The fallout from Germany’s disastrous World Cup campaign is still being felt, at no time more so than Sunday night when Mesut Özil announced his retirement from international football with an explosive statement that is sure to have serious repercussions in the coming weeks.
In an unprecedented series of social-media posts, the Arsenal midfielder has not just announced the end of his career at international level, but also has thrown a live grenade into the German footballing and political establishment by highlighting a major issue surrounding racism and bullying.
Public Enemy No.1?
The football world was shocked to its core when defending champion Germany crashed out of the 2018 World Cup in the group stage having lost to both Mexico and South Korea. Prior to the tournament, a mini-scandal erupted with an ill-advised photo shoot involving Özil, Ilkay Gündogan, and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but on the final whistle in Kazan, the issue exploded.
As Özil trudged off towards the tunnel, some German fans let him know in no uncertain terms what they felt about his performance. “Özil, verpiss dich du scheiss Turkensau. Turkenschwein hau ab” (“Özil, f**k off you Turkish s**t, p**s off you Turkish pig”).
His reaction to the verbal attack was understandably angry, and he had to be restrained, but if he thought that was bad, worse was to come. The German media instantly scapegoated the 29-year-old, citing a lack of passion and interest in playing for the Nationalmannschaft. The anti-Özil campaign that began on the back of the Erdogan photo cranked up a gear.
German legend Lothar Matthäus slammed him saying, “I often have the feeling that on the pitch Özil doesn’t feel comfortable in the DFB jersey, is not free – almost as if he does not want to play. There is no heart, no joy, no passion. After the latest impression, it is not excluded for me that he withdraws from the national team after the World Cup.”
The right-wing, anti-immigration German political party AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) were also busy hurling attacks at Özil with press spokesman Christian Lüth tweeting, “Özil can be satisfied, congratulations Erdogan”.
The tabloid Bildzeitung also weighed in with what seemed to be a targeted campaign to blame Özil for the German World Cup debacle.
Enough Is Enough
Hence, 25 days after the defeat to South Korea came a lengthy statement from Özil, released via Twitter and Instagram in multiple parts, which pulled absolutely no punches. The first section looked to explain his meeting with Erdogan, the second hitting out at sponsors and the media, with the third reserved for an attack on the German FA (DFB).
In the statement, Özil explained that his meeting with the Turkish president was not an endorsement of his politics, but rather a nod of respect to his Turkish heritage.
“My mother has never let me lose sight of my ancestry, heritage and family traditions. For me, 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. My job is a football player and not a politician, and our meeting was not an endorsement of any policies.
“Whilst I grew up in Germany, my family background has its roots ﬁrmly based in Turkey. I have two hearts, one German and one Turkish. 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.”
One of the main sources of complaint from inside Germany was the fact that Ilkay Gundogan expressed some regret about the photo, whereas Özil remained silent. However, in Özil’s defence, Lothar Matthäus felt it okay to be pictured alongside Russian president Vladimir Putin, a ruler with an equally dubious record on human rights.
The media were next for a blast from the midfielder.
“I’m not a perfect footballer, and this often motivates me to work and train harder. But what I can’t accept are German media outlets repeatedly blaming my dual-heritage and a simple picture for a bad World Cup on behalf of an entire squad.
“Certain German newspapers are using my background and photo with President Erdogan as right-wing propaganda to further their political cause.”
It’s hard to argue against Özil’s accusation here. The rising tide of right-wing rhetoric in European (and US) politics is clear and anti-immigrant headlines are found all too often of late.
The fact that Özil was also airbrushed out of certain media campaigns by DFB sponsors also stinks of racism and political scapegoating.
“They didn‘t criticise my performances. They didn‘t criticise the team‘s performances, they just criticised my Turkish ancestry and respect for my upbringing. This crosses a personal line that should never be crossed, as newspapers try to turn the nation of Germany against me.”
The final part of his statement saw his ire turned towards DFB president Reinhard Grindel, who had been openly critical of Özil and had already urged him to quit.
Arguably the issue that has frustrated the most over the past couple of months has been the mistreatment from the DFB, and in particular the OPE President Reinhard Grindel.
“In the eyes of Grindel and his supporters, I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose. This is because despite paying taxes in Germany, donating facilities to German schools and winning the World Cup with Germany in 2014, I am still not accepted into society. I am treated as being ‘different’. I received the ‘Bambi Award’ in 2010 as an example of successful integration to German society, I received a ‘Silver Laurel Leaf’ in 2014 from the Federal Republic of Germany, and I was a ’German Football Ambassador’ in 2015. But clearly, I am not German?”
“When high-ranking DFB ofﬁcials treat me as they did, disrespect my Turkish roots and selﬁshly turn me into political propaganda, then enough is enough. That is not why I play football, and I will not sit back and do nothing about it.”
It is probably safe to say that is not the end of things!
The photo shoot with Erdogan, in hindsight, was not the best of ideas from Özil, but the extreme reaction it engendered was also somewhat over the top. They say you shouldn’t mix football and politics. Perhaps the player’s advisors should have born that adage in mind when the request from the Turkish authorities arrived.
Were Germany abysmal at the World Cup? Yes. Was Mesut Özil the only player to under-perform? No. Is the backlash against him in any way justified? Definitely not.
You can say what you like about Mesut Özil. Opinion over him as a player is split, but his record for the German national team stands up to any scrutiny: 92 caps, 23 goals, three World Cup tournaments, and a winners medal from 2014.
So he has quit, although nowhere in his statements did he use the word ‘retire’, leaving the possibility of a return. The next chapter in this sordid affair surely will involve Reinhard Grindel, whose role in the whole affair sees him far from innocent.
His failure to deal with the situation and the fanning of the political flames doesn’t cover him in glory, and it would seem a decent bet that he will soon be the ‘former’ DFB president.
Germany have lost a top player, but sadly gained a stain of racism that won’t be easy to wash away. 2014 saw the best of Germany, 2018 has sadly seen the worst.
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