Joshua Kimmich is a fabulous footballer in the prime of athletic life. He is one of the first names on the team sheet for Bayern Munich and Germany’s national team, Die Mannschaft. And he seldom lets the side down.
Yet Paul Breitner, in his prime the equal and more of Kimmich, says: “If I had responsibility for FC Bayern, he would not play. Nor would the other four who have not taken the vaccine. I would tell them – ‘Guys, you can run up and down the hills, but not here. Auf wiedersehen!’”
Kimmich and Breitner are similarly blessed. They were born in Bavaria, the southern state that provides many of Bayern Munich’s most talented players and, in Jürgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel and Julian Nagelsmann, three of the world’s most progressive coaches.
Mind and body define Breitner and Kimmich. They may be separated by the generation gap (Breitner has turned 70 while Kimmich is 26) and they operated on different sides of the pitch. But neither could be pigeonholed by the positions their youth trainers determined – Breitner at left full-back, Kimmich right back.
Both turned out to be free-spirited. Strong mentally and physically. Adept at turning defence into attack. An eye for a pass to set a goalscorer free, abundant energy to generate attacks from so-called “wing back” roles.
And, crucially, non-conformist. Back in the 1970s, the tale grew that Paul Breitner was a communist. There were, as I found when I visited him at his home, many facets to Breitner. It was true that he slept with Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book beneath his bed, but he explained that he was curious about life and wanted to open his own mind to different philosophies.
So how, you might wonder, did Breitner become so dismissive of Kimmich today? The issue is Covid19. Germany is into its fourth phase of the disease, particularly so in the east of the country, but secondly in the south.
The World Health Organisation fears that half a million more people could die this winter from this outbreak in Europe. Germany’s intensive care wards are overflowing, and health authorities are alarmed that despite vaccination being freely available, the take-up has stalled at around 66%of the 83 million population.
The fourth Covid wave is developing in exactly the way that health experts feared due to vaccine scepticism that is greater in Germany than France, Italy, Spain and the UK. “The pandemic is far from over,” said Germany’s health minister Jens Spahn. “And there is a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
Is all this the fault of one footballer? Obviously not. But Kimmich, and Sahra Wagenknecht the former leader of Die Linke, the Left Party, are among the high-profile people who decline the vaccine.
Kimmich is accused of being disingenuous, if not outright hypocritical. A year ago, he and team-mate Leon Goretzka founded WeKickCorona to support charities helping people struggling in the pandemic. “Solidarity is necessary,” Kimmich said, “because health is the most important thing. Everyone can help.”
After a match two weeks ago, Sky Germany TV asked Kimmich, why do you not practice what you preach? “We’ve donated money to Unicef,” he replied, “so they can make vaccines available in countries with no access. If people decide they want to get vaccinated, we should do all we can to ensure that.”
He said it is shameful that there are only vaccinated and non-vaccinated arguments in this debate. There are people, he added, who have concerns, whatever their reasons.
“I do practice what I preach,” he countered. “I’m not saying categorically I won’t get vaccinated, I just still have some concerns. It is absolutely possible I will get vaccinated in the future.”
Until or unless vaccination is compulsory, that is his right. However, while Kimmich makes clear that he follows the protocols and is tested two or three times a week, he surely has some duty of care towards team-mates.
He is an insider of two so-called “bubbles”. Last weekend he shared Bayern’s team dressing room, its facilities, the shower, the bus, the hotel. This Thursday he is in the national squad to play Liechtenstein in Wolfsburg. On Sunday they play against Armenia in Yerevan.
It would be hard to find a German who doubts that Kimmich merits his place. Of currently active players, he is the third most-capped German behind his club goalkeeper Manuel Neuer and striker Thomas Müller.
Müller said last week, “As a friend, it’s an absolutely acceptable decision. As a team-mate, if you look a little at what might be better for everyone, my opinion is the vaccination would be better.” How diplomatic, Herr Müller. Others, including Bayern’s former CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, understand Breitner’s opinion that unvaccinated players should be isolated from the group.
However, Hansi Flick, who this summer swapped Bayern’s head coaching duties to manage the national team, sees both sides. “I’m vaccinated, and I supported the DfB (German FA) vaccination campaign,” said Flick. “It would be ideal if every player was vaccinated… but even though Jo (Kimmich) is unvaccinated he is not a Covid denier. He does not belong to lateral thinkers and conspiracy theorists… he questions everything because he wants to know everything precisely.”
Fine. But being inside the 27-man national player pool brings responsibilities. Thomas Mertens the head of Germany’s expert panel on vaccination, concludes: “Joshua Kimmich is a recognised expert on football… he is not an expert on vaccination.”