Arsenal midfielder Mesut Ozil has announced his retirement from international football with Germany following their failed World Cup campaign, citing a “feeling of racism and disrespect” towards him.
Ozil was part of the German squad which was eliminated in the World Cup group stages and he posted an extensive statement on his social media accounts explaining his decision to step away from the international stage.
The 29-year-old immediately singles out German Football Association (DFB) president Reinhard Grindel as one of the reasons for his move. In his statement, Ozil explained that his issues with Grindel stem from a photograph that he and fellow German midfielder Ilkay Gundogan had with Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan prior to the start of the World Cup.
Both Ozil and Gundogan are German-born but have strong Turkish heritage and this photograph caused much controversy at the time. Ozil’s loyalty to Germany was questioned and there were many calls for him to be left out of the World Cup squad as a result.
Wider Turkish/German political implications
President Erdogan is an extremely controversial figure in not just Germany but world politics. Erdogan has been in power in Turkey for over 15 years and has come in for criticism from Germany due to his suppression of political dissent immediately following a failed coup in 2016.
The Turkish president has also been criticised for an April 2017 referendum which changed the Turkish constitution, allowing Erdogan to have even more influence and power in parliament and the judiciary, leading many media outlets to liken Erdogan to a “dictator in all but name”.
Turkish politics is something which has more of an impact in Germany than other countries due to the high number of German citizens who, like Ozil, have Turkish heritage. Around three million Germans are of Turkish descent and we are now in a time where immigration is at the forefront of European political agendas now more than ever and Germany is no different.
In the most recent German election in 2017, the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) not only won seats in the Bundestag (German federal parliament) for the first time but also became the country’s third-largest political party. AfD co-leader Alexander Gauland has openly spoke of wanting to fight “an invasion of foreigners” and they had a section in their election manifesto stating that “Islam does not belong to Germany”.
The majority of Turkish citizens are Muslim, as are the majority of Germany’s Turkish immigrants and to those people, Ozil is a massive role model and success story.
Ozil was born and brought up in Gelesenkirchen in the Ruhr valley after his grandfather moved from Turkey to Germany as a migrant labourer over 40 years ago. These areas were once booming parts of Germany’s industrial core but are now rundown and, for the most part, forgotten about.
Duran Uzunur, an elderly resident of the area were Ozil grew up, laments the effects factory closures and company outsourcing has had on immigrants like Ozil’s family. “Our boy Mesut made it,” he said, “Anyone who can get out of here does, but few succeed. When I arrived 36 years ago I was received with open arms and work was plentiful. Our youngsters are now seen as a burden, and for most of them there’s no hope.” Ozil, he says, “is the exception to the rule”.
Due to his success in football, Ozil has long been used for political statements. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has used him as a shining example of what multiculturalism can do for the country. Far-right parties like the AfD, however, have accused Ozil of only playing “half-heartedly” for Germany because of his Turkish heritage and the National Democratic Party of Germany, often referred to as “neo-nazi” by German media, even went as far as labelling Ozil a “plastic German”.
Ozil addressed the picture with Erdogan by sayingthat he never intended to make a political statement, citing his upbringing and respect for his Turkish heritage. “I have two hearts, one German and one Turkish,” Ozil said, “During my childhood, my mother taught me to always be respectful and to never forget where I came from, and these are still values that I think about to this day.”
The midfielder went on to say that “having a picture with President Erdogan wasn’t about politics or elections, it was about me respecting the highest office of my family’s country . . . For me, it didn’t matter who was President, it mattered that it was the President.”
Another important issue that Ozil highlights in his statement is the difference in his treatment as someone who is “German-Turkish” when compared to the likes of Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose who are “German-Polish”.
“Are there criteria for being fully German that I do not ﬁt? My friend Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose are never referred to as German-Polish, so why am I German-Turkish? Is it because it is Turkey? Is it because I’m a Muslim? I think here lays an important issue. By being referred to as German-Turkish, it is already distinguishing people who have family from more than one country. I was born and educated in Germany, so why don’t people accept that I am German?”
As shown earlier, the rise of far-right parties in Germany are based off not only a lack of tolerance for immigrants but a specific targeting of Islam. Once again, Ozil is not just an important figure for German immigrants but German Muslims as well in a time where intolerance towards them is the highest it has been in a while.
However, with all the political implications surrounding Ozil’s decision, he perhaps summed up his feeling best when he wrote “I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose”, highlighting this political divide which is opening up with the rise of far-right politics.
DFB and Reinhard Grindel
That last quote from Ozil was in direct reference to the DFB’s president Reinhard Grindel who receives the most criticism from the midfielder. Ozil explains that after the picture with Erdogan, he had a meeting and conversations with both Grindel and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and compares the two.
“Whilst I attempted to explain to Grindel my heritage, ancestry and therefore reasoning behind the photo, he was far more interested in speaking about his own political views and belittling my opinion. . . Unlike Grindel, President Steinmeier was professional and actually was interested in what I had to say about my family, my heritage and my decisions. I remember that the meeting was only between myself, Ilkay and President Steinmeier, with Grindel being upset that he wasn’t allowed inside to boost his own political agenda.”
Ozil explains that he feels like Grindel has made him “a scapegoat for his incompetence and inability to do his job properly” and thanks manager Joachim Loew and team manager Olivier Bierhoff for backing him and keeping Grindel from expelling Ozil from the World Cup squad.
He is also angry at Grindel’s backtracking. After Ozil initially addressed the Erdogan picture, they agreed to focus on football and the World Cup but now, with his organisation under fire for the poor World Cup showing, Grindel has decided Ozil needed to answer for his actions, telling German magazine Kicker that “Many fans were disappointed because they had questions for [Özil] and expected an answer. For me it is absolutely clear that, once he returns from holiday, and with his own interests in mind, he should make his views heard.”
In his statement, Ozil also highlights Grindel’s past as a member of the German parliament. “In 2004 … you claimed that “multiculturalism is in reality a myth [and] a lifelong lie” whilst you voted against legislation for dual-nationalities and punishments for bribery, as well as saying that Islamic culture has become too ingrained in many German cities. This is unforgivable and unforgettable.”
Grindel asked for Ozil to “make his views heard” and this is exactly what he has done in this statement. Ozil has highlighted what he views as “racially discriminative” treatment from Grindel based on his own political views. Grindel has shown himself to be the furthest thing from a fan of multiculturalism and dual nationality and Ozil is perhaps the most high-profile multicultural celebrity in Germany.
It certainly seems that on the face of it, Grindel has let his own political views on immigrants affect his judgement in this situation and even if he has not, it is certainly not appropriate to let a man who has expressed the views that Grindel has, have the role in German football that he does where he is responsible for overseeing a multitude of players and coaches from multicultural backgrounds.
However, the DFB have come out with a statement where they “emphatically reject” the racism allegations despite admitting their handling of the matter has been far from perfect. “It is regrettable that Mesut Ozil felt that he had not been sufficiently protected as a target of racist slogans”. Surely there will be wide reaching consequences from this at the DFB.
Sport and politics do mix
The phrase “sport and politics don’t mix” is inevitably thrown around when a situation like this arises but the two are becoming increasingly more and more entwined. Just look at the current situation in the NFL, with players choosing to kneel for the American national anthem as a protest against the mistreatment of black Americans. When you have a platform to help people and speak out against injustice then you should use it.
The 1936 Olympics allowed the black track-and-field athlete Jesse Owens to publicly repudiate and reject Adolf Hitler’s assertion of an Aryan race being superior race by winning four gold medals.
The 1995 Rugby World Cup win by South Africa saw black President Nelson Mandela present the trophy to white captain Francois Pienaar just two years after the end of apartheid. A sporting moment so important politically for South Africa that Mandela later wrote “It was under Francois Pienaar’s inspiring leadership that rugby became the pride of the entire county. Francois brought the nation together.”
These are just two examples of the positive impact sport can have when it does mix with politics and the two have clearly mixed in the case of Ozil. He insists there were no political motivations behind his picture with Erdogan but the situation has clearly become political.
Merkel has come out and said she “respects” Ozil’s decision and the anti-discrimination charity Kick It Out has slammed the “disgraceful” treatment Ozil has received but the reaction from the German newspapers has been much different.
Bild criticised Ozil for the “ignor[ing] that Erdogan stands against the values of his German and Turkish homelands”, noting that the President “has almost extinguished free media and freedom of expression” and is “transforming the freedom-loving, religiously moderate Turkey into an Islamist dictatorship”.
Die Welt also stated that “National players are role models, especially for young people with migrant backgrounds. Germany has to formulate its expectations clearly, and every athlete wandering between cultures has to decide whether he can or wants to do that. Those who accept the German passport and put on the national jersey must know what that means for them. The Ozil case made that clear”.
Mesut Ozil Future?
Ozil has made 92 appearances for Germany and been voted their player of the year five times since 2011 but it certainly looks unlikely that his fractured relationship with German football will be repaired any time soon.
He has said that the whole episode makes him “no longer want to wear the German national team shirt” and even if Grindel were to leave the DFB, it seems as though the issues Ozil has are so deep-rooted that even that would not be enough to persuade him to return.
At 29, Ozil would not have had that many years left in a German shirt and there is no way of saying whether or not he would have played in the Qatar World Cup in four years’ time anyway aged 33.
At this moment in time, going by the DFB’s statement responding to Ozil, a future for himand Germany seems non-existent unless there are major changes made not only at the organisation but in an entire country’s attitude towards their most successful symbol of a multicultural society.