause. Their reactions, as well as the actions taken by the seven clubs which opted out, were prompted by the view that the newspaper’s campaign was ultimately a hypocritical action designed to buy Bild a better image in the public’s eye.

The newspaper, a rather trashy and sensationalist affair, has long leaned toward the right, emphasizing nationalist and conservative viewpoints. But even though Bild has toned down its rhetoric in recent years, many still feel it has a xenophobic slant, making a “Refugees Welcome” campaign nothing more than empty words.

It didn’t help, either, when Bild editor-in-chief Kai Diekmann took to Twitter to accuse St. Pauli — the club that had recently invited so many refugees to attend its friendly with Dortmund — of being anti-refugee. He even tagged his post #refugeesnotwelcome

So clubs needed to make a choice: stand with St. Pauli, with a recent, proven track record of supporting refugees, or attempt to stand together behind a campaign led by Bild. The first-division clubs did their best to justify their participation, even as fans begged them to pull out. Spiegel Online questioned 15 of the 18 Bundesliga clubs and suggests Mainz 05’s viewpoint represents the majority. Mainz wrote that the club was not interested in choosing sides, but that the club’s support stood behind the refugees, which they submit was the message behind the campaign.

Clubs can justify aligning with Bild all they want, but their fans have already determined that the logo is nothing more than an empty gesture, designed to promote the paper rather than truly invoke inclusiveness. However, as long as Germany’s teams continue to demonstrate support of refugees in other, concrete ways — the football camps, the donations, the invitations to matches — it’s unlikely the clubs themselves will suffer from this backlash.

Bild, however, failed to get what it wanted: a painless entry into the country’s campaign to accept refugees. The German public is not interested in hollow words, particularly when spouted from a newspaper known for its negative coverage of those perceived as “other.” In Germany, the desire to assist in the refugee crisis is coming from the bottom up, and that’s what should be commended — not token arm patches proclaiming “We’re Helping!” with no action placed behind them.