German anti-migrant party stirs anger with comment on black soccer star

By Francesco Canepa
Germany's Jerome Boateng runs past a banner reading 'Jerome, be our neighbour!' before the match. REUTERS/Michael Dalder

By Francesco Canepa

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany's main anti-immigrant party stirred outrage on Sunday when its vice-chairman said people would not want German black soccer star Jerome Boateng as their neighbour.

Bayern Munich defender Boateng, born in Berlin to a Ghanaian father and German mother, is a stalwart of Germany's national soccer team and is likely to play for his country in the European Championship in France that begins on June 10.

"People find him good as a football player but they don't want a Boateng as their neighbour," Alexander Gauland, vice chair of Alternative for Germany (AfD), told the Sunday edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper.

Gauland later said he was simply relaying the opinion of some people and not expressing his own view.

Steffen Seibert, a spokesman for the German government, condemned Gauland's comment on Monday as "malicious and sad".

The remarks elicited fury on social media and criticism from across the German political spectrum.

Some supporters in the Augsburg stadium where Germany played Slovakia on Sunday night displayed banners supporting the 27-year-old Boateng, with one saying: "Jerome, move in next to us!"

Boateng, who picked up his 58th cap on Sunday and helped Germany win the World Cup in 2014, told German TV channel ARD after the match: "I can only smile about it.

"It's sad that something like this can still happen today. I believe there were enough positive answers today in the stadium. I saw some banners."

Midfielder Sami Khedira, who captained Germany on Sunday and has a Tunisian father, described Gauland's words as "outrageous".

Before the match, hundreds expressed their solidarity with Boateng on micro-blogging site Twitter. "If you want to win titles for Germany, you need neighbours like him," tweeted Boateng's fellow German international player Benedikt Howedes.

Using a Twitter tag that translates as 'my neighbour Boateng', user Andreas Mayer tweeted: "There's a free flat in our building, but not for Mr Gauland."

AfD party co-chairwoman Frauke Petry apologised to Boateng in comments to the Bild newspaper. In comments emailed to Reuters, AfD co-chair Joerg Meuthen said he would be happy if Boateng were to move to his neighbourhood.

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said every German should be happy to have Boateng as a fellow citizen, team-mate or neighbour.

The AfD's popularity has risen amid disenchantment with Chancellor Angela Merkel's open-door policy towards refugees fleeing conflicts and poverty in the Middle East and beyond. More than one million migrants arrived in Germany last year.

Last week, supporters of German anti-Islam group Pegida criticised a confectioner's decision to print images of non-white soccer players on its chocolate bars instead of the usual picture of a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy. [nL5N18M2FH]

Germany's national team includes several other players of mixed ethnic background including third-generation Turkish-German winger Mesut Özil. [nL3N18E3SC]

(Reporting by Francesco Canepa. Editing by Mark Heinrich)