This past month, German soccer star Mesut Özil announced his retirement from the German national soccer team. In his statement to the German Soccer Federation, he revealed that racism he faced as a minority living in Germany led to him becoming the scapegoat for many of the failures of the German team.
Özil’s announcement of international retirement has sent shockwaves throughout the world. The action has been incredibly controversial, as while most of the German team accepts his retirement, many, like the president of top European club Bayern Munich have condemned Özil for it or viewed the move as “weak.” Goal.com has called the impact of Özil’s retirement as “unprecedented.”
Özil, who is of Turkish ancestry, was perfectly within his rights to do such a thing. After all, as pointed out by German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, “in the past, other players had quit their career too after a tournament like the European Championship and the World Cup.” Neuer is correct. For one, Argentinian star Lionel Messi famously retired from international play following his team’s loss to Chile in the 2016 Copa America final.
However, the main reason that Özil said he quit was because of the rampant racism he faced sometimes as a high-profile minority athlete representing Germany. As Özil himself stated “I am German when we win, but an immigrant when we lose.” While the racism faced by Özil and others was mostly a non-issue, Germany’s ugly performance at the 2018 World Cup brought the ugly truth of being a minority player in Germany to the forefront of international soccer.
The first hint that something may be wrong in Germany was when they did not put Leroy Sané, who is black, on their national team roster prior to the 2018 World Cup. Sané’s club season with English Premier League winners Manchester City was something unmatched by most players on the German National Team. According to Premierleague.com, Sané scored and assisted on 25 goals- the youngest player in the league that year to reach that mark. At the same time, he helped lead Manchester City to become the highest-scoring team in Premier League history, as City finished off the year with 100 points. The decision to leave Sané out, however, was at least partially justified. In 12 friendlies with Germany, he did not score and only provided one assist. Once the Germans exited in the group stage of the World Cup for the first time in history, however, many international pundits have heavily criticized German coach Joachim Low for this decision- and wondered if there was any racism behind it. What Sané faced, however, is nothing compared to what Özil alleges he faced.
Most of Özil’s criticism in his statement is against German Soccer Federation president Reinhard Grindel. In Özil’s statement, he mentioned how he was booed by German fans even before the World Cup in a match against Austria. He alleges that Grindel made him the scapegoat for many things that went wrong in the German Soccer Federation, and also points out an old Grindel quote from 2004 where he claimed “Multiculturalism is in reality a myth and a lifelong lie.” And, in an absolutely shocking case, Özil claims that German politician Bernd Holzhauer called him a “goat-f**ker.”
However, despite all of these racist attacks, Özil himself is not completely in the right. One of the major sources of criticism that Özil faced stems from an incident before the World Cup where he and teammate Ilkay Gundogan took a picture with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the current leader of Turkey. Here’s a recap of what Erdogan has done in office:
Erdogan has arrested 245 journalists, turning Turkey into the world’s largest jailer of journalists.
Turkey has declined more than any other country in the history of Freedom House’s Freedom of the World report.
Erdogan has turned Turkey into an autocratic state following a failed coup in 2016.
In addition, NBA player Enes Kanter (who himself escaped a manhunt from the Turkish government that led him from Indonesia to Romania to the US) alleges that there are reports of torture of prisoners and journalists inside Turkish prisons. Kanter has become a persona non grata in Turkey for speaking out against Erdogan, facing certain execution if he ever returns, and his family remaining in the country has already allegedly been imprisoned and tortured.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan is, quite simply, one of the worst dictators in the world today.
Is this really someone Mesut Özil wants to associate himself with?
This situation is similar to another that happened before the World Cup. Egyptian superstar Mohamed Salah turned from one of the most loved soccer players in the world into a controversial figure after taking a picture with Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov. The Associated Press reported that Salah was angry about the reaction of the picture, apparently didn’t want to meet Kadyrov, and considered his own retirement from national soccer following the picture. This account, however, is disputed by many other organizations.
Sometimes, there’s just no good side to take in an argument. Mesut Özil was clearly in the wrong by taking a friendly picture with a dictator, and the German soccer federation (and, by extension, the entire country of Germany) is even further in the wrong by blaming him and fellow minorities for the failures of the German national team.
So, let’s end this off with a message for both sides.
To the German Soccer Federation—maybe it’s poetic justice that the two teams that beat you and led to your worst World Cup finish in history (Mexico and South Korea) are more racially diverse. In any case, it would be much better for your country and for the world if you stopped the racism.
And to Mesut Özil—even if you meant “nothing political” by your picture, know that the man you took it with is responsible for the brutal torture and murder of many people- the vast majority of whom are Turkish. Watch the company you keep.
This story was written in August 2018, shortly following the World Cup and, of course, Özil’s announced retirement.