Blaming the Turk: World Cup elimination lays bare Germany’s fragilities and racisms

Germany’s early exit from the football World Cup was met with considerable surprise in the sports world. Having been expected to progress far in the tournament, the defending champions were knocked out already at the end of the group stage, after a string of poor performances against Mexico, Sweden, and South Korea.

‘There once was a strong country’

In Germany, the misfortune of the national team has added to an overall sense of doom and gloom. German Angst was on full display on the most recent cover of Der Spiegel magazine. The image shows a German flag in the process of dissolution, its colours running down the magazine cover like wet paint. The title reads: “Football, politics, the economy: There once was a strong country”.

Der Spiegel is of course well known for its sensationalist headlines that controversially pander to diffuse fears. A permanent fixture in the magazine’s reporting has been anxiety about the dangers emanating from Islam and Muslims. Cover stories such as “The holy hatred”, “Mecca Germany: The silent Islamisation” or “Allah’s daughters without rights” are usually accompanied by a distinctly menacing iconography. (Some examples can be viewed here.)

That the defeat of the Nationalmannschaft should be seen as legitimising such a bleak description of the state of the German nation is, at first sight, surprising. Yet football is, of course, political – as everything surrounding the current World Cup, used by Russian President Putin to aggrandise his domestic and international standing, makes clear.

Football, patriotism, and nationalism

At least since the 2006 tournament, held on German soil, football has become a primary occasion for Germans to express their patriotism. In a country where displays of national sentiment had been suspect for historical reasons, football matches provided an opportunity to wave the German flag without being accused of reactionary sentiments.

Critical commentators and social scientists have long disputed this notion of a happy, inclusive ‘party patriotism’, as it has been dubbed in post-2006 Germany. They have detected significant undercurrents of an exclusivist, ethnically-tinged nationalism in the supposedly open-minded flag-wielding football celebrations.1

And it surely does look as if the seeds of nationalism, sown in the upbeat atmosphere of 2006, have come to fruition twelve years later. For in the aftermath of the exit from the World Cup, the national team’s defeat came to be linked in a rather curious fashion to debates on immigration, Islam, and identity – topics that increasingly blur into one another in the German political context.

Controversial photo op

The stage was set already prior to the kick-off in Russia, as two national team members of Turkish extraction – Mesut Özil and İlkay Gündoğan – took a controversial photo with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at a charity event in the United Kingdom.

What ensued was a display of public outrage that bore all the features of a moral panic. Most of the criticism directed at the players ostentatiously asserted that it was unacceptable for a member of the German national team to send an implicit message of support to an autocratic leader by posing for a photo with him.

Yet these condemnations rang hollow most of the time – particularly when they were delivered by fans who had travelled to Putin’s Russia to attend a World Cup that is part and parcel of the Russian strongman’s soft power initiatives. Blithely ignoring these contradictions, German fans proceeded to boo İlkay Gündoğan even as he came on the pitch during his team’s match against Sweden.

Who has the right to be German?

The underlying message expressed by the flag-wielding football crowd was thus not a noble defence of democracy and freedoms in Turkey. Instead, the wrath that came down on Mesut Özil and İlkay Gündoğan was driven by the argument that, by taking a picture with the Turkish President, the two players had lost the right and the privilege to be considered German.

Indeed, 80 per cent of respondents to a survey conducted in response to the photoshoot asserted that the players should be compelled to leave the national team.2 While these demands masqueraded behind a nebulous commitment to an unspecified code of ‘values’ that the players had allegedly violated, the broader horizon of meaning within which these calls for exclusion were made was a different one: the German national team should be manned by true Germans only – ‘Turks’ and ‘Muslims’ should go.

‘Leave the two Turks at home!’

Fittingly, then, Germany’s early exit from the World Cup has been blamed by many on the presence of Mesut Özil and İlkay Gündoğan in the national team. Tabloids from Cologne and Hamburg set the tone when they provided a chronology of the national team’s demise in Russia titled: “The protocol of a failure: It started with the visit to Erdoğan.”3

The Austrian daily Die Presse – supposedly mainstream liberal-conservative in its orientation – asserted that Germany went out of the tournament because “two Germany players committed treason against the fatherland shortly before the tournament”. In order to defend its title of world champions, “Germany would have had to leave the two Turks at home”, the paper opined.4

Mesut Özil: from poster boy to public enemy

Mesut Özil was particularly vilified. Özil, who was the first descendant of the so-called ‘guest worker’ generation to score a goal for the Nationalmannschaft, has long been the object of fierce political battles.

In the early 2010s, Özil often served as the picture-perfect and docile poster boy of the ‘well-integrated Turk’. Concomitantly, the way in which his rise from a disadvantaged background to football stardom was celebrated often smacked of paternalism.

Thus, Mesut Özil became a plaything of politicians and media outlets, utilised for ulterior agendas. Chancellor Merkel’s allegedly spontaneous photo taken with a bare-chested Özil in the national team’s locker room after a win over Turkey was perhaps one of the most notable events of this era; yet it was far from the only one of this kind.5

Özil himself often remained scarcely audible behind all these images and imaginations that were projected onto him. Yet he also resisted some attempts to co-opt his persona. In 2016, his pilgrimage to Mecca was widely reported and caused consternation in some quarters. The far-right AfD party castigated the trip as an “anti-patriotic gesture” that pandered to the oppression of women, as well as to homophobia, genocide and mass killings.6

Lacking Germanness

Indeed, with the rise of the AfD and increasingly rancorous debates surrounding the ‘integration’ of ‘Muslim’ migrants, the climate surrounding Mesut Özil has roughened. As Özil does not join in when it comes to singing the German national anthem prior to international matches, allegations that he lacks a sense of loyalty and patriotism have become staple accusations. Özil thus became a controversial figure, often denounced for failing to live up to the standards of Germanness and for (allegedly) underperforming when wearing Germany’s national colours.

In this respect, the unfortunate photo op with President Erdoğan proved too much to take for many fans and observers. After the national team’s defeat to South Korea that sent the Mannschaft out of the tournament, Mesut Özil quickly became the face and the main culprit of Germany’s early exit from the World Cup.

The face of defeat

The country’s largest tabloid, Bild, took to Instragram after the match, stating: “Embarrassing performance! For us the World Cup is over!” Accompanied by an angry smiley, Bild chose to represent this embarrassment graphically through a picture of a somewhat befuddled looking Özil.

The conservative Die Welt newspaper presented statistics seeking to show “how weak Germany really was” – again choosing Mesut Özil’s face as an adequate representation of this weakness. The liberal-conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung followed suit, proceeding to publish an article titled “The German downfall”, accompanied by a picture of – Mesut Özil.

TV anchor man Claus Strunz of the Sat1 channel – well-known for hijacking the pre-election TV debate between Chancellor Merkel and Martin Schulz by employing the style and the content of the far-right – also zoned in on Özil’s performance as the cause of Germany’s defeat. And on the Pro Sieben channel, Özil was asked to leave the national team – a demand since repeated in many quarters.7

Blaming the Turk

To be sure, these accusations hardly stand up to scrutiny. While few would claim that Özil delivered a stellar performance on the World Cup stage, football statisticians emphasised that Özil’s contribution to the German game against South Korea stood out from those of his teammates in many respects.

He won a clear majority of his tackles and delivered 86 per cent of his passes to his fellow German players – a very high ratio. He was also the key driver of whatever creativity remained in an overall disappointingly ineffective German offence: Özil played seven so-called ‘key passes’ – passes that immediately created promising opportunities to score. During the entire tournament, no player from any nation had amassed such a high number of crucial passes prior to Özil on that night.8

Yet reason seems to matter little in the current debate. Instead, what matters is that Turks, Muslims, and immigrants are sapping Germany’s strength. To put it in the words of Der Spiegel: “There once was a strong country” – before the immigrants came and invaded the last bastion of Germanness, the national team.

Leaving the national team?

Özil himself kept relatively quiet in recent weeks, as the media storm surrounding his persona intensified. This set him apart from İlkay Gündoğan, who sought to explain his controversial photo shoot with the Turkish President to the German public and while also emphasising his commitment to ‘German values’.

After the defeat to South Korea, Özil for the first time delivered a more political statement, albeit obliquely. On Twitter, he spoke of his hurt at having to leave the tournament at such an early stage, also announcing that he would “need some time to get over it”, followed by the hashtag #SayNoToRacism.

Apparently Özil had been racially abused by a German fan as he left the pitch, leading to an altercation.9 The expectation that Özil’s time-out to “get over it” will culminate in his announcement to leave the national team is now widespread.

Immigration, Islam, identity: Germany’s sense of doom

If he – as well as İlkay Gündoğan – do decide to give up on the Nationalmannschaft, they will have been driven out by a curious concatenation of seemingly disparate historical events that all fuel a sense of vulnerability and identity paranoia within Germany.

Holger Steltzner, editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the holy grail of the German centre-right, captures this concatenation quite aptly in an article titled “Asylum and the Euro: Angela Merkel is dividing the European Union”. He is worth quoting at some length – also because the Euro hardly plays a role in his argument, which is almost uniquely focused on migration:

“Angela Merkel pretends to want to prevent the division of the EU. Yet with her policies of welcoming migrants and of saving the Euro, she is driving a number of wedges between member states. Even if no one in the Federal Chancellery wants to hear it: Three years ago she decided all of a sudden and by herself, i.e. without consulting the EU-partners (other than Austria), to open the borders to more than one million migrants without clarifying their identities or right to asylum. The consequences are huge […]

“One immediate consequence has been the Brexit vote, since images of the unchecked influx were the famous straw that broke the British camel’s back. In Germany, Merkel’s lonely decision has led to a second and durable ascent of the protest party AfD, which not only puts the unity of CDU and CSU parties under permanent pressure. The societal climate in the country is becoming ever more poisonous since. The failure and the scandals at the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees [BAMF] are apt to render you speechless, just like the accumulation of terrible ‘isolated cases’ such as the murder of Susanna F. No one understands why even Islamist terrorists can legally re-enter Germany. Even the Mannschaft is no longer a role model for successful integration, because Özil and Gündogan posed with their ‘respected’ President Erdogan during the election campaign, even though they do not hold a Turkish passport.”

What Özil and Gündoğan symbolise

Steltzner’s diagnosis captures perfectly the ways in which the ‘affair’ surrounding Özil and Gündoğan has come to stand in for something much larger. It also showcases how a reputable newspaper dabbles in something that the Trumpist spirit of the age would term ‘fake news’.

For of course Angela Merkel did not ‘open the borders’ in 2015 – there were no borders to be opened, given the fact that the migrants Germany welcomed were already within the Schengen zone. The claim that Brexit was ‘caused’ by the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ is a similarly adventurous claim, completely unbacked by any evidence.

The “failure and scandals” at the BAMF are a reference to supposed misconduct at the agency responsible for awarding or refusing refugee status to migrants. After it was initially reported that thousands and thousands of demands for asylum had been wrongfully accepted, thereby rendering Germany vulnerable to an influx of violent and unknown barbarians, the alleged scandal turned out to be of minor scale.

Casting out the barbarians

Steltzner aims even lower with his next accusation against Merkel, holding her responsible for the recent murder of a 28-year-old student. The young woman was murdered when tramping on a German motorway; the prime suspect is a Moroccan truck driver. Steltzner places this in the context of a small number of highly mediatised assaults on German women by Muslim men of Middle Eastern descent.

By derisively referring to them as ‘isolated cases’ in quotation marks, he takes up the view that these are not, in fact, individual events but rather parts of a grander problem that a politically correct mainstream refuses to recognise. Undoubtedly, Steltzner’s readers are supposed to understand that these cases are typical outcomes of the inherent misogyny and violence of the Muslim male. (What, after all, does a Moroccan truck driver on business in Europe have to do with Syrian, Iraqi or Afghan refugees – other than his religious background?)

The story of Mesut Özil and İlkay Gündoğan comes at the end of this long list, as one further instance of a series of acts of treason that render Germany vulnerable to the hostile forces of migration and Islamisation. The fact that Steltzner and others manufacture this sense of threat and moral outrage on the basis of their own wild imaginations does not make the racist consequences of their talk any less real.

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