#onedaywith Ismail Öner

The Coach That Could

Ismail Öner

A pinch of West Germany, a touch of Cote d’Azur (with the boats), but also a burning social hotbed; these are just three of the many ingredients of Berlin-Spandau, the colorful and diverse neighborhood way in the west of Germany’s capital city.
Ismail Öner, known to his friends as Issi, lives here. He’s the initiator and head of the MitternachtsSport e.V., a multi-award winning social project for youth crime prevention and integration. We want to get to know the man who has demonstrably managed to put some high-risk candidates on the right path and has helped to lower juvenile crime in the neighborhood.

Before the Match

When we arrive for breakfast, the Öner family is no longer complete. Issi’s wife and daughter have already left to go shopping, leaving behind the men of the household: Issi, his son and his son’s best friend, who slept over the previous night. While drinking a strong black coffee, I notice the golden Bambi on the shelf that MitternachtsSport received a few years ago. The metallic deer is surprisingly heavy, but fits well in my hand and I can also imagine it gracing my apartment. Issi laughs and says no way, then pours me some more of his really strong coffee. As always, while talking to one of our #onedaywith subjects, I ask for a short chronology of their career. But Issi’s story is so detailed, colorful and exciting that we set off too late for the office. He calls his co-worker and informs him that we will not meet in the office, but go directly at the youth café, the base camp of MitternachtsSport.

Ismail bei dem Frühstück
Bambi Award bei Ismail

El Capitan

We leave two hours later with a belly full of croissants and sucuk, a Turkish sausage, heavy on the garlic. We take a slight detour, because we want to have a look at a classical football cage. The short journey takes longer than planned, as every second passerby greets Issi. Words are exchanged, mostly in German, sometimes in Turkish, proceeded by laughing and high-fives. Greetings are exchanged, wishes expressed, we turn the corner and it starts again: the gossip, some whispering, and then a quick farewell. After three hundred meters of this, I feel like I'm traveling with the rock star of Spandau.

The football cage is perfect for streetball. It’s rough, direct and fouls really hurt on the hard ground. With the resulting bruised knees and general hard knocks, it’s nothing for the delicate. Here, as happens every May, the E.ON MitternachtsSport Cup will be held soon. The kids take the tournament almost as seriously as the professionals, who are a few kilometers up the road in the Olympic Stadium, who are playing for the "real" cup on the same day.

Ismail auf dem Fußballplatz

Welcome Back

On the way to the youth café, Issi quickly explains how he came up with the idea of MitternachtsSport. His Kurdish parents came to Germany more than 50 years ago as guest workers. Three of their children were born in Turkey, four more in Germany, including Issi. Despite good grades, his primary school teachers recommended no fewer than 18 times that he change to a special school. This was a first and formative experience that taught him that he had to work much harder than the others. His mother, however, prevailed in keeping him with his peers. Issi went on to high school and got the best German grade in his class his senior year. Just like his siblings, he wanted to study. He tried his hand at medical school, had a few semesters of history and politics, and last but not least, he had an apprenticeship at a bank.

Nothing was a fit, but then fate stepped in. One evening there was a "situation" in which Issi stood up for a friend and actively and physically stayed by her side. The juvenile court judge found this story less convincing and sentenced him to 16 hours of social work in a youth recreation facility. This was a key experience. Issi sensed his strong impact on young people and how much it fulfilled him. Since he had himself grown up in a difficult neighborhood, the notorious MauMau settlement in Spandau-Haselhorst, he understood what drove young people to act out and how they ticked. So, his desire to become a social worker was born and his background and biography proved to be a plus for his street credibility.

The Home Stadium

The youth café welcomes visitors with a special mix of coffee, video games and help with homework, all in a clubhouse atmosphere. In front of the gaming console, a group of girls rushes to find the controllers and a spot on the sofa. The gamers get booed and cheered, and two boys doing homework retreat to a table at a maximum distance. Cocoa is poured at the bar by a member of Issi’s team. The price is whatever you can pay.


What immediately strikes any football fan are the numerous framed jerseys along the long wall of the café: Jérôme Boateng, Gonzalo Castro and other well-known professional footballers have immortalized themselves on their jerseys with a handwritten thanks to MitternachtsSport. How did that happen? Issi walks over and points to Boateng's jersey.


In 2007, the situation in the area of Spandau Heerstraße North came to a head. A classic ghetto comparable to the refugee satellite towns on the outskirts of major French cities threatened to get out of hand. The police declared the area to be a crime-prone place, which led to increased police presence and non-stop identity checks. The situation exploded, misunderstandings on both sides grew and Issi decided to bring the parties together to exchange views. However, this first step was obviously not enough. Especially in the evenings and on the weekends, something had to be done to help the area youth in a meaningful way.

Mädchen im Jugendcafé

Issi adapted the U.S. concept of after-school sports and organized the opening up of school gymnasiums, after school hours. The starting signal for MitternachtsSport was in December 2007, with a first tournament of five teams from the police and five teams from local youth. Since then, every weekend the halls are opened and the kids are off the streets to get some perspective and combat boredom with a sensible alternative.


Two essential elements complete the concept: the so-called "Big Brothers" and the social-educational work. The Big Brothers were born in the model of many other social projects. The volunteers worked with a lot of passion and commitment, but the outside world saw too little of what they were doing. The project needed more star power!  Issi knew Jerome Boateng's wife personally and so it came about that the superstar, together with Issi, founded the MitternachtsSport e.V. in 2010. There are now fifteen "Big Brothers", including professionals like Manuel Schmiedebach, Marvin Knoll and Jordan Torunarigha, who grew up in Spandau. These players are often on the field, to be seen and to be a part of the team. Issi expresses the value of these encounters with the "Big Brothers" with the youth in his inimitable way: "They pour out 100 liters of self-confidence!"

Jungs beim Fußball

Awards Champions League

Before we leave the café to go to a nearby gymnasium, I’m stuck staring at the pillar lined up and down with all the honors. From the best sports project in the EU to the Integration Bambi to the Laureus, the Sports Oscar, the DFB Integration Prize and the Federal Government's Ambassador Award, this project has been showered with prizes. As honorable as that may be, that alone is not enough, says Issi: "We were almost punished for these successes, because many thought that we could do it all on our own and wouldn’t need any more support. People kept saying things like, „just scratch the gold off of the Bambi.“


That's why it's so important to work with partners like E.ON, whom Issi sees as a protector for the club. The support of these partners has also helped MitternachtsSport improve its staffing. Issi is now supported by three permanent employees.

Fußballspiel beim Mitternachtssport

The Round Thing Must Go into The Square Thing

The boys fight loudly for the ball, a bad foul leads to a fall against the wall of the hall. Before the scene escalates, Issi is asked for advice - the teens refer to him as "Abi", the Turkish word for big brother. This word expresses the position of Issi very comprehensively: on the one hand, the kids feel close to him, on the other, he gets his due respect.

During the game, Issi's eyes light up. Football fans understand each other. Football, the metaphor for life, for so much that makes us strong, but also gives us a social framework. The sport that lets us express the depths of our being like hardly any other, but which in the end also conveys exactly the values that form the three pillars of MitternachtsSport: respect, tolerance and fair play.

Actually, I wanted to leave after a half-hour, but then we urgently needed to discuss whether Messi or Ronaldo is the defining footballer of the decade. And we needed time to speculate on when Hertha will finally finish a season on top. And why Pal Dardai had to leave. And and and…


Ismail in der Sporthalle

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