On July 22nd, Arsenal player Mesut Özil announced his retirement from international football. This came about a month after Germany’s dismal World Cup performance, where they managed to score only two goals total against the likes of Mexico, Sweden, and South Korea. Although his surprising retirement saddened many, it was his thorough statement that has brought a grand majority of the footballing community behind his back. The sad state of the DFB was encapsulated in one of Özil’s sentences: “I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose.
To give backstory, Mesut is a third generation Turkish-German, born and educated in Germany. As most people of mixed backgrounds do, Özil feels a strong tie to his heritage, values instilled unto him by his mother. In his first of three statements, Özil explains that his relationship with Turkish President Erdoğan began in 2010, and that the two have crossed paths multiple times since. He clearly states that the picture he and İlkay Gündoğan took with the Turkish president back in May had no political intentions; rather, it was about having respect for political office. As he eloquently puts it, “it didn’t matter who was President, it mattered that it was the President.” He emphasizes that although for many cultures a political leader cannot be thought of as being separate from the person, in the case of his relationship to Erdoğan it is different. Furthermore, he discloses that the only topic of discussion during their meeting was football, stating that Erdoğan also played the sport during his youth.
Although we can all go out and defend Özil’s explanation for his meeting with a dictator, there are several threads that must be analyzed and considered to unravel the entire situation. For one, Mesut Özil seems to be quite oblivious to the fact that his photo-op with President Erdoğan serves as an endorsement to a leader who has curbed freedom of speech, secularism, and human rights within his own borders. He has taken steps to extend the limits of his presidential power and declared men and women unequal because “their nature is different.” Yes, Mesut Özil is no political figure, but as an international superstar, with his photo-op he is, unknowingly or not, legitimizing a fascist ruler. A photo-op between one of Germany’s greatest players and the Turkish president, right before elections for the latter country, adds credibility to Erdoğan’s rule. Özil is naive for failing to recognize the political repercussions of such a photo-op, regardless whether his intentions were political or not. His photo with Erdoğan was ill-advised.
Nevertheless, the backlash Özil received for posing for a picture with a fascist leader brings up a thought-provoking question: why do American sports players receive little to no backlash for taking pictures with candidates? Why does LeBron James get a pass for endorsing Barack Obama? Why does Tom Brady get a pass for being “good friends” with President Trump? One might argue that these American political leaders are far better than Erdoğan, which could be true to an extent, but the lack of backlash points to a troubling trend. We cannot argue that Özil is endorsing the repression of the Turkish people at the hands of their own president, if we do not equally argue that LeBron is supporting drone strikes, or Brady is supporting the separation of migrant families. We have a startling tendency to normalize the violent policies of our Western leaders, whilst simultaneously being outraged by the violent actions of foreign governments. It is essential to correct this hypocrisy and hold our Western political leaders to higher standards in terms of judging their policies of violence abroad.
Despite the consequences of an autocratic leader taking a photo with two German footballing stars, it’s also important to consider potential consequences Özil may have faced if he refused the photo-op opportunity with Erdoğan. One of Turkey’s most famous footballers, Hakan Sukur, is exiled from his nation for failing to make good with the political elite. Adored as a World Cup hero, he even held a position in the Parliament before his exile. Nevertheless, after leaving the nation in 2015, Sukur became on of Erdoğan’s targets, and his father was jailed for almost a year in Turkey. Furthermore, he claims that his houses, business, and bank accounts were all seized by authorities. He likely could make a return to the country if he made a strong public statement in support of President Erdoğan, an act that he wasn’t comfortable doing. Perhaps if Özil refused the photo-op and meeting, he may have fallen out of favor with the president and been at risk of serious consequences.
All of these nuanced motives for a photo-op were easily glossed over by critics who were prepared to use this posing as a propaganda tool. After the picture was released, Özil and Gündoğan came under heavy fire by numerous Germans in high circles. Among those who criticized the photo were German Chancellor Angela Merkel, DFB Chief Reinhard Grindel, and other politicians. Some went so far as to claim that Özil and Gündoğan should be removed from the national team, with right wing nationalist politician Sebastian Münzenmaier saying Turkey should be prepared for two more players joining their national side. Right wing media outlets used the photo, combined with Germany’s dismal tournament performance, to further their agenda. Some did not even criticize the team’s performances, only criticizing Özil’s dual-heritage and upbringing. German hypocrisy is once again evident when you realize that Lothar Matthaus, a legendary national team player and prominent DFB member, took a picture with Vladimir Putin. He took a miniscule amount of criticism in proportion to Özil, and his defense to his actions were that “hosting a World Cup beats politics.” If so, no one has a right to criticize Özil for his Erdoğan photo. This hypocrisy-laden lack of double standard is laughable, considering few, if any, of the right wing media outlets came out to criticize Matthaus for his Putin photo-op.
Özil’s indictment of the German media and their failure to eliminate bias from their reporting is telling of a greater narrative in global news and modern day society. News outlets have become increasingly committed to registering more clicks over truthful, unbiased reporting, and society absorbs new information on the daily, become acclimated to a world where big stories break every three hours. A lack of double standards among many outlets has led to a surge in reporting with little credibility and a shunning of truth. As Özil mentions in his second of three statements, the German media’s coverage of him during and after the World Cup was extremely unfair.
It is Özil’s third statement that poses troubling consequences for the DFB, the German football association. In it, Özil throws hefty criticism at DFB President Reinhard Grindel, who he claims belittled his heritage and promoted his own political views in a meeting the two had after the Erdoğan photo was publicized. Both the President of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and national team coach Joachim Low were more understanding of Özil’s dual-heritage, with the latter even saying that players with migrant backgrounds can have “two hearts beating in their chest.” To Grindel and his supporters, Özil is a convenient scapegoat whose heritage makes him a prime target for advancing their racist agenda. Lest they forget, Özil was the poster boy of DFB’s successful integration policies, led the national team to a World Cup in 2014, received the 2010 Bambi Award as an example of successful integration to German society, received a 2014 Silver Laurel Leaf from the Federal Republic of Germany, and was named German Football Ambassador in 2015. How more German can a man get? The plain hypocrisy of the DFB is outlandish, but is telling of a greater narrative of conflict in German society.
Not only have the DFB handled this situation incredibly poorly, but their lack of clarity is confusing. Do they still support an integration policy if the players don’t have Turkish roots? Is it just Özil? It seems idiotic to take such stances when integration has brought them so far, with previous players such as Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski working like a charm for the national team. In fact, Özil was and still is one of Germany’s most successful players, so why abandon him after one action? Grindel and his supporters represent a forgotten side of German society, a side that is beginning to emerge and hold more power. It is a side that rejects multiculturalism, champions racism, and represents a Germany of the past. It is tragic that a player of Özil’s stature, who has experienced troves of success at the international level and served as an example of integration, no longer desires to wear the national team shirt. Regardless of your opinion on Özil, it’s incredibly disheartening to see a footballer suffer so much unfair abuse. It is contradictory to have so many people with racist views and tendencies to represent players from different backgrounds.
It is a telling tale that Özil’s main statement, “I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose,” is shared by many footballers in Europe. As Kick It Out pointed out in their statement, this sentiment is reflective of the mixed-heritage footballer experience. For years, mixed players from England, France, and other European countries have expressed similar disappointments, being accepted only when it is convenient for the home nation. When Özil led Germany to a 2014 World Cup, he was useful for the DFB, therefore accepted. But as soon as a moment of crisis emerged, and the management needed a scapegoat, Özil became an immigrant, the sole poison that infected the German squad. The brunt of all criticism was loaded onto Özil’s shoulders, whilst the majority of the squad remained unscathed. The singling out of a Turkish-German player speaks to incompetence and xenophobia within a football association with a wary past. Aiman Mazyek, the chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, puts it well: “Özil’s case is evidence of a deep social wound.”
What has disheartened me most about the Özil situation has been the lack of support from Germany. As retired players, Arsenal teammates, and others have pledged their support to his cause, a lack of comment from national team figures has been truly disappointing. Their lack of public support may be explained by their frustration with Özil to not address the matter publicly until now, but how difficult is it for a professional footballer to come out and stand in solidarity with a teammate attacked by virulent racism? Many have argued that young players who come forward could be jeopardizing their international career, but how simple is a stance against racism? If your country refuses to call you up because you stand against an inherently evil human condition, maybe the country’s footballing association as a whole should be reevaluated in its entirety. Leroy Sane, a player of mixed backgrounds, claimed it was Özil’s own issue; a stunning amount of silence from many Bayern players, including leaders Mats Hummels and Manuel Neuer. In fact, Bayern’s President Uli Hoeneß came out blasting Özil, claiming he should question himself first before blaming others, lambasting his poor performances and labelling him a ‘weak spot’ whenever Bayern comes against him. This comes despite the fact that Özil created the most chances per 90 minutes out of any player in the entire tournament, and it was Bayern players like Thomas Muller and Mats Hummels who made key mishaps when their nation most needed them. Lothar Matthaus has also criticized Özil in a recent interview, claiming politics and football are separate and the DFB has no racism problem.
As Özil’s agent puts it, all these attacks on his client are to divert attention from the racism claims featured in Özil’s indicting statements. Not one of Özil’s critics is considering his claims against the DFB, instead blaming his poor performances and anything else they can conjure up to support their views. German teammates are too busy developing policies of appeasement towards the DFB, scared to take one wrong step and anger an association driven by lingering xenophobia.
There is absolutely no way the DFB can have this situation end in a positive. Many have already called for Grindel to step down, with one German parliament member calling for Grindel and Bierhoff to be sacked. For an association not known for its competency, they are unlikely to clean house and would rather stick to the ‘no racism problem’ narrative. Özil can only hope that his sacrifice of his final years of his international career will bring Grindel down with him, but it remains to be seen what will happen. If Grindel remains in charge, xenophobic sentiments will remain an ever-present threat in the DFB and jeopardize the nation’s bid for the 2024 Euros (the other applicant coincidentally being Turkey). Keeping a racist on board will result in a massive loss in face, but there are few alternatives for the position that could allow for a quick, seamless transition. The DFB are backed into a corner, and there’s nowhere to go. To make things worse, Turkey has managed to claim this fiasco as a victory, and Erdoğan is getting more out of it than his photo-op with Özil in the first place.
The looming peril of far right politics, combined with a not-so-savvy photo decision, have led to an explosion of controversy that will scar the DFB. The Özil situation proves that the poison of politics continually trickles down into the world of sports, and political issues of our day are experienced by athletes worldwide. There was pressure on Özil to fit Germany’s patriotic mould, and it was a mould that constantly evolved to suit the agenda of men in high circles. No one should tell Özil what parts of his heritage he can identify with, and if he is drawn strongly to his Turkish roots, more power to him. You don’t get to claim a migrant as your own during his high points, but reject him at his lows.
Although I will be the first one to say that Özil’s photo-op Erdoğan was ill-advised, poorly-timed, and not dealt with in a timely manner, I stand with him against the forces of racism. People are allowed to be angered by his actions, but that doesn’t delegitimize his claims in any fashion. We cannot choose to ignore his accusations by criticizing his decision-making or footballing ability. I admire his bravery for standing up against a powerful footballing federation, when he could’ve easily made good and saved his international career. His unwillingness to bend his principles shows a level of morality very few athletes possess. His unwillingness to serve as the DFB’s pawn for ‘successful integration’ is a testament to his courage. He has done too much good for Germany for them to treat him like this, and his loss may have more implications than any of the nation’s losses in Russia this summer. And for those who are more concerned with personal ambition rather than Özil’s injustice, the famous Dante put it best: “the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”
By: Brandon Duran