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Black History Month: The Black Pearl endures

Erwin Kostedde fought through racism to break the color barrier for West Germany.

Aus 2. BL Saison 1982/1983 VfL Osnabrück (dunkle Hose) gegen den FC Augsburg 2:0 . Im Foto: VfL Spieler Erwin Kostedde. Photo by Rust/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Germany has long been one of the great soccer nations in international soccer. However, while you see some of the players that make up their national team like Antonio Rüdiger, Serge Gnabry, Jamal Masiala, and Leroy Sané, it wasn’t long ago that it was unheard of for a Black player to represent Germany on the international stage. Those players have Erwin Kostedde to thank for pushing through that color barrier.

The son of a German mother and an African-American father, Erwin Kostedde was born in Münster, Westphalia. He grew up in a world filled with xenophobia, with neighbors not allowing their children to play with Kostedde because of his skin color. Where his childhood was difficult, his concentration turned to soccer. It was there that he started to gain respect from his peers.

He’s one of the best players in his school, developing a step over trick to shake his opponents. It later came to be known around Germany as the Erwin Shuffle. He later grows up and plays for hometown club Preußen Münster, where he has 18 goals in 35 league appearances. That prompted him to leave his hometown to sign for MSV Duisburg. However, as a young man, he didn’t have the guidance that he needed, and due to some missed trainings and arguments with staff, he was released from Duisburg. He eventually signs with Standard Liège in Belgium, where he thrives with 43 goals in 52 appearances in 3 seasons. He then returns to West Germany, where he signed with Kickers Offenbach. There, his career really takes off.

He helped the club get promoted to the Bundesliga in his first season there, and in 1974 he had the Goal of the Year in the Bundesliga.

That caught the eyes of the West German national team coaches, who called in the 28-year-old Kostedde to a camp in October 1974, months after winning its second World Cup trophy. He made his debut in a match against Malta, becoming the first Black player to play for West Germany. It was a big deal when it happened, with Germany newspaper Bild proclaiming him as “Germany’s Black Pearl” on its front page. With the match occurring close to the Christmas holiday, Kostedde’s debut was compared to a modern fairy tale. He followed that up with a match against England in Wembley Stadium. In 1975, his appearance against Greece was his final West German national team cap.

In a 2021 documentary, Kostedde described his time with the national team as “explicitly racist,” detailing some of the hardships he experienced in the camp and from the media. “Playing for Germany as a Black man was a sensation in the press, all eyes on Erwin Kostedde!” he mentioned. “But I was alone, I was really alone.”

He was told to give interviews that tried to paint the picture that West Germany was free of racism. However, he fought back against that pressure, much to the displeasure of West German head coach Helmut Schön. He also felt, like many Black people around the world, that he had to be twice as good as his white counterparts while also doubling the scrutiny. “I had to be better than my white teammates. When I made a mistake it was two, three times worse,” Kostedde said. “I couldn’t show my skills, couldn’t play my game, I was always thinking about it.” He didn’t get a lot of love even in his own locker room, with Kostedde recalling that he could feel some of his teammates were racist “by their behavior.”

Kostedde never felt entirely at ease in the dressing room either: ”Not everyone liked me. I could tell it. Some didn’t speak to me at all. And I could feel some were racists by their behavior.”

Erwin Kostedde said there was one player in particular who did have his back and supported him in his short time on the national team: soccer legend Franz Beckenbauer. Kostedde described Beckenbauer’s support as essential to him getting a second cap in the big rivalry match against England. ”[West Germany head coach] Helmut Schön wasn’t going to play me in England but Beckenbauer insisted — and I played at Wembley. Beckenbauer made that happen. Without him I wouldn’t have played.”

Kostedde continued to play soccer throughout the 1970s, receiving racial abuse on many occasions. He eventually retired from soccer in 1983, but continued to receive racial stereotyping and abuse throughout his life. In 1990, Kostedde was accused of a robbery and was imprisoned for 6 months before he was acquitted on all charges. Germany paid him compensation of 3,000 Deutsche Marks (roughly $1,760). However, that was all he received, and angry by his treatment by the media and his country, Kostedde retreated into retirement life.

The fans at Kickers Offenbach, where Kostedde was the club’s all-time leading goalscorer, considered him a legend, and they named their fan magazine “Erwin” after him. The fanzine had 65 editions over 13 years.

There have been several Black players that have gone on to star for Germany in recent years. However, Kostedde still wishes for those players to be on equal footing with their white teammates, something he feels will never occur. “It’s great to see so many Black Germans playing, but they will always be second choice here in Germany, and watch what happens once they make a mistake.” Still, those players can look back to 1974, when Erwin Kostedde broke the color barrier and, in the face of racism, showed that Black players are an integral part of German football.


For more Black History Month stories, check out our Black History Month hub. We will be bringing stories throughout the month to highlight some of the biggest moments in Black American and world soccer history.