Soccer fans in Germany and elsewhere were divided into two camps this week following Mesut Özil’s shock decision to quit the German national team.
The saga, which began after he and Ilkay Gündogan – another German player of Turkish origin – met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan before the World Cup tournament, revisits questions of loyalty, acceptance and racism.
There were those who thought Özil was rather insolent; that he hadn’t needed to meet Erdogan, let alone pose for a photograph with him. (Gündogan, meanwhile, was photographed handing his club jersey, with the words “To my president, with my respects” written on it, over to Erdogan). On the flip side, there are those who understand that, as a son of immigrants and as someone who grew up in two cultures, he has a divided soul.
Özil’s statement in which he retired from international soccer was exceptionally reasoned and detailed, with the final sentence summing up his feelings: “I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose.”
He pointed an accusing finger at German Football Association President Reinhard Grindel, who he says blamed him for the team’s World Cup failure – even though it was clearly a team failure.
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After all, it is no coincidence that the Özil scandal emerged after the German team’s failure in the World Cup. When Germany was the world champion four years ago, with Özil one of its outstanding players, he was totally German and no one cared about his Turkish roots, who he identified with politically, or even the fact that he murmured an Islamic prayer during the pre-game playing of the national anthem.
But now, after Germany endured its worst World Cup in 80 years, he’s an immigrant once again.
Anyone who thinks Özil’s meeting with Erdogan at a London hotel is at the heart of the matter might want to hear what Belgian forward Romelu Lukaku said on the eve of the World Cup – without having met with a problematic leader, seemingly identified with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (from where his parents immigrated) or, heaven forbid, showing any Islamic tendencies.
“When things were going well, I was reading newspaper articles and they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker,” he told website The Players’ Tribune. “When things weren’t going well, they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker of Congolese descent.”
Özil shone a spotlight on some important and painful points that any immigrant or child of immigrants can identify with: The fact that an immigrant, and certainly one who has made outstanding achievements – whether he’s a soccer player or respected professor – continues to be judged by parts of society according to his contributions rather than by basic human fairness. The “outstanding immigrant” is great as long as he continues to excel. But the moment he no longer does, he becomes just another immigrant and fair game for racist comments.
“Are there criteria for being fully German that I do not fit?” Özil wrote in his statement. “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 was born and educated in Germany, so why don’t people accept that I am German?”
Even if the meeting with Erdogan upset people, the racist reactions were stark and shocking. According to Özil, German politician Bernd Holzhauer called him a “goat-f***er” because of his picture with Erdogan, while Werner Steer, head of the Deutsches Theater in Munich, told him to “piss off to Anatolia.”
There are many immigrants and children of immigrants on national teams like Germany, Belgium or France. Indeed, France – the new world champion – has had its success attributed to the team’s ethnic diversity. Yet when France flopped in the 2010 World Cup, some of the so-called troublemakers were perceived not as members of the French team but as blacks, North Africans and immigrants.
Özil’s retirement from the national team is proof that, like other children of immigrants, they are not being accepted as equals. Worse, it is a victory for the racists.