Why German soccer's response to Mesut Ozil's racism allegations was spineless

Henry Bushnell
Mesut Ozil and Germany crashed out of the 2018 World Cup at the group stage. A month later, Ozil retired from national team duty. (Getty)
Mesut Ozil and Germany crashed out of the 2018 World Cup at the group stage. A month later, Ozil retired from national team duty. (Getty)

It did not even take 24 hours. On Sunday afternoon, Mesut Ozil retired from the German national team via a damning letter that accused Germany’s soccer federation, the DFB, of “racism and disrespect.” On Monday morning, before the allegations could be given proper time and thought, the German soccer establishment battled back.

“He’s been playing s— for years,” former German striker and current Bayern Munich president Uli Hoeness said of the five-team German player of the year.

“For the DFB to have been associated with racism is something we emphatically reject,” an official federation statement read.

Meanwhile, German newspaper giant Bild accused Ozil of “whining.”

The response was at best painfully predictable, at worst cowardly. One might have expected two of the most powerful entities in German soccer to rise above the toxic discourse that plagues the modern world. Instead, one leapt to defend its reputation. The other went on the attack. And what should have been cause for introspection and nuanced discussion has instead turned into a divisive issue, a case of one side’s word vs. another’s, any middle ground devoured by incendiary rhetoric and a lack of empathy.

The complex Mesut Ozil controversy

This all begins with a photo. In May, Ozil and German teammate Ilkay Gundogan, both of Turkish descent, were pictured alongside Turkish dictator Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Ozil claimed it was apolitical. As he recounts in his letter, many Germans felt it was cause for punishment – perhaps a benching, or an axing from Germany’s World Cup squad altogether. Ozil claims DFB president Reinhard Grindel was among those people.

Then Germany crashed out of the World Cup with two losses at the group stage, and all hell broke loose. Some German media outlets, as Ozil wrote, “repeatedly blamed my dual heritage and a simple picture for a bad World Cup on behalf of the entire squad.” With a broader immigration debate raging in Germany, others used those two things “as right-wing propaganda to further their political cause.”

Ozil became the scapegoat. He was criticized by politicians and other public figures. He received hate mail and threats. And although it was sometimes implicit, the source of the hate was clear. It all tied back to his heritage.

“In the eyes of Grindel and his supporters, I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose,” Ozil wrote. “I am still not accepted into society. I am treated as being ‘different.'”

And so he retired from German national team duty, a genuinely world-class playmaker driven away by his own countrymen at the age of 29.

Ozil is not blameless

Should he have taken the picture with Erdogan? Probably not.

Ozil argues “it was about respecting the highest office of my family’s country,” and his argument deserves our ears. But his letter fails to sufficiently acknowledge the many harmful interpretations and consequences. Just as Ozil’s heritage shouldn’t cloud perceptions of him as a soccer player, it is no reason to treat a reprehensible dictator with respect.

Ozil may very well be sincere in his claim that “the picture we took had no political intentions.” But it had political repercussions, as any normalizing acknowledgement of a political leader by a beloved athlete does. Vladimir Putin arranges them all the time. Ozil may very well have felt a duty to honor the office, but Erdogan’s repressive regime has changed the face of the office since Ozil learned his family’s values. Other high-profile Turkish athletes, such as Enes Kanter, have publicly denounced Erdogan. Ozil failed to think and act for himself.

And yes, it was a distraction. And yes, Ozil had a poor World Cup.

But he was not the only one who underperformed. And underperformance has absolutely nothing to do with his Turkish roots or the virulent mistreatment he has suffered as a result of them.

Ozil’s conclusion is the correct one

The final few paragraphs of Ozil’s letter are incredibly powerful. They speak to society beyond soccer. He writes (edited for brevity):

I was called by a German politician a “goat-f—er” because of my picture with President Erdogan and my Turkish background. Furthermore, Werner Steer (Chief of German Theatre) told me to “piss off to Anatolia,” a place in Turkey where many immigrants are based.

As I have said before, criticizing and abusing me because of family ancestry is a disgraceful line to cross, and using discrimination as a tool for political propaganda is something that should immediately result in the resignation of those disrespectful individuals.

These people have used my picture with President Erdogan as an opportunity to express their previously hidden racist tendencies, and this is dangerous for society. They are not better than the German fan who told me after the game against Sweden, “Ozil, f— off you Turkish s—, 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. They all represent a Germany of the past, a Germany not open to new cultures, and a Germany that I am not proud of.

The treatment I have received from the DFB and many others makes me no longer want to wear the German national team shirt. I feel unwanted. People with racially discriminative backgrounds should not be allowed to work in the largest football federation in the world. Attitudes like theirs simply do not reflect the players they supposedly represent.

I used to wear the German shirt with such pride and excitement, but now I don’t. 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.

Ozil effectively called for the resignation or firing of Grindel, citing his previous discriminatory and Islamophobic statements, and calling them “unforgivable and unforgettable.”

It is irresponsible to automatically assume every single one of Ozil’s 2,000-plus words are factual. But there is no reason to suspect the aren’t. At the very least, they necessitate a thorough internal inquest at the DFB, and lot of introspection everywhere else.

German soccer’s woeful response

Instead, the DFB and Hoeness turned a distressing accusation into combat. The DFB jumped to the conclusion that its president, and the federation as a whole, were innocent.

The second and penultimate paragraphs of its statement featured self-congratulatory detailing of the federation’s “diversity” and “integration efforts.” The fourth paragraph seemed to refer to Ozil’s accusations as “statements that for us are incomprehensible in their tone and message.”

The third featured a vague line saying the federation “self-critically acknowledge[s] that the DFB played a part in” the Erdogan controversy, and “regret[s] that Mesut Ozil … feels as if he wasn’t given enough protection when made the target of racist slogans.” But even those were indirect and couched, deflecting blame rather than accepting responsibility or promising action.

Hoeness, meanwhile, cluelessly lashed out at Ozil’s on-field ability.

“The last tackle he won was before the 2014 World Cup,” Hoeness said of the player voted Germany’s best in both 2015 and 2016. “And now he is hiding himself and his poor performances behind this photo.”

Never mind that his statements are factually incorrect; they are spineless. Their hidden motive was to relieve his Bayern players of culpability. More importantly, they distract from the serious matter at hand. As Ozil’s agent said in a scathing statement, they “cover the real issue.”

And they fortify the establishment’s protection of itself. They furthered its vilification of one of its own, a German who should have been praised and prized, instead a German of Turkish descent who was made to feel unwelcome. And yet another opportunity for honest self-reflection and betterment – of German soccer, and of society – plunged into quarrelsome disorder and tumult.

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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