Brazil

Gehrig balances German heritage with American pride

Crew defender finds way to support two countries in FIFA World Cup

Eric Gehrig

Photo Credit: 
USA Today Sports Images

Because the FIFA World Cup brings all corners of the globe together for one massive tournament, there will naturally be some people torn between two sides – country of birth vs. country of heritage, mixed nationalities, whatever the case may be.

That's even truer in the United States of America, a country known and indeed celebrated for being a melting pot of cultures. Sports fandom, meanwhile, exudes the opposite values as the standard: you get one team, and rooting for two or more is typically frowned upon. It creates an interesting situation in times like this, when multinationals are faced with the prospect of choosing one side to root for in the World Cup.

For people like Crew defender Eric Gehrig, and many others, that's just not possible. Born in Harvey, Illinois to a German family, including a father who was born in Berlin, Gehrig has found it tough to separate his American pride from his German heritage.

"I've visited [Germany] a handful of times," said Gehrig. "Obviously, with our schedules and my schedule growing up, it wasn't the easiest to get over there, but I've been over plenty of times. I speak German … My dad's side is from Berlin, and my mom's side is from Düsseldorf – East and West."

PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN

While Gehrig is proud of his German heritage and supports it on the soccer field, that hasn't stopped him from embracing America, showing that it is possible to do both.

"At the end of the day, I'm an American and I'm proud to be an American. This is the greatest country in the world, let's not get that wrong. [Teammates] might give me flack and people might think otherwise, but this is the best country in the world.

"At the same time, without Germany, I probably wouldn’t be here. That's where my dad's from and it's where my grandparents are from. I love America, and it's my number one, but I'm proud to have the German in me."

A "PERFECT" RESULT

Gehrig's pride was evident following Germany's opening match against Portugal, a result that the defender called "perfect" after a 4-0 win.

"They came out exactly as I expected, to control the game with Toni Kroos, Philipp Lahm and players in the back like [Mats] Hummels and [Per] Mertesacker. Those are all players who can keep the ball and that's exactly what they did."

Hat-trick hero and 2010 FIFA World Cup Golden Boot winner Thomas Müller is a particular favorite of Gehrig's.

"I really can't tell you what [Müller] does exceptionally well, but I think if you're going to talk about him as a player, I think it's his movement off the ball and his finishing. He's a relentless worker and he's a hungry goal-scorer.

"If you're not even watching the ball and you watch him, he's just so active. He's running off the back shoulder, he's making diagonal runs. For defenders, that's a nightmare. On a couple of his goals, the Portuguese defenders were clueless."

CULTIVATING A PASSION

It stands to reason that Germany's passion for soccer has spilled over to Gehrig, helping him learn to love the sport as a child even though he grew up in the United States during a time when MLS was just getting off the ground.

"My favorite team growing up was Borussia Dortmund. I remember watching them in '96, '97, '98, and when they won the Champions League [in 1997] with Lars Ricken and Andreas Möller. They started to fade, and I feel bad saying it, but I kind of moved to Bayern Munich. I fell in love with players like Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm, Manuel Neuer and Oliver Kahn, back in the day. [Germany] has always been fun to watch, and obviously with my family being from there, it's something to be proud of with the way they play. You can always learn something from watching them."

Germany gets credit for being one of the most attractive teams to watch in international soccer, but it wasn't always that way. In 2006, with the FIFA World Cup looming on German soil, then-manager Jürgen Klinsmann made some controversial roster selections based on youth (sound familiar?). He brought in young players like Lukas Podolski, Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger – a move that has laid the foundation for a "German renaissance," as Gehrig called it.

"In '02, they made the final, but I think '06, like you’re saying, how the people showed their pride, the media made a big deal about it. The support and the backing was exceptional. Germany played an attractive, high-flying style of soccer. They made the final in '02 but I think that '06 was when they introduced their new style."

THURSDAY'S SHOWDOWN

Columbus is a city with plenty of German heritage on its own. You need to look no further than the naming of the Nordecke for evidence of that. Like many in this country who identify as German-Americans, the release of the groups for this FIFA World Cup was met with a bit of disappointment that the two nations would be playing one another.

Luckily, with the opening victories for both the United States and Germany, that stress has been relieved a tad with the expectation that the game might not matter as much as previously thought. Still, Thursday's meeting between USA and Germany has been one that has loomed on German-Americans' minds for quite some time, and Gehrig is no exception.

"Here's what I do on Thursday: the game's going to be meaningless, so I don't need to answer that question," laughed the Crew defender. "I think, American or not, we don't want the Americans going into the Germany game needing anything. If they win against Portugal, then it's pointless. So, to answer your question, USA will win on Sunday, Germany will win on Saturday, and it's a training session for both teams. There might be something to play for [to avoid Belgium], but it's Belgium's first time at a big tourney with those players. One of the best teams on paper in the world, but they're inexperienced."

"EXAMPLES OF WHAT WE ALL WANT TO BE"

Gehrig admits that his "dual-support" of sorts has been a little difficult in the locker room, where the trash talk flies with regularity. However, the fourth-year player takes a psuedo-strategic approach to his chirping, making sure to never harass his fellow Americans.

"The guys come at me about Germany. Justin [Meram], Bernardo [Anor], these guys – they run their mouth about Cristiano Ronaldo," laughed Gehrig. "How did Ronaldo do? The dude was running around like a chicken with his head cut off, doing his dancing, but he wasn't doing anything.

"I go at those guys, the guys who represent other countries that want to chirp a little bit. I never initiate the Germany vs. America talk. Not in the locker room at least. At the end of the day, I know what the American team means to our country, our sport and our League, and that's the most important thing. Plus, I root for those players. We play against those guys. You look at Graham Zusi, Matt Besler – those guys are examples of what we all want to be. Maybe off the radar a few years ago, and now they're starting and playing in the World Cup. A guy like Beckerman, you never thought he'd get a chance, but he's 32, at the World Cup and starting. That's pretty cool. I'm rooting for those guys just as much as I am Germany."

Gehrig's situation is exactly what makes America so great – all are welcome, with many having sacrificed a lot to get here, a fact that isn't lost on the defender as he balances his pride between his birth and his heritage.

"I'm proud that my dad is from there and what he went through to get here, and what my grandparents went through to get here. That's something that I'll always carry with me."