- Mesut Özil brands the DFB racist
- The Arsenal player retires from national team duty
- Expect the controversy to run
And so it begins. The fallout from Germany’s historically-poor World Cup showing has finally exploded after a few weeks of dark introspection.
Mesut Özil, missing in action for at least four years, eventually got around to telling his side of the Erdogan-Photo story and cut loose in the process.
The Arsenal player explained that he was simply showing respect to the office of the Turkish president by meeting Recep Tayyip Erdogan along with Manchester City’s Ilkay Gündogan and Everton’s Cenk Tosun in England prior to the World Cup.
Özil explained that posing for the photograph was not an endorsement of Erdogan’s politics. He accused sponsors of abandoning him in the media furore that followed publication, compared his treatment to that of Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose (Germans of Polish extraction), and launched a tirade at the German FA (DFB) president Reinhard Grindel, effectively branding him racist.
The former Schalke star also highlighted some of the disgusting comments he was subject to on social media, and announced a de facto retirement from the national team.
There is no doubt that Özil has been subject to racism in the media. Certain sectors of German society are only too happy to single him out at any opportunity. There is also no doubt that Grindel is a conservative who, as Özil pointed out, has a dubious voting record as a Christian Democrat politician.
However, Özil is startlingly naive or self-serving in his self justification. He compares how he is treated with Podolski and Klose by suggesting that he is always referred to as “German-Turkish” while they are never “German-Polish”. This would seem a fair point until you ask if Podolski and Klose have been photographed on election hustings with a head of state who is locking up German journalists – which Erdogan has done.
You can’t really claim that you are “treated differently” when you go out of your way to accentuate your indifference to cases like that of Deniz Yücel, imprisoned by Erdogan for a year on accusations of espionage, and only released in February, a few months before the Erdogan photo op.
Meeting a head of state is a political act even if it is not intended as such. Erdogan didn’t meet Özil because he was ordinary. He did it because he is famous. Basically, he used him precisely because he is different. It’s fantastically naive for Özil to imagine otherwise.
As for “respecting the office”, where does that respect end? Would it have been respecting the office of German chancellor to meet Adolf Hitler? Should one offer respect to an office that has been debased by an incumbent?
In his defence, it is possible that Özil was wary of consequences for his family if he rejected the advances of Erdogan. In that sense, he should get the benefit of the doubt. It wasn’t he, but Gündogan, who prostrated himself in his reference to “my president” on a signed shirt given to Erdogan.
The point that Özil has been treated differently to Lothar Matthäus, who recently met Vladimir Putin, is a fair one, though one could argue that Putin, for all his crimes, is not currently locking up German journalists. There is also a sense that it is Matthäus who is using the head of state in this case, such is his sadly insatiable desire for publicity. In reality, Matthäus was meeting Putin as part of a FIFA delegation that included Diego Forlan, Peter Schmeichel, and Rio Ferdinand.
The point here is that of course Özil was treated differently to Matthäus. The latter was a FIFA ambassador – and FIFA ambassadors meet heads of state, including odious ones, as part of the job. That’s realpolitik. Much opprobrium had already been expressed at FIFA’s decision to award the tournament to Russia. If people feel that Matthäus got off lightly compared to Özil, one imagines they personally boycotted the tournament themselves.
In his valedictory statement, Özil makes no concession to why the photo appalled many decent Germans, concentrating his fire on racist elements who, let it be said, have long appalled the decent in Germany.
In that sense, Özil has alienated people who instictively support him and see him as a beacon for a world where people of different backgrounds get on and thrive together.
He is absolutely correct that racists want him to be treated differently and will never recognise him as German. The AfD and other right-wing extremists will be delighted with all of this.
However, he has shown a remarkable tin ear in his own handling of this case. One wonders if he felt that he needed to get his retaliation in first given a possible impending omission from Joachim Löw’s next squad.
Özil hasn’t performed for Germany for years. On football grounds, he isn’t worth persevering with. That said, it’s a genuine pity that he is going out like this, with racists the only winners.