Alban Zinsou says his is a “typical immigrant story.”
He came to Germany from Togo in 1995. Initially, he says, integration proved challenging – “we didn’t have a lot of interaction with people” – but playing football provided a place where he could be himself.
“It was the first time where I had a smile on my face,” adds Zinsou. “You are working hard everywhere to be part of society, but on the pitch, was always the moment where the language didn’t play any role.”
Zinsou is speaking to CNN Sport from his home in Munich. He talks proudly of doing well at school, being married to his German wife and father to two children. “Society … gave me opportunities,” he says.
Football still plays an important part in Zinsou’s life – he’s Youth Coordinator for German football club Türkgücü Munich.
“My mission in life is teaching football,” says Zinsou as he reflects on his role of overseeing Türkgücü’s various youth teams. He sees that mission as not just developing talented footballers, but also teaching them valuable life skills.
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A club for all
“Preserving traditions, connecting cultures,” is Türkgücü’s motto.
The club’s crest is a mix of the Turkish and Bavarian flags and is an ode to the club’s founding fathers – Turkish immigrants, for whom Bavaria was home, and who established Türkgücü in 1975.
“I feel German, but I also love my Turkish roots,” Ünal Tosun, one of Türkgücü’s leading player, tells CNN Sport.
The world’s largest Turkish diaspora can be found in Germany and Tosun, who is the son of Turkish immigrants, is a physical embodiment of Türkgücü’s past, present and future.
“We have over three million Turkish people in Germany … and they can also identify with me. We are an idol club for many immigrant clubs,” the sharply trimmed midfielder Tosun says.
Beaming with pride as he describes playing for Türkgücü in his hometown of Munich, Tosun recounts receiving messages on Instagram from supporters in Turkey who he says “look up to us.”
“We’re not the typical local club,” adds Türkgücü CEO Max Kothny. “If I look in the stands, there’s so many people from so many cultures that it perfectly shows how the German culture is.”
‘The higher you go, the harder it gets’
Türkgücü’s increased prominence – both on and off the pitch – owes itself, in part, to its rapid rise through the German football league structure.
Once an amateur team, Türkgücü now plays in the 3. Liga – Germany’s third division, which like the country’s top two leagues is fully professional.
Remarkably Türkgücü now stands just two promotions away from Germany’s elite league – the Bundesliga. According to Der Spiegel in March 2020, the club’s budget was $2 million. Türkgücü wouldn’t confirm that figure, but did say it’s “in the lower half in the table regarding the budgets in 3. Liga.”
“The higher you go, the harder it gets,” Kothny says with a wry smile.
Financial backing for the team has been largely provided by Hasan Kivran, a Turkish-born German, who previously played for the club, but is now a successful business entrepreneur and Türkgücü’s president. Türkgücü wouldn’t disclose how much Kivran has invested in the club.
“Being ambitious is not something bad – it’s something good,” says Zinsou. “Following your goals is something good. Taking smart decisions to reach this goal is something good. Working with passion is something good.”
Kivran intimated he was going to step down in late 2020, but then had a rethink.
“The main reasons that I changed my mind were those in charge of the company, a high level of fan support over the past two weeks and the prospect of a young talent center in southeast Munich,” said Kivran in an interview with SPORT1 earlier this year.
Munich’s second team?
Türkgücü is currently ninth in Germany’s 3. Liga with 40 points, 18 behind leader Dynamo Dresden.
Germany’s third division contains a number of clubs – such as 1. FC Kaiserslautern and TSV 1860 München — that have previously played in the Bundesliga.
That Türkgücü now plays against such clubs – 1. FC Kaiserslautern is a four-time winner of the German top-flight league – is testament to its rise through the German football ladder and its growing prominence.
“We’ve been working here since the sixth division, which is absolutely incredible!” Kothny says speaking to CNN Sport from a 15 square meter wooden portacabin that acts as the club’s offices.
“This is a total start-up mentality,” he adds.
Kothny says plans are afoot to build the club’s own academy and training facilities, but for now this football start-up is currently without a stadium to call home.
‘Home’ matches are divided between the Grünwalder and the iconic Munich Olympic Stadium, one of the venues for the 1972 Olympic Games.
Playing at the Olympic Stadium – Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich’s former home before the club moved to the Allianz Arena – Kothny and Tosun say they have to pinch themselves at times to remember the journey they’ve been on.
“Now we’re playing in an arena which has 60,000 seats – it’s brilliant!” Kothny exclaims.
“There are so many good players who played there. They are so many important matches played there – It’s an honor,” Tosun says.
Remodel and rebuild
Perhaps what’s surprising is not just that Kothny is spearheading operations from relatively modest surroundings but that he’s doing so at the age of 24.
“I think the future is on the young guns so I’m using it as an advantage,” smiles Kothny.
“My way of thinking is a little bit different to the rest of this business, which is pretty much the same for the last like 20 years,” adds Kothny, explaining how each season “we lose 80% of the roster” to ensure Türkgücü is competitive, given each promotion means the club will play against better teams.
Tosun joined the club in 2018, yet he’s its longest-serving player and one of the few Turkish-German players left in the squad.
“We need to keep that factor in the history, in the portfolio of the club,” says Zinsou.
“I mean, if there were somewhere a Togolese team playing in a high level, I would be very interested in joining them as well,’ Zinsou says jokingly.
“Bavarian nowadays doesn’t only mean that you have a German name […] because the culture in Munich is mixed and it is rich.
“Our main focus is clearly on the quality of the players with the target to bring them to the first team,” added Zinsou.
Over the last few years there has been a huge turnover of players with the aim of achieving direct promotion to 3. Liga, which signals thet scale of Türkgücü’s ambition.
“That brought a lot of criticism also on us but this is how it worked. And I think the success proves that that this was the right way,” says Kothny.
Fighting fear through football
Nonetheless Türkgücü’s ascent and the club’s strong Turkish associations have drawn plenty of attention.
Inspiring and imaginative to some; divisive and disruptive to others, the club has become a target of some far-right groups in Germany.
The extreme-right Der III. Weg – The Third Way – party, has been vocal about Türkgücü.
According to the German Interior Ministry, the “ideological statements of the party “The III. Way” are shaped from historical National Socialism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia.”
The far-right group’s website in October showed a photo of two men, one holding The Third Way flag, displaying a “Türkgücü is not welcome” banner outside Zwickau’s stadium.
Underneath the photo was the statement, “Whether in Zwickau, Magdeburg or anywhere else: a Turkish team has no place in German football. The message is clear in Magdeburg and among fans of the FCM: Türkgücü is not welcome.”
“We were unfortunately already prepared as far as we knew that things like that might happen,” Kothny says. “Sometimes it is a burden to have the Turkish flag in your logo.
“A lot of [users on] social media are saying go back to Turkey or play in the Super Lig, but they are not realizing the background,” adds Kothny, referring to the Turkish top-flight soccer division.
He also recounts how small groups of far-right supporters gathered ahead of the away game against FSV Zwickau in October in Saxony.
And when Türkgücü played 1. FC Kaiserslautern in January, racist and xenophobic stickers and flyers were put up in the vicinity of the Fritz Walter Stadium.
Both FSV Zwickau and 1. FC Kaiserslautern took to social media to stand in solidarity with Türkgücü.
And Rainer Keßler, chairman of the supervisory board of 1. FC Kaiserslautern, said in a statement: “It is intolerable that right-wing groups try to misuse 1. FC Kaiserslautern’s name, history, values and the Fritz-Walter-Stadion in the defense of inhuman slogans and ideologies. The FCK family stands for a multicultural society and expressly distances itself from nationalist ideas.”
Meanwhile, in another game against SV Waldhof Mannheim in April 2020, Türkgücü player Yi-Young Park reportedly told the referee that he had been repeatedly racially insulted from the spectator area.
Mannheim was subsequently fined $2,900 by the German Football Association (DFB) for the behavior of its fans.
Kothny admits that messages at those games are “not the most brutal thing that I’ve read on a banner. We get letters from people all around Germany here to our post box. We get emails which are brutal, which is really like far right things against the club.”
Despite the wider political landscape, Kothny says he is adamant that the club has to maintain its neutrality.
“We try not to give those people a platform […] because then they get exactly what they want and this is awareness.
“We try to always give the answer on the pitch because this is what counts in sports. As soon as we move in one political direction, this will not turn out well for us.”
The philosophy of Türkgücü’s youth setup – the club has five youth teams, which Zinsou oversees, emphasizes the teaching of life as much as soccer skills.
“This is a package for life, it’s not only for football,” says Zinsou, as he talks about Türkgücü’s various youth teams.
“When you talk about integration, it’s always on both parts. I need to go one step further and people will do a step in my direction so that we meet somewhere in the middle.”
That message is one shared by Claudemir Jeronimo Barreto, known as Cacau, the Brazil-born former Germany international who played for Türkgücu, and was integration officer for the DFB until January.
While working for the DFB, Cacau was active in supporting the organization’s work with refugees. According to the DFB, a scheme the association set up enabled 60,000 refugees to play football competitively in German.
In the summer of 2019, Cacau also traveled to Ostritz at the invitation of the local football club and worked alongside Michael Kretschmer – Minister-President of the Free State of Saxony – against a right-wing extremist rally
Tosun is hoping that he too can deliver a lasting legacy for generations to come.
“I want to be a role model with my mentality. I want to be a role model for younger players and want to help [them] achieve the same goal that I achieve,” as he reflected on his career and the example he wants to set.
John Sinnott contributed to this report