Ozil’s decision to quit Germany’s soccer team is a courageous one
The sad end to his international career amid accusations of racism and abuse will hopefully fuel greater efforts in Germany and elsewhere to ensure fair and equal treatment for all
The World Cup showcased the global appeal of soccer and saw fans from all over the world gather peacefully in Russia to celebrate the beautiful game. But for at least one player, the fallout from the finals has been painful, raising issues of national identity and racism. Mesut Ozil, a star of the German team currently on tour in Singapore with his English club Arsenal, has announced he no longer wishes to wear the national shirt. Born in Germany of Turkish parents, Ozil has accused the German football federation of racism (which it denies), and has spoken of abuse he received from fans and sections of the country’s media after the team’s unexpected early exit from the tournament. One fan, he says, called him “a Turkish pig”.
In a memorable phrase in his statement in English on social media, Ozil said he is “German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose”. His decision to quit the national team should prompt much reflection in Germany where, as in most of Europe, immigration has become an emotive political issue. But the issues he raises will strike a chord with people all over the world who, like him, have “two hearts”, their home country and that of their ancestors. They will understand how he feels.
Ozil was once championed as a model of integration in Germany. He won an integration award in 2010 and was a key player in the nation’s winning of the World Cup in 2014. But Ozil sparked a backlash in the country when he posed, along with another member of the German team, for a picture with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in May. Erdogan, who has been adopting an increasingly authoritarian approach in Turkey, is a divisive figure in Germany. Ozil faced allegations of disloyalty, failing to support German values, and allowing himself to be exploited for political purposes. Given the sensitivities, Ozil’s decision to pose for the picture was naive and ill-advised. But the way he has been treated since is not justified. He has been used by hardliners in both Turkey and Germany to further their political objectives. And he became a convenient scapegoat for Germany’s subsequent World Cup failure.
Many national teams depend on players whose family’s roots lie elsewhere. This year’s champions, France, had many such players in their squad, prompting South African comedian Trevor Noah to remark that “Africa won the World Cup”. The issues are complex. But there is no justification for racism or discrimination. Players for national teams should be treated equally, regardless of where their family comes from. Ozil is as German as any other player for the national team. His decision to quit and issue such a strong statement about his treatment is courageous. It is to be hoped that this sad end to his international career will fuel greater efforts in Germany and elsewhere to ensure fair and equal treatment for all.