Several weeks after his controversial photo shoot with Turkish President Erdoğan, Germany international football player Mesut Özil has broken his silence. In the aftermath of an early exit from the World Cup, it had above all been Özil who had been blamed for the team’s poor performance. The racially charged recriminations against Özil mostly focused on his Turkish heritage and his supposed lack of loyalty to Germany.
As had been widely expected, Özil has now stepped down from the national football team. In a three-part letter posted in English on Twitter, the player presented his perspective on the photo-op with the Turkish President and criticised the behaviour of German media outlets and sponsors after the so-called Erdoğan-gate scandal.
Yet he reserved his harshest words for the German national football association (DFB) and its leadership around chairman Reinhard Grindel. Following Germany’s poor showing in Russia, Grindel and others from the DFB had singled out Özil, holding him responsible for the Mannschaft’s failures at the tournament. Responding to these criticisms, the player accused Grindel of illoyalty and racism, as well as of seeking to further his own political agenda.
III / III pic.twitter.com/c8aTzYOhWU
— Mesut Özil (@MesutOzil1088) July 22, 2018
Defending the meeting with Erdoğan
In the open letter, the Arsenal midfielder asserts that his meeting with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan did not involve any political intentions on his part. Rather, he claims to have consented to the photo shoot in order to honour the office (rather than the persona) of the Turkish President.
Mesut Özil was born to a family with Turkish roots – his grandfather moved from Turkey to Özil’s hometown of Gelsenkirchen in the 1970s. Meeting the President of the Turkish Republic was, according to the player, a way of staying true to his family’s heritage: “the truth is that not meeting with the President would have been disrespecting the roots of my ancestors, who I know would be proud of where I am today. For me, it didn’t matter who was President, it mattered that it was the President.”(( https://twitter.com/MesutOzil1088/status/1020984884431638528 ))
Whether this line is entirely convincing is perhaps up for debate. After all, the meeting did occur in the run-up to crucial Turkish elections; Erdoğan’s subsequent win at the ballot box solidified the country’s authoritarian turn. Another German player of Turkish extraction – Emre Can – refused to meet with the President; and it is not clear why this should necessarily amount to a disavowal of his Turkish origins.
The DFB’s hypocrisy
Yet Özil is surely right to call attention to the double standards employed not only by the German media but in particular also by the Grindel-led DFB. The football association’s repeated denunciations of the meeting with the Turkish President surely rang hollow: while the DFB accused Özil of failing to uphold democratic values, the association itself has never expressed any qualms when it came to working with autocratic rulers.
After all, Germany eagerly participated in the 2018 Russia World Cup and – provided that the team manages to qualify – would never forego the trip to Qatar, set to host the 2022 tournament. What is more, as this year’s World Cup concluded, high-ranking DFB official Lothar Matthäus appeared in an official photo-op with Russian President Putin. And after the 2017 Confederations Cup, a preparatory tournament also held in Russia, the DFB published a glowing letter authored by playmaker Julian Draxler, thanking Russia for the “splendid organisation” of the event.(( https://www.dfb.de/news/detail/draxler-dankt-gastgeber-russland-test-mit-bravour-bestanden-170085/ ))
In 2013, German football legend Franz Beckenbauer, a long-standing DFB functionary, gained notoriety when – in spite of the well-documented abuse of labourers in the country – he observed that he had “not seen a single slave in Qatar. They all walk around freely.” This echoes the stance taken by the captain of the national team at the 1978 tournament in Argentina: even though the country was at the time governed by a ruthless military junta that killed and ‘disappeared’ thousands, Berti Vogts flatly stated that it was “a country where order reigns. I have not seen a single political prisoner.”(( https://www.hna.de/politik/peinliche-aussage-beckenbauers-arbeitsbedingungen-katar-3227640.html ))
“Are there criteria for being fully German that I do not fit?”
In spite of this longstanding unwillingness on the part of the DFB to address any overtly political or human rights issue, Özil was singled out and held to yardsticks that the DFB leadership itself manifestly does not abide by. It is when critiquing these double standards that Mesut Özil’s open letter is at its most lucid. Reflecting the ceaseless questioning of his loyalty to Germany, he observes that
“In the eyes of Grindel and his supporters, I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose. […] Are there criteria for being fully German that I do not fit? My friends Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose [two recently retired former Germany internationals] 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?”(( https://twitter.com/MesutOzil1088/status/1021093637411700741 ))
Özil also details the racist abuse he received over the past few weeks. A local SPD politician defamed him and teammate İlkay Gündoğan as “goat-fuckers” (Ziegenficker); a Munich theatre director told him to “piss off to Anatolia”. And in an altercation after Germany’s World Cup exit, Özil was insulted as a “Turkish shit” and “Turkish pig”; his family received racist death threats.
“Good German, bad immigrant”
Özil’s statement struck a chord with many Germans whose families have roots outside the country. The website Islamiq collected a number of testimonies from its readers. While 24-year-old Dilara Sönmez was critical of the initial photo with the Turkish President, she expressed dismay at the public’s treatment of Mesut Özil:
“We, people with a migration background (Migrationshintergrund), can now assume the following: As long as I am successful, I am welcome to ‘German’ society; but if I commit a mistake I will be subjected to a collective attribution of blame and I am once more ‘the Other’.”
21-year-old Iman Laghmari added: “Özil represents the feelings that so many of us have. Good German, bad immigrant. The feeling to have to prove yourself constantly and always anew. The feeling always to have to do more than everyone else to have these achievements recognised. And that every step you take is being observed.”(( http://www.islamiq.de/2018/07/23/wenn-sogar-oezil-rassismus-ausgesetzt-ist-was-ist-mit-uns/ ))
“Will we ever belong?”
Social media users also took up Özil’s observation that he was only admitted to the ranks of Germanness if he was successful and toed the line. Twitter user Turco tweeted a quote by Albert Einstein expressing similar frustrations:
“If I turn out to be correct with my theory of relativity, the Germans will say that I’m a German and the French that I am a citizen of the world. If my theory turns out to be wrong, the French will say that I’m a German and the Germans that I’m a Jew.”(( https://twitter.com/gng54/status/1021127114907668485 ))
Some political figures voiced similar sentiments. The SPD Minister of Justice, Katarina Barley, tweeted that it was an “alarm signal when a great, German footballer like Özil feels no longer accepted in his country because of racism.”(( https://twitter.com/katarinabarley/status/1021123693534117888 ))
And the Berlin State Secretary for Civic Engagement, the SPD’s Sawsan Chebli (who was born to Palestinian parents), wrote: “That Özil is leaving is a sad indictment of our country. Will we ever belong? My doubts are growing by the day. Am I allowed to say that as a State Secretary? It is what I feel, in any case. And that hurts.”
Dass #Özil geht, ist ein Armutszeugnis für unser Land. Werden wir jemals dazugehören? Meine Zweifel werden täglich größer. Darf ich das als Staatssekretärin sagen? Ist jedenfalls das, was ich fühle. Und das tut weh.
— Sawsan Chebli (@SawsanChebli) July 22, 2018
Migrant organisations weigh in
Özil’s public settling of scores thus managed to unite many individuals and organisations working for the participation and equality of immigrants and their children – even though many of these actors are acutely critical of the Turkish President Erdoğan and Özil’s seeming endorsement of his policies.
For instance, the chairman of the Turkish Community in Germany (TGD), Gökay Sofuoğlu, stated that there was a “justified criticism” to be made with respect to Özil’s photo-op. He hadded, however, that
“for a long time this has no longer been about the photo. The current debate shows where we’re at in this country. Mesut Özil, who was born and raised in Germany and who became world champion with the German team, who has decided in favour of the German and not the Turkish national team and who was at the time racially abused in Turkey for this decision – he is stepping down because of his experiences of racism. Being German and belonging to our country are denied to him. That is the real scandal in this entire debate.”(( https://www.tgd.de/2018/07/24/nichts-rechtfertig-rassismus/ ))
Comedian and publicist Michel Abdollahi struck a similar note:
“Millions of people are given the sentiment in Germany that they are not welcome. This [Özil’s] resignation and the way it is being dealt with are a fatal signal to the many, many young migrants in this country that there are first- and second-class Germans after all. […] We were always Germans when we were successful and always foreigners when we made mistakes. The comments on Mesut Özil show that nothing about this has changed in 2018, and it will probably never change. […] Racism is and remains omnipresent in this country, and that damn hurts.”(( https://www.facebook.com/michel.abdollahi/videos/1852973084771549/ ))
Michel Abdollahi über den Fall Özil und Rassismus
Der Umgang mit dem Thema macht mich so wütend. Man kann Mesut Özil für das Foto kritisieren ohne Rassist zu sein. „Hau ab nach Anatolien du Türkenschwein“, gehört nicht dazu. Und auch nicht der Schrott, den Saubermann Uli Hoeneß gerade verzapft. Und abertausende Menschen in Kommentarspalten auch. Oder die Hetze der Bild-Zeitung, die das Land ganz bewusst weiter spaltet. Wir waren immer Deutsche, wenn wir Erfolg hatten und Ausländer, wenn wir Fehler machten. Rassismus ist und bleibt allgegenwärtig. Und das tut verdammt weh.Danke Mesut Özil für alles was du für den deutschen Fußball getan hast.Rassismus ist keine Kritik. Rassismus darf niemals akzeptiert werden, egal hinter welchem Foto er sich verbirgt.Und nein, es gibt grad kein wichtigeres Thema als Rassismus in Deutschland 2018 eindeutig zu benennen._____Der deutsche Schäferhund (eigentlich) immer mittwochs für Cosmo
Posted by Michel Abdollahi on Monday, July 23, 2018
But is it racism?
The ‘comments’ on Mesut Özil Abdollahi alluded to were, after his resignation, once again spearheaded by the Bild tabloid, Germany’s best-selling newspaper. It accused Özil of “wailing”, and of wallowing in “utter nonsense, pure self-pity.” After Bild had been a key player in the racially charged campaign against Özil, the paper now asserted that Özil had “completely made up” the claims that he had been the target of racist abuse.(( https://sportbild.bild.de/fussball/nationalmannschaft/nationalmannschaft/mesut-oezil-ruecktritt-analyse-56394856.sport.html ))
Julia Klöckner, Germany’s Minister for Agriculture, struck a similar note. Klöckner has consistently positioned herself to the right of Angela Merkel (whom she hopes to succeed at the Chancellery) on matters of immigration, integration and Islam. Like Bild, she accused Özil of seeing racism where there was none. In a somewhat garbled tweet she also went a step further, however, accusing Özil of being racist himself:
“Is it really racism when one complains about support given [by Özil] to a dictator who limits the freedom of the press and of opinion? Or is it not really racism to dismiss the criticism directed at supporting a dictator as German racism [as Özil had done]?
Ist es wirklich Rassismus, wenn man die Unterstützung eines Diktators beklagt, der die Presse- und Meinungsfreiheit einschränkt? Oder ist es nicht Rassismus, reflexhaft die Kritik an der Diktatorunterstützung als deutschen Rassismus abzutun?
— Julia Klöckner (@JuliaKloeckner) July 23, 2018
Shifting the blame
Klöckner’s statements were surely to the liking of DFB president Reinhard Grindel. For Grindel himself has a long history of making incendiary comments. From 2002 to 2016, he sat in Germany’s Parliament as a Christian Democratic MP. During his political career, he took a hardline stance on issues of immigration, multiculturalism, and Islam.
Özcan Mutlu, a Green Party MP, described Grindel as being “far right” as well as a “clever manipulator and utter opportunist.” Reminiscing about a speech delivered by Grindel in Parliament on the question of dual nationality, Mutlu asserted that “the things Grindel spouted were not just biased. It was pure AfD-speak before that party even existed.”((https://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/dfb-praesident-in-der-oezil-debatte-schon-der-politiker-reinhard-grindel-war-gegen-multikulti/22786674.html ))
In a classic example of victim blaming, commentators coming to Grindel’s aid simply accused Özil of falsely claiming that any injustice had been done, of indiscriminately wielding the rhetorical cudgel of racism (Rassismuskeule), and of suffering from paranoia.(( https://www.tgd.de/2018/07/24/nichts-rechtfertig-rassismus/ ))
Teammates’ and Turkish government reactions
Yet it was not only this kind of stance that could be heard loud and clear in public debates. Equally deafening was the silence of Özil’s former teammates. While the Swedish national team had very publicly rallied around one of their players who had become the target of racist abuse during the World Cup, no such statements were forthcoming from Özil’s colleagues at the national team. Only Jérôme Boateng – himself the target of far-right slander for his mixed German-Ghanaian heritage – spoke up, calling the media focus on Mesut Özil unfair and misplaced.
All of this was gladly taken up by the Turkish government side, as always on the lookout for political and propagandistic ammunition. The Minister of Justice, Abdulhamit Gül, congratulated Özil for having “scored the most beautiful goal against the fascist virus” by resigning from the national team.
Almanya Milli Takımı'ndan ayrılarak faşizm virüsüne karşı en güzel golünü atan Mesut Özil’i tebrik ediyorum. Yolun, bahtın açık olsun @MesutOzil1088 pic.twitter.com/abZSlAvzc5
— Abdulhamit Gül (@abdulhamitgul) July 22, 2018
Maintaining a balance?
Against this backdrop, some commentators in Germany struggled to maintain a line that allowed them to criticise the racism of German society while at the same time not placing them in the camp of Erdoğan supporters.
Journalists such as Eren Güvercin((https://rp-online.de/politik/deutschland/tuerkeistaemmiger-autor-kritisiert-oezil-dfb-und-akp_aid-24039651 )) or Ferda Ataman((https://www.deutschlandfunkkultur.de/ruecktritt-von-mesut-oezil-schwierige-solidarisierung.2950.de.html?dram:article_id=423568 )) as well as comedian Serdar Somuncu((https://www.tagesschau.de/inland/somuncu-oezil-101.html )) sought to strike such a middle ground. At the same time, the sheer amount of bile spewed over Mesut Özil made such a middle position increasingly harder to justify.
Similar cases beyond Germany
Others drew comparisons beyond Germany’s borders. Writing in The Guardian, Richard Williams saw the hullabaloo surrounding Mesut Özil as “symptomatic of a world under strain” – a world in which there was less and less tolerance for ambiguity and nuance.((https://www.theguardian.com/football/2018/jul/23/mesut-ozil-international-retirement-germany?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_Tweet ))
The Initiative of Back People in Germany (ISD) made a similar point: the association posted a juxtaposition of quotes from three players – Mesut Özil of Germany, Karim Benzema of France and Romelu Lukaku of Belgium – all of which denounced the fact that they were only admitted to the national community when successful. Otherwise, they would be treated as immigrants.
Mesut #Özil steht nicht alleine da… pic.twitter.com/pHlnQK9Pcq
— ISD Bund e.V. (@ISDBund) July 24, 2018
Finally, some chose a more activist, combative response. Digital rights movement Reconquista Netz projected Özil’s portrait onto the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. The accompanying hashtag ‘Never Walk Alone’ was intended not just as a reference to a famous football sing-a-long but also as a statement of continued support for Özil and others who face racist discrimination.
Amid the debate surrounding #Özil's resignation from the German national football team, due to 'racism and disrespect,' digital civil rights movement @ReconquistaNetz last night projected images of Özil onto the German parliament building, the Reichstag.
????: @ReconquistaNetz pic.twitter.com/0AtTA5XDVr
— DW | Politics (@dw_politics) July 24, 2018
Writing for the TAZ newspaper, columnist Jagoda Marinić perceived a chance for empowerment: “Özil’s bombshell is a liberation. Now German society is no longer a magnet everyone will orient themselves to.”
Instead of vying for recognition by seeking to become ‘model Germans’ – an inherently unattainable quest, given the ways in which the promise of equality was withdrawn time and again – German citizens of diverse origins would no longer abide by the patronising discourses on integration, she asserted. “Özil says now: Those who are successful, do not play the game any longer! Vive la Liberté! We’ll now play the game according to our own rules!”(( http://www.taz.de/Kommentar-Ruecktritt-aus-der-Nationalelf/!5523190/ ))