German When He Wins, Immigrant When He Loses – Why Arsenal Star Mesut Ozil Retired From International Football & What Lessons Need To Be Learnt

Mesut Ozil

Mesut Ozil announced his retirement from the Germany national team in a stirring three-piece statement shared on his social media accounts. The explosive accusations will undoubtedly put pressure on German FA President Reinhard Grindel. But the fact that a World Cup champion feels he can no longer represent the country he was born in due to racism is bound to raise some awkward questions.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited British Prime Minister Theresa May and Queen Elizabeth II as part of a three-day trip to England in May. During the trip, a meal was organized in London. Ozil, Ilkay Gundogan and Cenk Tosun were invited. All three Premier League players gave Erdogan a shirt from their respective club. Gundogan went one step further and signed his shirt, ‘To my president, with my respects.’

Erdogan was running for reelection at the time, photos alongside these superstars were interpreted by some as looking like endorsements.

The president of Turkey divides opinion. Contrary to popular belief in the West he does have a lot of supporters in Turkey and beyond. On the flip side, he also has his critics. I am not going to delve into politics. I am not bothered whether you love or loath Erdogan. It does not concern me if you believe Ozil was right or wrong for meeting the Turkish president. That was his personal decision. As he put it, “not meeting with the President would have been disrespecting the roots of my ancestors.” 

Indeed he may have been slightly naive. The timing was not the best considering the recent war of words between the two countries. However, meeting a leader however, much you disapprove does not give anyone the right to racially abuse, send hate mail and harass family members.

Ozil was born in Germany, he is a German citizen, he has lifted the World Cup for his country of birth.

It must be frustrating to achieve what Ozil has for Germany and to still not be accepted by segments of society. Does he not have the right to make a mistake without having his nationality questioned? put it this way. Had he not been an ethnic Turk would he have received the same backlash? Lothar Matthaus, who has been busy laying into Ozil met with another leader that divides opinion, Russian president Vladimir Putin but escaped widespread condemnation.

There are around four million Turks in Germany, roughly three million are German citizens making them by far the largest minority ethnic group in the country. The first major wave of immigration came to West Germany after World War II. The Gastarbeiter: ‘guest workers’ employed in manual jobs, rebuilt a defeated, devastated nation.

The Bundesrepublik’s Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) was fuelled by their hard work. The initial plan was that the labor force would return to Turkey but many ended up staying, having children and establishing families. The problem was even third generation German Turks were often denied full citizenship. Only in the 1990s were laws changed to award dual nationality. Ozil would have been one of the first in his family to acquire equal citizenship rights.

Like many diaspora communities the Turks, more precisely the children of Turkish immigrants have to wrestle between their heritage and belonging to the country they were born in. It is important to understand the context behind Ozil wanting to meet the president of Turkey. His family originates from the Hisiroglu village of Zonguldak in North-West of the country. The Arsenal man grew up in poverty in Gelsenkirchen. To many Turks from immigrant backgrounds, it would be an honor to meet the president.

He may well have been the first person in his family to do so. To rise from such humble origins to personally meet the head of state need not necessarily be a political statement. It is important to make the distinction. There are other factors at play which have been completely disregarded and ignored. Ozil was labeled a traitor without a debate as to why it was important to him to meet the president of Turkey.

He admitted he feels the incident was used as justification for political propaganda in which ‘high-ranking DFB’ officials and sections of the media were complicit: “This decision has been extremely difficult to make because I have always given everything for my teammates, the coaching staff and the good people of Germany. But 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.

Racism should never, ever be accepted.”

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Ozil called out DFB President Reinhard Grindel in particular, claiming he was used as a scapegoat following Germany’s early exit from the World Cup. Perhaps the most powerful line out of the three statements was that he is only accepted as German when they win.

“I will no longer stand for being a scapegoat for his incompetence and inability to do his job properly. I know that he wanted me out the team after the picture, and publicised his view on Twitter without any thinking or consultation, but Joachim Low and Oliver Bierhoff stood up for me and backed me. In the eyes of Grindel and his supporters, I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose.” he wrote about the former member of parliament of the CDU party.

Ozil also made a point about paying his taxes. Perhaps it was a swipe at Bayern Munich president Uli Hoeness who has played his part in the anti-Ozil campaign. Hoeness was of course charged with a prison sentence for €28.5m tax evasion before being released and being relected club chief. The fact he feels he is still not accepted into society after what he has achieved is poignant.

“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,” he stated.

“My friends 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 think here lays an important issue. By being referred to as German-Turkish, it is already distinguishing people who have family from more than one country. I was born and educated in Germany, so why don’t people accept that I am German?”

A player who should realistically be a national hero explained the level of abuse he and his family received: “A German fan told me after the game, ‘Özil, f*%^ off you Turkish sh*, piss off you Turkish pig.’ I don’t want to even discuss the hate mail, threatening phone calls and comments on social media that my family and I have received.”

There is nothing wrong with criticising Ozil for his infamous London meeting. Just as there is nothing wrong with criticising his performances in the World Cup. What is abhorrent is using it as an excuse for racist, xenophobic and bigoted attacks.

As Ozil pointed out: “They all represent a Germany of the past, a Germany that I am not proud of. I am confident that many proud Germans who embrace an open society would agree with me.”

See More: ‘So Proud Of You’, ‘Standing Up To Racists’ – Arsenal Fans Defend Mesut Ozil After Retiring From German National Team

The irony is this jingoistic language and anti-immigration sentiment directed at Ozil – ironic as he was born in the country – does not make Germany stronger. It is nothing more than bullying. Ozil makes a convenient target for the far-right and their enablers to rally behind. It is a self-destructive, narrow-minded interpretation of patriotism which could have far-reaching consequences.

They appear to have no idea or care for the damage that is being caused. Ozil is a role model for many kids from impoverished areas of all backgrounds. A footballer who made it from the bottom to the top. The Arsenal man did more for integration than most politicians currently hounding him. In fact, he was presented with a Bambi award in 2010 for being a prime example of successful integration within German society.

The German football youth ranks are full of kids from Turkish backgrounds growing up in urban areas dreaming of becoming the next Ozil. Who were under the impression they could be German and keep their Turkish heritage at the same time. Kids who have been inspired by the Arsenal man to win trophies in the country they were born in.

Ozil feels he has had to keep reminding the country of his birth that he is indeed German. If this continues Germany could end up pushing stars of the future to represent Turkey instead. And more worryingly open up a can of worms over the identity of kids whose grandparents were born in Germany.