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How prejudice and tragedy hit ‘Germany's black pearl’

ASIF BURHAN researches the story of Germany's first black international footballer — one rarely told in English

“I WOULD have played a lot more than three internationals had Gerd Muller not been around then,” Erwin Kostedde has recalled.

Filling the shoes of the country’s greatest goalscorer, in a team that had become the first in history to win the European Championship and World Cup in succession, would have been a burden for anyone. 

But 28-year-old Kostedde, picked to wear Muller’s number nine just five months after “Der Bomber” had retired from international football, had to deal with the added scrutiny of becoming the first black man to represent Germany.

In 1974, four years before England fielded their first senior black international player, Kostedde was leading the West German attack in a European Championship qualifier away to Malta. 

Tabloid newspaper Bild proclaimed him as “Germany’s black pearl” on its front page and, with the match played three days before Christmas, allegories were written about how it amounted to a modern fairytale.

“It was my childhood dream, I really wanted to prove myself,” he said, looking back 40 years later.

“As a white man I would never have been so central. You cannot compare it to today. Today every team has a black or coloured player, but then? There were 22 players and only one player stood out: me — the coloured Erwin Kostedde. 

”That was not a blessing, but a burden. As a coloured player, I had to be always better or you went under. I had learned that quickly.”

Born almost exactly a year after VE Day, Kostedde was one of approximately 5,000 multiracial children born in post-war West Germany — the son of a German mother and an African-American serviceman he never met.

Growing up in the traditional, Catholic city of Munster, he was never able to fit into a war-ravaged society where his presence represented an invading force. Children were forbidden to play with him and used to shout: “When my daddy comes home, he’ll shoot you dead.” 

“I wore the wrong colour of skin, day in, day out,” he said. “Often I was on the verge of resigning myself and telling myself: ‘You’re just a half-breed that people did not want.’”

One of three “mischlingskinder” born into his neighbourhood, he was the only one who made it to adulthood. One died in a traffic accident and another drowned in the Aasee lake. “Even as a child, I was terrified that some mischief or curse was over us,” Kostedde says.

Never a keen student, he only enjoyed geography lessons — where he dreamed of escaping to the US. “For me there was only football. We had a school team and I was the best. You can tell immediately — even as a 10-year-old.”

Given his first chance in the top flight by MSV Duisburg as a 21-year-old Kostedde earned rave reviews as “the new Pele” — but was unable to deal with the pressure. “I was just too young and alone. The fame went to my head.”

He fell out with his coach Gyula Lorant for missing training and repeatedly going out drinking. “Today, I’m a bit ashamed that I was so dumb at the time. I could have done more in Duisburg and the people there deserved it.”

Released by the club, a reprieve came from abroad when Standard Liege offered him a new start. In Belgium he won three successive league titles and was the league’s top scorer in 1971.

He thrived to such an extent that he was offered citizenship and an opportunity to play for the Belgian national team. He has noted that this would have been an easier choice. “They had so many Africans from their colonies, I wasn’t even noticed. They even wanted to make me Belgian and take me to the [1970] World Cup but I really wanted to become a national team player in Germany.”

The Belgians thought he was crazy to turn them down: “A black man playing for Germany, how is that supposed to work?”

In 1971, he returned home to play for second division Kickers Offenbach — gaining promotion to the Bundesliga. But away from the pitch, prejudice remained. After a match-winning hat-trick in the local derby with Eintracht Frankfurt in 1972, he was refused service in an auto repair shop the following Monday.

During the return match at the Waldstadion, the home fans sang that the Offenbach team consisted of “ten gays and one nigger.” Kostedde scored twice in a 3-0 win.

On the opening day of the 1974-75 season, Offenbach demolished newly crowned European champions Bayern Munich 6-0. Kostedde ran rings around Franz Beckenbauer, scoring twice. Beckenbauer and German assistant coach Jupp Derwall became advocates for his inclusion in the West German squad as they looked for a replacement for Muller, who had retired from the squad after his winning goal in that summer’s World Cup Final.

When Kostedde reported for national team duty that winter, none of the official suits in the German Football Association’s range fitted around his unusually thick thighs — a trait he shared with Muller. Captain Beckenbauer therefore stated that “Erwin was the next Gerd Muller” — but on a hard pitch against a then-amateur Maltese side, West Germany struggled to a single-goal victory. 

Kostedde retained his place four months later as the world champions travelled to play an England team which had failed to qualify for the World Cup. In front of a packed Wembley Stadium, a highly motivated home side dominated the game winning 2-0 — their last home victory over Germany to date.

Kostedde did not play for West Germany again until another European Championship qualifier at home to Greece in October. He failed to score again as West Germany were held to a draw.

That was to be his last game for Die Mannschaft. By the time of the European Championship finals in Yugoslavia, his former Offenbach teammate Dieter Muller proved himself to be “the next Muller” by finishing as the tournament’s top scorer.

Kostedde, who would go on to become the leading goalscorer in France’s Ligue 1 with Laval in 1980, blames himself for failing to deliver in the national shirt. “I am totally disappointed in myself that I played so little and did not score for Germany. It was up to me, to be honest. I was just totally under-motivated.”

His life after football was to prove equally traumatic. Plagued by debt after losing career earnings of over a million deutschmarks through trusting the wrong people in investment deals, Kostedde was accused of taking part in an armed robbery at an amusement hall in Coesfeld.

At the identity parade, Kostedde was the only man presented to a witness after the police considered it improbable that they could find five other black people in the area. Following six months in custody, in which he suffered from a nervous breakdown, he was released and paid 3,000 DM compensation. “They could have given me more than 10 million DM, my life was ruined“, he said. “I never thought that something like this could happen in Germany.”

Now a pensioner living on social welfare back in Munster, he has asserted that he has nothing to do with football. “At that time, I was proud to be a national team player. Today, the boys do not know me anymore. I am treated like any other coloured person.”

In 1994, his old club Offenbach created a fanzine named Erwin in his honour. Under the motto “we have no coal [money], we cannot kick, but we can make a book,” it became a cult hit.

It is a recognition the man himself has never achieved. Speaking in 2001, Kostedde told Stern magazine about the discrimination he has faced since. “I’m waiting with my shopping basket at the supermarket checkout. Some guy says: ‘Look at what the asylum-seeker can afford.’ Sometimes I get upset and say: ‘Listen, I’m German, born here in Munster in 1946,’ and so on but that’s useless. If I had the money, I would emigrate.”

“Sometimes I talk to my wife Monique about what it would have been like if I had not become a footballer and had a job with a craft, or going to the office in the morning and home in the evening. Maybe that would have been better for me and my family.

“I have only memories of football and I cannot buy anything with that.”

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