Inside Story

“I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose”

Why did Mesut Özil, one of the most talented footballers of his generation, decide to quit playing for his home country?

Klaus Neumann 12 August 2018 3239 words

Dazzling: Mesut Özil (right) and teammate Julian Draxler celebrating Germany’s 2014 World Cup win. Jimmy Baikovicius/Wikimedia


“When we were still living in Munich, the other tenants in our apartment building signed a letter against our family. They didn’t want to live so close to foreigners.”

“The teacher took a börek from my lunchbox and cried: ‘Yuk! You people are eating bats’ ears!’ The class laughed. I will never forget that.”

“After watching, in a bar, Germany play Mexico, my father said: ‘What a shame!’ The waiter turned to him: ‘What do you care!’”

These are English translations of just three of the tens of thousands of tweets posted in Germany with the #MeTwo tag over the past couple of weeks, fuelling a public debate about racism and whether Germans from culturally diverse backgrounds should and can “belong.” The tweets describe instances of everyday racism, including — as these three example do — attempts to exclude non-German neighbours, classmates or work colleagues; the ridiculing of markers of cultural difference; and attempts to deny individuals the right or ability to identify as German.

The hashtag is an initiative of Ali Can, an activist whose parents came to Germany as Kurdish refugees in 1995. Can runs seminars about cultural diversity and was one of the founders, in 2016, of an association called Interkultureller Frieden, or Intercultural Peace. The same year he set up the Hotline für besorgte Bürger for people to express their concerns about migrants, asylum seekers or Muslims, or ask questions about integration and multiculturalism. The hotline encourages calls from who vote for the far-right Alternative für Deutschland, or AfD.

#MeTwo was inspired by #MeToo; the “two” aims to draw attention to the fact that migrants can have two identities, such as German and Turkish, or German and Kurdish. When Can posted a video message on 27 July asking people to share their experience of racism by using the hashtag, his inspiration was German footballer Mesut Özil’s announcement that he would never again play for Germany.

Özil’s declaration — made in a long English-language statement posted on Twitter and Facebook in three instalments, three hours apart — has prompted fiery debate and lots of soul searching. Much of the latter was the result of Özil’s claim to have been the target of racist slurs. Among those he identified as racists was none other than Reinhard Grindel, the head of the German Football Federation, the world’s largest sports association.

In an earlier life, Grindel was a member of parliament for the Christian Democrats; at the time, he attracted attention on account of his hardline opposition to cultural diversity. Under the #MeTwo hashtag, a Die Linke member of parliament, Sevim Dagdelen, reported that Grindel had once told her that she was an example of failed integration.

In order to explain Özil’s resignation from the German football team and the extraordinary response to it, we need to go back to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Few expected the young and relatively inexperienced German team to be in the running for the title, but they defied expectations by reaching the semi-final (which they lost to Spain). Football aficionados were surprised not only by the decisiveness of the German wins in the first two knockout rounds (first against England, then against Argentina) but also by the speed, elegance and intelligence of the football they played. Five of the players singled out for praise had come of age since the previous World Cup: defender Jérôme Boateng, forward Thomas Müller and midfielders Toni Kroos, Sami Khedira and Mesut Özil. Between them, they had previously played only twenty-six international level matches.

The team for the 2010 World Cup stood out for two reasons. At the time, all played in the Bundesliga, Germany’s premier league, which suggested that this was a home-grown German team rather than a team of international stars with German passports. Three of the four shooting stars had a migrant background: Boateng is the son of a German mother and a Ghanaian father, Khedira has a German mother and a Tunisian father, and Özil’s paternal grandparents migrated to Germany from Turkey when his father was two years old. And all three were born in Germany: in Berlin (Boateng), Stuttgart (Khedira) and Gelsenkirchen in the Ruhr Valley. Only Khedira has two passports, but the others too could have opted to make themselves available for their fathers’ (or, in Özil’s case, grandfather’s) countries. (In fact, Boateng’s half-brother Kevin-Prince once played for Ghana’s national team.)

Later in 2010, in Berlin, Germany played Turkey in a qualifier for the European Championship. Supporters of the Turkish team, many of them German-born or long-term German residents, abused Özil for choosing to play for the German side rather than for Turkey. The booing didn’t seem to faze him; his performance was one of the reasons for the German team’s three–nil victory. After the match, German chancellor (and football tragic) Angela Merkel congratulated Özil in the team’s dressing room. The encounter resulted in the first of a series of photos showing the German chancellor with Özil — hugging him, shaking his hand, and often beaming in his company. The following month, Özil won a prestigious Bambi award in the “integration” category.

Sociologists Andreas Zick, Andreas Hövermann and Michael Müller of the University of Bielefeld found that diversity in Germany had become more widely accepted during the 2010 World Cup, and that racist attitudes had declined. They titled their study “The Özil Effect,” highlighting the role Mesut Özil had played as the personification of a new, more tolerant, less nationalistic, multicultural Germany.

Singled out: German chancellor Angela Merkel congratulates Mesut Özil after Germany’s win over Argentina at the 2014 World Cup finals in Rio de Janeiro. Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

I suspect the Özil effect could also be observed during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The German team, which included a core of players who had come onto the scene four years earlier, defeated the host team seven–one in a dazzling semi-final and then won the tournament by defeating Argentina. One of the iconic images of Germany’s victory in Brazil shows Angela Merkel in the team’s dressing room, surrounded by the players, including a bare-chested Özil draped in the German flag.

Unlike in 2010 and 2014, Germany was one of the favourites to win this year’s World Cup, but the team bowed out ignominiously after the group phase. The losses against Mexico and South Korea, and the narrow and unconvincing victory over Sweden, stand for Germany’s worst performance in the history of the World Cup. Never before had the country been eliminated that early.

Özil, who had been singled out as a key contributor to the win in 2014 and the German team’s impressive performance four years earlier, was now held responsible for Germany’s early exit. While it’s true that he played in both games that Germany lost but not in its win against Sweden, the criticism has been unfair. He was not playing more poorly than the rest of the team; in fact, it has been shown that he was more effective than his teammates. But those blaming Özil for Germany’s poor showing in Russia didn’t have only his performance on the football pitch in mind.

For Özil’s detractors, the origins of Germany’s disastrous performance can be traced back to a photo published on 14 May. It shows Özil, together with Emre Can and Ilkay Gündogan, two other footballers of Turkish cultural background who have played for Germany, in the company of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The trio, all of whom make their living in the English Premier League, had met Erdoğan at his request in London. It was less than six weeks from the Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections, and Erdoğan was on the campaign trail (which took him also to European countries with a large Turkish diaspora).

At the meeting, Gündogan presented Erdoğan with a football jersey with the handwritten inscription, in Turkish, “For my revered president, sincerely.” Erdoğan’s AKP party later published four photos of the encounter on Twitter. Suddenly, something Özil had posted the day before made sense: he had tweeted a photo showing just him and the two other footballers, titled “In good company this evening…,” with a winking face emoji and the German and Turkish flags.

The next day, Reinhard Grindel released a statement in which he criticised the players, saying that the Football Federation “of course respects the special situation of our players with a migratory background” but that it also “stands for values which are not sufficiently recognised by Mr Erdogan.” In the German media, Özil in particular was lambasted for allowing the Turkish autocrat to pose with him, and thereby indirectly supporting Erdoğan’s bid for re-election. Some commentators and far-right politicians demanded that the offending players be excluded from the German team, but on 15 May, German coach Joachim Löw nominated both Özil and Gündogan for the World Cup in Russia.

Five days after the publication of the photos, the Football Federation brokered a meeting between Özil, Gündogan and German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Photos of the three men were published in all major German newspapers, as if they were an antidote for the Erdoğan pictures.

The Football Federation had clearly hoped that the meeting and photo opportunity with Steinmeier would be the end of the matter, but the controversy over the photo with Erdoğan didn’t die down. While Gündogan tried to explain himself in interviews and on social media, Özil remained silent. This wasn’t surprising; even at the best of times, Özil is reluctant to talk to journalists. During friendly matches against Austria and Saudi Arabia, some German fans booed the two players.

For her part, Angela Merkel spoke out in support of Özil and Gündogan; ever the pragmatist, she pointed out on 10 June that “we need them so that we can do well [in Russia].” Not long after, she visited the German team’s training camp in Austria, and met in private with Özil and Gündogan.

In early July, ten days after the German team was eliminated from the World Cup, Grindel said in an interview that he expected Özil to explain himself. Both Grindel and the team’s manager, former German player Oliver Bierhoff, made statements that could be interpreted as blaming Özil for Germany’s poor showing in Russia. Others were more direct; Bayern Munich boss Uli Hoeneß said that Özil was hiding his unsatisfactory performance behind the Erdoğan picture and that “for years he has played only rubbish.”

By that stage, editorialists and other commentators largely agreed that Özil was at best naïve when he posed for a photo with the Turkish president. Even people who otherwise supported him have been baffled by his decision to meet with Erdoğan during the Turkish election campaign. Ali Can, for example, suggested that Özil lacked “diplomatic awareness.” But public opinion was divided over whether Özil was entitled to meet whomever he wanted to. Public opinion was also divided over the question of who was to blame for the German performance in Russia, and for the fact that the controversy over the photo overshadowed the team’s preparations, if not the World Cup itself.

The Football Federation’s hope that the controversy would die down, remained unfulfilled. It again dominated headlines after Özil informed his 23.2 million Twitter followers and 30.9 million Facebook fans that he had decided not to play again for Germany. Seemingly confirming the views of those who had argued he was naïve, Özil defended meeting Erdoğan: “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.”

Özil also wrote in detail about the racist abuse he had suffered as a result of the Erdoğan photo. He reserved his strongest criticism for Grindel: “I will no longer stand for being a scapegoat for [Grindel’s] incompetence and ability to do his job properly… 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.’”

Footballers who supposedly don’t look German have long been the targets of racism in German. In his wonderful book Heimaterde, which recounts his travels through a culturally diverse contemporary Germany, Lucas Vogelsang tells the story of Jimmy Hartwig, the son of an Afro-American GI and a German woman. Hartwig played in the Bundesliga, and twice for the German national team, in the 1970s and 1980s, and endured much abuse. Things have improved since those days, and most clubs now take a tough line if supporters racially abuse players.

In the public arena, too, racist slurs are seemingly less readily tolerated than they used to be. In 2016, Alexander Gauland, then deputy chair of AfD, said that “the people” like Jérôme Boateng “as a football player. But they don’t want to have a Boateng as their neighbour.” The remarks were roundly condemned — even by then AfD leader Frauke Petry, who apologised on behalf of her party — and for a short time they even affected the AfD’s showing in the polls. It seemed that Gauland had crossed a red line.

But shortly afterwards, Petry herself continued Gauland’s general line of attack. She told journalists that it was “a shame” that Mesut Özil never sang the national anthem when it was played ahead of international matches. She also objected to his posting photos on social media that showed him making the pilgrimage to Mecca, and wondered whether this “publicly celebrated trip” was also intended to be a political statement.

And when the German team failed to win the 2016 European Championship, having been the clear favourite, another prominent AfD politician, Beatrix von Storch, suggested that the team’s performance was due to the fact that not all its players were German.

While Gauland’s initial comment drew lots of criticism, subsequent similar statements have not prompted as much outrage. The more often players like Özil and Boateng were publicly attacked on account of their cultural background, colour of skin or religion, the more difficult it seemed to become to show solidarity, and the more acceptable such attacks then appeared.

Insinuations that Germany was eliminated from the tournament in Russia because of Özil should have been as scandalous as Gauland’s remarks about Boateng two years earlier, but they seemed to have become part of a new normality.

The response to Özil’s resignation from the national team dominated Germany’s media for more than a week. Angela Merkel has so far not commented on Özil’s claims of endemic German racism, but at least she had the grace to say that she regards him highly, that he is a great footballer and that she respects his decision to resign from the national team.

Özil’s former teammates have been less generous. Only Jérôme Boateng has spoken out in support of his abi, or brother, Mesut. Thomas Müller has demanded that the matter be put to rest, because “there is no racism in the German national team,” as if anybody had made such a claim.

A week ago, the team’s captain, goalkeeper Manuel Neuer said that he had not previously commented on the issue because he hadn’t been asked for his opinion and because he did not want to pass value judgements — only to do just that. He suggested that the German team must include only players “who are really proud to play for the national team, and who give everything for the opportunity to play for their country,” thereby not so subtly implying that Özil, who was notorious for not joining in when the national anthem was sung before matches, should have been excluded.

German coach Joachim Löw has kept his job despite the German team’s embarrassing performance in Russia. He is known to have long believed that Özil is a footballing genius, and had been one of his most loyal supporters, even when Özil didn’t play well. In 2012, when Germany failed to make the final of the European Championship, Löw angrily responded to critics who suggested that the failure of Özil and others to sing the national anthem was symptomatic of a lack of commitment. “It’s nice to sing the anthem,” Löw said. “But doing so is not evidence of quality, and [not singing it] does not prove that somebody is unwilling to fight.” But this time, Löw too has remained silent.

For Özil, the matter now seems to be closed. He has said what he felt needed to be said. He will continue to play football — not for Germany, but for his English club Arsenal. In a recent match against Paris Saint-Germain, Arsenal’s new manager Unai Emery appointed Özil the team’s captain. This is an indication that in England Özil has the public support that Löw and most of his former German teammates are denying him.

Özil will also remain German — after all, Germany is the country where he was born and grew up, the country that he represented ninety-two times as a player, and the only country of which he is a citizen. He will remain Turkish, because Turkey is the country of his parents and grandparents. But Özil’s identity cannot be divided between two neat categories, “German” and “Turkish.” One of his recent tweets is titled “Welcome to my city” and includes video clips that show him walking through London. He is a global citizen with a global following: worldwide, only four other footballers have a larger social media following than his.

In Germany, the debate about what Özil did and didn’t do has been overtaken by necessary, long overdue discussions about racism, about integration and about German identity. These discussions were prompted by Özil’s decision to talk publicly about his experiences, but they focus on everyday racism rather than the racism experienced by celebrities or the racism of leading AfD politicians. Racism is not a uniquely German problem, but it is a problem of Germany — rather than of a few obnoxious far-right figures.

The fact that the AfD, whose representatives are often openly racist, have the support of about 15 per cent of the electorate is only one facet of that problem. Another is that people who could not be accused of being racist — Thomas Müller and Joachim Löw, for example — don’t speak up when somebody close to them is vilified. And perhaps the biggest problem is that the 85 per cent of Germans who don’t vote for the AfD have done too little to stop racist attitudes and xenophobic sentiments from becoming more respectable.

The German team’s next match, against World Cup–holder France, takes place on 6 September. That will be an opportunity to once again talk football. Enough has been said about Özil’s lack of judgement in May, and about his more recent disappointment and anger, but much remains to be said about Özil as one of the most talented footballers of his generation. What better opportunity to reminisce about Özil’s magic when watching a German team that no longer includes him. Much might also be said then about the joy of watching a talented and culturally diverse national team. From a German point of view, it is unfortunate that that team will be France’s Les Bleus rather than the German Nationalmannschaft. ●